Saturday, October 22, 2011

Playing the College Game

Sizer, N.F. (2002). Playing the College Game. Crossing the stage (pp.75-112). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


In chapter four of her book Crossing the Stage, Sizer shares how many seniors feel they have entered into the realm of a slightly dishonest game world when applying to college. Hyper alert to hypocrisy, they struggle with the need to stay true to who they are (faults and all) and the push to market themselves as top-grade meat for selective schools. They hope that once this stressful, self-depleting process is over, they will have earned the ticket to truly discover themselves when they actually get to college. During the senior year, however, authenticity must be put on hold for the sake of playing the game.

According to Sizer, the game involves a lot of gambling.  Students become so overwhelmed with the brand new task of selecting a school, that they often fall into the trap of applying to the most selective schools that they might have the chance of getting into. They don’t have the energy or experience to seek schools and properly evaluate whether or not each would be a good fit for them. Instead, they often resort to parents’ prodding, arbitrary qualities in a brochure, or those which simply sound impressive.  They are unsure how to measure whether or not they have a “feel” for the college even upon visiting, and would rather someone “impose order on all the chaos” (p. 84) by telling them where to go.

Once the application process commences, students are terrified to see their statistics staring back at them on a form. Standardized tests cause the most frustration, as students (and teachers) note the inequitable nature of the test, but must “play the game” in order to move to the next level. They feel “ripped off” (p. 95) by a system that takes their money and spits back a number. They are torn between engaging in activities they are truly interested in and those that will look good on their application. Sizer notes that adults “encourage this inflation” by recommending students involve themselves in certain activities in order “look good on your CV” (p. 100). Once their resumes and applications are filled, they cynically pit their odds against one another, and begin to prepare excuses as to why another student may get in before them (p.102). These issues often relate to how heavily a college considers the applicant’s racial and ethnic identity and/or whether or not s/he is a child of alumni. Many students alter their sense of justice during this time. Some are willing to take whatever odds will work in their favor in order to gain admittance, even if they acknowledge that it may not be completely just. On the flip side, students who may understand the larger reasons behind affirmative action will insist upon “strict equity” when applications are being reviewed (p. 104).

Students also begin to question the level of preparation they received at their own high schools. When they hear tales of high scores and radical projects at other schools, they sometimes feel betrayed by a high school should have pushed them to do more. They wonder if the grades they have earned in high school will be the same in college. This causes further disillusion in how seniors perceive their abilities. Once again, they question their worth.

The only section that students seem to approve of is the application essay. They know that “they are being given a chance – and that they can’t throw it away” (p. 105). However, while many students are accustomed to examining their faults, they are uncertain how to reflect upon their positive qualities. They have great difficulty bragging when they are so keenly aware of their own faults. It feels dishonest, but once again, they play the game and request the assistance of others to help them “dress things up” (p. 107).  One student describes how “for the sake of his future, he described his present in a way quite different than he knew it to be” (p. 109). The struggle between being honest and selling out is intense and students feel the pressure to bill themselves as “impressive products rather than in works in process” (p.111).


Sizer clearly articulated what I am experiencing in my classroom. It is so interesting that her description of interviews from ten years ago sound eerily similar to own my own students in 2011. I am looking forward to moving into the “What We Can Do” section in order to make some changes.

I realized how vigilant I need to be about the way I encourage students to sell themselves when applying to schools. This year, I have asked my students to put themselves in the shoes of admissions readers several times. My hope was that by examining case studies, the admissions process would be demystified as they became familiar with how an application package is viewed. My fear is that I have further perpetuated the “game.” I find that many of my students have no idea where they want to go to school or what they want in a college. They just want to stop playing the high school game and discover who they truly are in college.  I do not want to perpetuate dishonesty. I want them to feel pride in what they have to offer a school without making them feel they have to game the system.  I am encouraging the creation of more personal digital portfolios this year with the hope that students will feel they can present a more vivid picture of who they are to combat their poor test scores. I don’t want this to just be an extension of the dishonest package, however.  How can I encourage them to be “real” while they fear being judged?
I was also struck by how the students Sizer spoke to began to question their own high school.  This is something especially disheartening to me. I have noticed students beginning to question their experience at HTHI when they note lack of AP classes on their transcripts. The school they once held pride in for being different doesn’t seem to align with “what colleges are looking for” and students feel betrayed by a school may not have prepared them in the way it should.  I find it extremely difficult to be a college-prep school and one that offers authentic learning experiences when “college prep” still entails “college admissions prep,” which is smattered with tests and adding up hours of activities. 

As a senior teacher, I feel much like the students who struggle between being true to education and playing the college game.  I would love to change the narrative surrounding college at our school. I hate to hear college used as a carrot… Too often, I hear the phrase, “When you’re in college, you’re going to have to do _______” when a teacher assigns a difficult assignment.  However, to some extent, I know it’s true.  I spoke to a graduate who insists that our school is amazing because of the authentic learning opportunities, but feels that by being too radical, we shortchange our students who are preparing to complete inauthentic tasks in college, such as high stakes exams and papers.  She insisted that we should strike the proper balance in order to prepare students for this.  To some extent, I agree, but then again, are these (usually larger public colleges) justified in continuing an older style of learning? If we change, but colleges don’t, does this mean I still need to play the game in order to help my students? Must I teach them the language of power in order to teach them to combat it? How can I be a game-changer? How can I make my students more aware of what college is (or should be) in order to add meaning to the senior year?


“Success in life depends fare more on how well a student does in college than on which one he attends. Although teachers and counselors may stress the importance of making a good match rather than putting blind faith in a selective college, it’s hard for students to believe it. There are so many mysteries, rumors, and ‘deals’ regarding college admission that it’s hard to blame seniors who may prefer to think that a little ‘luck’ now is preferable to the hard work required to do well once they get to college. High school has been give to them. College is something they have to go out and get for themselves” (p.77).

“This obsession with college, however, has cause us as a nation to pay less attention to other ways in which a person might prepare himself or herself for productive adulthood. It has also affected the senior year in high school, because it has created the false impression that college admission is the only rite of passage, when in fact there are several” (p.78).

“College is the reward for surviving high school, the pot of gold at the end of the adolescent rainbow” (p. 79).

“’My whole life is reduced to a piece of paper,’ one senior observed. ‘They don’t want to hear your reasons: just what you did. The more I thought about, the more I got stressed out. Not so much working on it, but thinking about it.’ Being a ‘beggar’ is disheartening, and the notion that so much is riding on so little invites manipulation – and procrastination” (p. 87).

Regarding SATs: “Any system that can be manipulated, she believed, could not really be objective. But none of the adults in the seniors’ world – not parents not teachers – dare to counsel them to bypass these exams, let alone organize a revolt against them. ON this issue, therefore, seniors grow increasingly cynical and sullen. One told me, ‘We are just objects to be played with, and in a matter that will really affect our lives’” (p.96).

“Each ‘lift’ is added without much worry about being dishonest; each is tolerated by the culture that surrounds the seniors. Added together, the seniors hope, these things will make them stand out. But the growing disconnection between the person presented in the application and the person who still has to live with herself, her family, and her teachers can’t help but undermine what is left of the senior year” (p. 112)

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