Racing to the Ivies

A lot happened in the world over the weekend– from the Royal Wedding to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to, of course, the death of Osama Bin Laden.  May 1, 2011 was definitely an historic day.

Today I write about a much smaller corner of the world, and an event that also occurred over the weekend– the Penn Relays. The Penn Relays is the oldest track and field competition in the US, beginning in 1895. I must confess that I know about the Penn Relays from a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show, when Heathcliff Huxtable ran on a relay team.  Like many children of the ’80s I would have loved to have been part of the Huxtbale family, so I thought I would share a clip from that episode, “Off to the Races.”

On Friday The New York Times ran a very interesting article on Princeton’s record-setting 4×400 relay team in advance of the Penn Relays.  The team, which did not win over the weekend at the Penn Relays (though Princeton’s 4xMile team did win), is made up of four very different young men.  All have different backgrounds, academic interests, and extracurricular pursuits.  What is so impressive is that these young men are Princeton students, top athletes, and they do other things around campus– like being part of a hip-hop dance group, singing in an a cappella group, and playing the trombone.

These extraordinary young men seem almost ordinary on an Ivy campus like Princeton’s.  Their pattern of involvement and success is exactly what admissions officers look for while sifting through thousands of application. In my research on afterschool activities and their links to elite college admissions I have spoken with admissions officers on why participation in extracurricular activities is so important.

Ivies are looking for smart students with a great deal of ambition. But it’s awfully hard to measure ambition. Participation in activities—and especially awards and leadership earned through participation—are a proxy for that ambition. The specific activities are less important; what matters is that you play a sport or seriously participate in anther activity like debate or drama. But you should also do something else, like play an instrument or be part of a Model United Nations team or volunteer or compete in dance competitions. Because what Ivies, and schools like them, are looking for are ambitious individuals who aren’t afraid to take risks.  Princeton’s anchor, Austin Holliman, is a great example: Not only is he a top sprinter and hurdler, he also is a high-level trombonist (so good, in fact, he almost went to Julliard for college).

When freshmen get to campus they will be exposed to new activities and academic disciplines. Princeton, and schools like it, wants to create a campus full of ambitious kids who are willing to try swimming or journalism or glee club or anthropology for the first time. So you can’t just do one thing in high school, you need to show you are flexible and versatile. Of course, you’re still ultimately expected to excel in whatever you try, but you must first be willing to try.  Freshman Tom Hopkins, who runs the third leg of the relay, has been in an a cappella group his first year at Princeton, a great example of someone jumping into campus life and trying multiple things.

Being ambitious, versatile, and taking risks are traits that many also think of as being American, part of our nation’s DNA. A former president of the American Psychological Association said that America is “a success-oriented society whose attitudes toward achievement can be traced to our Protestant heritage with its emphasis on individualism and the work ethic.” When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the US in the mid-nineteenth century he famously wrote about the participatory nature of Americans, declaring that we are a nation of joiners.  When another European, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, toured the US he was also struck by the degree of involvement of Americans—specifically American parents. Piaget was shocked by how many parents asked him whether it was possible to speed up children’s development.  He named this concern “The American Question,” because he said Americans are always trying to hurry things along.

Today that “American Question” symbolizes not just ambition and involvement, it also symbolizes competition. Americans love competitions and reward winners. General George Patton declared, “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.”  This seems a particularly relevant quote and sentiment today.

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