Lenore checks if kids are Penske material

for Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like Brooklyn Paper on Facebook.

On Sunday I went to my local Queens bakery at 9, 11, and 2, and each time sat across from a friendly, open 18-year-old. These New York City students shared their hopes, dreams, and what they do in their free time. One researches drone strikes in Somalia. Another teaches the disabled to ski. A third measures the size and shape of snake skulls.

Typical — for this group. These are applicants for early admission to Yale.

Me, I’m an alumni interviewer. That means I help lighten the Yale Admissions Department’s load by volunteering to assess half a dozen candidates each year. This is my 15th or 16th go-round, and it always gives me great delight.

But this year, it also gave me pause. That’s because another alum, Ben Orlin, just wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Why I Won’t Re-enlist as a Yale Alumni Interviewer.”

His beef is that “the whole process is so spectacularly insane that participating in it — even in such a peripheral role — feels like watching spiders crawl out of my tear ducts.”

The insanity is not the kids — they’re great. Nor is it Yale — it can’t take everyone. The insanity is the giant disparity between the number of stunning applicants and the number that get in: “For every bed in the freshman dorms, 20 kids are lining up, at least five of whom are high-school rock stars,” wrote Orlin. “From that murderer’s row, admissions officers face the impossible task of picking just one. There’s no right answer.”

He feels for all the students who have done so much, and are likely to take their rejection personally. (Don’t we all?) What these kids can’t know is that they are just as amazing as the ones who get the thick envelopes, but they may be the 15th top debater who also spent a year teaching calculus in Kenya. No school needs 15 of the same thing. Thus some get in, but others get bumped for a dancer-sculptor-beekeeper from Utah, or spear fisher (with perfect SATs) from Spain.

So today as I spoke with the hopefuls, I felt compelled to also mention “The Ghosts of Applicants Past.”

There was the girl so fascinated by rhetoric that she learned Ancient Greek. She wanted to read the first philosophers to describe speaking techniques like, “I won’t mention the defendant’s past as a thief, because that is not relevant to this case.” She loved the way information got sneakily embedded. But she also loved neuroscience, so she was doing lab research on Alzheimer’s. Her modest little goal was to figure out if the way information gets into our brains is related to how it leaks out.

She did not get in.

Another year I met a young man from a Manhattan public high school who admitted that during middle school computer class, he would hack a friend’s screen to suddenly show cartoons when the teacher was walking past. By the time he was in high school he put his computer skills to more serious work by starting a web-design company for local businesses. If some of the coding got too hard, he’d farm it out to Russian programmers and pay them part of his fee. By senior year he’d turned his attention to the medical field and got an internship at a local teaching hospital. He discovered something (I couldn’t understand what) about how plaque builds up in arteries, and had come up with a new, cheap way to dissolve it. Ten medical school professors came to hear his lecture. When one objected that his idea wouldn’t work, he showed him how it would. This kid applied to Yale and MIT.

I hope he got into the latter, because he did not get into Yale.

Then there was the young woman who was producing a documentary on a French fashion muse from the ’70s. No dice. And another student so fascinated by the French Revolution that she did original research on the guillotine jewelry of that time. She didn’t make the cut.

Meantime, a young man I had a hard time interviewing because he had so little to say, did make it in. I gather that he was spectacular at math. But he got lost navigating from Union Square to our interview at a Starbucks on First Avenue and 17th and arrived late.

Which is not to say Yale gets it wrong. Many of the students I’ve recommend, it took. But Orlin got it right, too: Ivy admissions are an opaque process, not to be taken personally. The good news is that by the time students think they’re Yale material, they usually are.

Even if they don’t get in.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday morning on

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at

Posted 12:00 am, November 20, 2016
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like Brooklyn Paper on Facebook.

Reasonable discourse

Jim from Cobble Hill says:
Ah... rich people stuff.
Nov. 20, 2016, 2:47 pm
old time brooklyn from slope says:
No Jim - smart people stuff
Nov. 21, 2016, 11:50 am

Enter your comment below

By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:

You agree that you, and not or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Don’t miss out!

Stay in touch with the stories people are talking about in your neighborhood:

Optional: Help us tailor our newsletters to you!