Failure (in college admissions) is not supposed to be an option

Students applying to college worry about being denied admissions, a seeming failure at the end of a twelve year long competition in the modern academic meritocracy. They’re frustrated that no guarantees exist, despite being taught that everyone has equal opportunity to compete in the modern academic meritocracy

As Michael J. Sandel, Harvard professor, argues in his most recent book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

The biggest problem is that meritocracy demands equality of opportunity at the starting line, but legitimates whatever inequalities follow as natural products of innate differences in talent and virtue: hardworkingness, intelligence, perseverance. 

Harvard Magazine, September-October 2020

Thus, as Professor Sandel concludes, for the “winners” in the meritocracy, a confirmation bias is created

…they’ve fully earned the fruit of their hard work, without appreciating the luck, circumstances, and public goods that allow intelligence and hard work to blossom fully.

Harvard Magazine, September-October 2020

Consequently, many students believe life is a “me against others” competition, trying to dominate their peers both academically and in the extracurricular realm as well to be the king of the academic meritocractic heap

A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. 

Michael Sandel, Harvard Magazine, September-October 2020

And, I’d add to Mr. Sandel’s sentiments, those who summit the apex of the meritocracy often lack humility which is essential to learning and engaging life in all its joyful complexities. Besting others has taken precedence over learning and working with others—a mindset not simply abandoned but actually necessary to thrive economically as well as spiritually. 

So, as the next class are busily preparing their Fall 2022 college applications, confronting the insecurities of potential denied admissions, perhaps as an antidote to fear, consider their own experience traversing the systematic intricacies of the modern academic meritocracy. Then, while attending college they’ll seek to rediscover a more authentic understanding of themselves.

Creative Marbles was founded by teachers who appreciate helping students craft insightful essays, first in the academic classroom, now as part of the complex college admissions process. For more information, please contact us 

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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