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EXCLUSIVE: Our Interview with New York Times Columnist Frank Bruni (Part I)

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EXCLUSIVE: Our Interview with New York Times Columnist Frank Bruni (Part One)

Spring is here and along with warmer weather, the season brings college decisions. Finding out whether teens have been accepted or rejected can be filled with a range of emotions for teens and for their parents.

In hopes of helping teens and their parents remain calm and rational during this stressful time, Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times who writes frequently about higher education, has written a new book titled, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

He took some time to share his insights and some highlights from the book with TeenLife. In Part I of our interview, Mr. Bruni discusses the application process.

RM: Love the book title! What inspired it?

FB: Thank you! Titles are tricky, and for a while the right one for this book stumped me. But then, when I was talking to a friend, he asked me what this book ultimately and broadly communicated. My answer: It says that where you go isn’t who you’ll be. He said, “Sounds like a title to me.” He was right, and that was that.

RM: Why has the college admission process turned into such a frenzied, stressful process for teens and their parents?

FB: The answer to that is long and complicated; that’s why I made this a book and not a magazine article or just a series of columns. But let me tick off a few factors and dynamics, quickly: colleges are marketing themselves more assertively than ever, and that ups applications and depresses acceptance rates, producing anxiety. The divide in this country between “haves” and “have-nots” has seemingly widened, and so anything that seems to carry any chance of delivering a person to the realm of the “haves” takes on extra importance, extra urgency. Plus there’s a whole culture and industry of college admissions coaching and consulting that have raised the temperature of the admissions process.

RM: About the culture and industry of college admissions… Colleges say they are looking for “authentic candidates” but there are so many businesses (tutors, essay writers, college consultants, etc.) that are specifically targeted to create the perfect college candidate. Is it really possible for teens to get into college by just being their authentic selves?

FB: As soon as colleges say they’re looking for authentic candidates, consultants, parents and kids figure out how best to appear authentic. They master scripted authenticity, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Yes, it’s too much a business, too much a game of strategy, and the reason I say “too much”—the reason I make that value judgment—is because we’re talking here about education. About learning. And these have nothing to do with penetrating exclusive sanctums or picking up certain badges. If you focus on admissions only, you’re taking your eye off the ball of developing your mind, refining your skills, even cultivating your soul. You’re shortchanging your own education. Please, please don't do that.

RM: Have parents taken on too big a role in the college admissions process - making it a "we" process instead of allowing their teen to be in control?

FB: I think so. Their motivation is understandable and honorable: they want their kids to achieve their dreams and to have a leg up in a competitive world. And the right college can give a kid a leg up. But the right college isn’t necessarily the most exclusive, selective one. And there’s a real danger in communicating to your kids that your pleasure in them and pride in them hinges on, say, Ivy League admissions. Ivy League admissions are fickle and they’re not the be-all and end-all for success, so placing too many chips on that is silly and maybe even harmful.

RM: How can parents help teens to realize that they are more than where they go to college?

FB: Parents need to hammer that message home. They need to encourage their kids to excel for the sake of excellence and joy, not for the sake of the Stanford admissions committee.

Frank Bruni is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times who writes frequently about higher education. www.frankbrunibooks.com/

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