The first letter inviting my daughter to consider attending a college showed up in our mailbox early in her freshman year in high school, and it brought The Future into our household, a not entirely welcome guest. Janet put the letter into a box, where it was soon joined by others. Each one attempted to differentiate the institution from its competitors. Some schools reveled in their obscurity, others in their renown. But I could not escape the idea that in one fundamental way, they were all alike. All across America, a collection of nameless, faceless, anonymous people had seized control of my daughter’s life. They were the members of college admissions committees—the people who handed out the perks to the class of 2001. Or withheld them. What were they looking for, I wondered? How could mere numbers—Scholastic Assessment Test ( SAT) scores and grade point averages—let them know who my child really was? I wanted to slip my own letter into the packets that we mailed off. “Let me tell you about the time I took Janet to Carlsbad Caverns when she was three years old,” I would have begun. “We walked down the steep path into the almost total darkness, with Janet getting more uneasy and afraid with each step of the descent. Our knees ached and our hands turned clammy in the cold, damp air. Finally, we reached the bottom. Janet turned to me and said, ‘Daddy, I’m brave now.’” I hoped they would get the point.
But events took an unexpected turn. Even as I reached the height of my anxiety about Janet, I became one of the people who had come to dominate my thoughts—a college admissions reviewer. In early February I evaluated thirty applications to the Plan II Honors Program at UT-Austin. For several years I have taught a Plan II seminar, so I was among the recipients of an e-mail seeking faculty help in evaluating applicants for admission. The opportunity to see the process from the inside was irresistible. I picked up my folder of thirty applications and joined the ranks of the nameless, faceless, anonymous people who held the fate of America’s youth in their hands.
The experience would prove to be at once exhilarating and disturbing—exhilarating because it was impossible not to be awed by the responsibility involved, but disturbing because it substantiated my worst fears about the admissions process. I wanted to judge my group of applicants by the standards I had hoped others would use to judge Janet. But it was just not possible. The students’