Book Review: "Harvard Schmarvard"

By GREG FELDMETH / Assistant Head of School

Choosing a college is not, as many anxious high school seniors believe, like choosing a spouse. It is more like buying a house. At least that is the perspective of Jay Mathews, author of "Harvard Schmarvard, Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You." Mathews' irreverent and immensely practical guide to the college admissions process is designed to help high school students and their parents navigate the confusing waters of applying to college.

Mathews, a former Poly parent (Joe, '91 and Peter, '94) and current Education Editor for The Washington Post, attended Harvard as an undergraduate and has served as an alumni admissions interviewer. He also developed the Challenge Index, which ranks high schools on the number of AP exams its students takes and has strongly criticized the "gatekeeper" mentality at some schools which prevents kids from tackling ambitious course loads.

"Harvard Schmarvard" ($14.95, Prima Publishing) is readable, witty and full of personal anecdotes that Mathews has collected from students, parents and admissions officers. No one is spared his sharp and clearly-delivered analysis:

To parents: "Recognize that it is your child's college experience that matters, not yours (even if you are paying for it)."

To seniors obsessed with HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton): "It does not matter where you go to school, it matters what you do when you get there and what you do after you graduate."

About SAT exams: "I am galled that newspapers continue to use SAT results as a measure of school quality. I dislike the deeply engrained habit of judging the worth of a college by the average SAT score of its students."

About college admit weekends: "They all have the same idea: show every student who has been admitted what a cornucopia of social and educational delights await them, particularly on non-school nights when they can party."

Mathews discusses all of the major events of the college-hunt process: the college visits, the application, the essay, the interview, early decision, finances, wait-lists, etc. For each topic, he offers advice to help students put their best foot forward, to help parents back off and keep a sane perspective, and he does it all with humor and insight.

Not all of his conclusions will warm the hearts of Poly students and parents. He presents at length the results of Paul Attewell's 2001 study The Winner-Take-All High School, which concludes that except for a few superstars, "attending a very competitive high school hurts your chances of getting into a very selective college." Valedictorians at average high schools stand a much better chance in the admissions process at the HYP schools than strong students at magnet or star prep private schools (Mathews includes Poly in this list). Colleges limit the number of students they take from any one high school.

But relax, Mathews, adds. "There are at least a hundred American universities whose academic resources are indistinguishable from Harvard's. In his own experience, Mathews found his political science teachers at Occidental (which he attended before transferring to Harvard) far superior to those he met at Harvard.

Mathews wraps up his study with two appendices: "Twenty Not-So-Easy Questions (10 each for students and parents) to Guide Your Search" and "100 Colleges That Are Better Than You Think." I found both of these to be as thought-provoking and interesting as the rest of Mathews' slim guide, which I recommend highly to both parents and students.

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