In the era of email and smartphones, the arrival of regular mail is an unexpected event. At this time of year in the US, seniors in high school and their parents are expecting the arrival of the mailman with great anxiety, eager to receive heavy packages in the mail. Indeed, when a university mails an applicant a letter of acceptance, it comes in a package stuffed with brochures, forms and congratulatory cards signed by the school’s president and more.
In fact, between November and April, university admission committees take hundreds of thousands of applicants into consideration and try to win over the strongest applicants by offering scholarships and other incentives. Now let us get started: first of all in the US, after high school, most people attend university rather than pursuing a job. If a student is admitted to Yale, only after their second year do they declare a major. The first two years are comprised of a series of general academic requirements that every student must fulfill, the subjects range from foreign language, to mathematics and so forth. Often times, these course requirements in college compensate deficiencies in secondary school education for certain students. It is important to note that to be admitted to any university, one must complete a rigorous application process that includes a national exam (administered by a private company) that students can submit once they are satisfied with their score (you can take the test multiple times). Students must also submit their high school grade point average, their past selection of advanced courses and their extra curricular activities, which include sports, volunteer work etc… At the end of high school, there is no final exam and, absurdly, a student already admitted to a university (in April) can have his admission revoked in June. At that point, the student would have to repeat the year in order to reapply to the university.
The first decision students must make is where to apply. Often times, this is where the differences between students and their parents come into play, especially when it comes to applying to schools far away from home, but so many other considerations determine the final choice of the 10-12 universities to actually apply to. Obviously, a lot of the decision has to do with the prestige and reputation that comes with the name and location of a certain school. There is also a ranking for every aspect of a school: its sports facilities, the level of degrees of its employees, schools with the best marine biology department- some might even have their own ships and so on. Then there are, of course, the economic considerations since tuition costs can vary from state schools that cost a few thousand dollars a year, to private schools that cost 50 or 60 thousand dollars a year. These figures are remarkable and despite many students receiving some form of financial aid, most graduate with a significant amount of debt that they will have to start paying back as soon as they find a job. However, based on their grades in high school and the scores they receive on their national tests, prospective students already know more or less which universities they can get into, but also apply to a few less attractive schools with high acceptance rates, as a safety net in case their first choices do not accept them.
But we must not think that meritocracy is the only criteria that determines admission into universities or, more generally, to succeed in the US. Certainly, when compared to Italian clientelism where in some faculties 40-50% of professors belong to the same family, we are light years ahead. However, here too there are loopholes for entering Harvard and Princeton, for these universities ask applicants if their parents are alumni of the school. They are considered “legacy applicants” and these are applicants whose families have been attending the same school for generations and who, above all else, have donated large amounts of money to the school. Did you ever wonder why George Bush (a man of modest intellect and even more modest culture) was able to attend Yale and Harvard? He did not have to wait anxiously for his heavy letter. The heavy donations of his family opened the doors to these schools even before he applied.
Translation from Italian by Louis Vaccara