Prestige Is a Losing Game



As high school students try to navigate the world of college admissions, the allure of prestige can be a dangerous distraction.


The next SAT test date is May 4.

Across time zones, from Hong Kong to Honolulu to New York City, a morning of a healthy breakfast or thrown-up waffles or nothing at all and a fruitless review of hundred-dollar flashcards will occur again and again.

The students who will take it that day might have studied for months, even years. Maybe they’re taking it completely cold. With each passing hour, achievers high and low will file into testing centers, safe in the knowledge that with a handful of hours and cost of admission to lose, they have the world to gain.

In quick succession, worn-down students around the world with high hopes and soaring dreams will undertake a $64.50, four-hour necessary evil. As high school juniors and seniors — and maybe even sophomores and freshmen — there’s nothing at all new about the SAT. Sure, they (most likely) haven’t seen the questions yet, but what’s one more college-crucial measurement of worth? What’s one more bubbled-in identity — race, religion, future plans, sex, age, summation of all previous experience to be judged as such?

What’s one more test?

It’s no revelation that standardized testing is worthy of criticism. Anyone filling in a Scantron this May 4 knows full well they’re playing a game of memory recall and who-can-pay-for-the-most-prep. They must believe their investment will have a return.

It’s an understanding that comes with the price of admission: we’re all here to get into a good school.

Prestige is on the line. High schoolers’ ambition to prove — to themselves, to their parents, to their teachers — that they’re worth something makes the exclusivity and selectivity of the highest of higher education the gold standard.

It’s one thing to tell a starry-eyed junior that, when it comes to picking schools, they’re buying, not selling — but doesn’t every minivan-buyer dream of that irresponsible, irrational two-door sports car?

Given the buying abilities of powerful credentials, it’s suddenly much less rational to dig through shelves upon shelves of schools when the shiniest ones are right in the front.

With a pocket full of 1600s, heartfelt letters and selfies with kids in Ghana, it’s so tantalizingly easy to scoff at the people who say your money can’t buy you happiness.

But it won’t.

I had none of the above in my pocket. I did fine on my tests and got good grades, and I got a small taste of what it feels like to be patted on the head for a role well played. I paid my dues, and opportunities glimmered before me, indifferent, as I fawned over their hypnotizing glow.

I could picture wearing the sweatshirt to family gatherings, having aunts and uncles ooh and aah at the name of the fancy university I would attend. I imagined going to classes and sports games and it all being just a little different because of the prestige I had dutifully earned.

I never thought about the friends I’d make, wherever I’d end up. It didn’t concern me who my professors would be, or what I would be inspired to create, or what clubs I’d join. In wanting to join something bigger than myself, I fell into the trap that snares every student far too confident in their wax wings: I lost myself.

Appropriately, we attend a crash-site littered with Columbia and NYU rejects (and, unfortunately, soon-to-be transfers). So many starry-eyed high schoolers got a pat on the back and a false invitation to reach blindly for the shiniest stars of them all — and they ended up at the place with the free application and just enough financial aid to please their parents.

We go to a school where everything — the education, the faith, the social life and the city — is exactly as much as what we make of it. No more, no less. Its indifference teaches us the lesson we needed to hear but never wanted to accept.

Some of us are proud to call Fordham our home; others still feel the sting of rejection. To the latter: be glad that life disrupted your best-laid plans. Be glad it might eventually change your priorities, too. The prestige of a school will never be the deciding factor in your ultimate success, but your ultimate failure has this blind faith in prestige at the very center.

Make a choice. Choose to accept life as a test without time limits and scores that don’t matter. Your life is yours more than any diploma or sweatshirt or hallowed name could ever say. Higher education is supposed to be where you learn to become an adult. Don’t let childish dreams of prestige stunt your personal growth.

On May 4, high schoolers will take the SAT, some for the very first time. I hope they remember to eat a good breakfast, bring extra pencils and clear the memory on their calculator.

I hope they don’t let it define them as much as I let it define me.