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Applying to College, Learning About Life

Thirty-something years ago, when I applied to college, my mother laid down a very simple rule: Anyplace on the subway line. Buses were OK too.

Since I grew up outside of Boston, it didn’t seem like such a hardship. And since my first choice, the school I had been working to be admitted to for as long as I could remember, was Radcliffe (what they used to call the girls’ part of Harvard), I never complained.

No one helped me fill out my applicatons. No one tutored me for the tests, advised me on the essays, strategized with me about how to sell myself. I was the top girl in my school, president of everything I was involved in, but no one ever suggested that that would be enough for my dreams to come true.

I didn’t know anyone on the Boards of Trustees or admissions committees; when we went to visit the schools, we barely knew where to park. But I had hope. Somehow, I thought that because I’d worked so hard, gotten A’s in every course I took my whole life, lead every group I could, that would be enough.

It wasn’t.

I’ll never forget the day the envelopes arrived. Thin was bad. Thick was good. My last choice school, the one I applied to only because my parents’ thought it was a nice, safe place for a girl in the seventies (which were really the sixties) was the fattest of them all.

The last place I wanted to go was an all-girls school. Which is, of course, just where I went. It wasn’t about what I wanted. It was, to be honest, about money. Radcliffe said no. Not even maybe. Not even wait-list. Just no.

Wellesley offered me a scholarship and loan which meant that my parents would have to pay almost nothing for my education. No one asked me whether I wanted to go there. What was there to ask? I was going to Wellesley.

A few years later, when I applied to law school, it wasn’t all that much different, except I bought a book to study for the entrance exam, and hit it out of the park, and straight A’s at Wellesley clearly carried more weight than they did at my public high school, so this time Harvard said yes. It was also much cheaper than Yale, which also said yes, and wasn’t willing to pay the difference, so that was that. I paid off my Wellesley loans as an assistant professor at Harvard, and my Harvard ones by the time I got tenure in my early thirties, and that was that.

Now, I’m a mother of a college senior, my friends’ kids are all applying to law school, and the world -- or at least the world they live in -- could not be more different than the one I grew up in. I can’t count how many times people have told me that I really should hire a private "coach" to help my daughter with her applications.

A few years ago, when I wrote a book about how to get into law school, which is mostly a book of common sense and common wisdom, and reassurance for all the kids who don’t have me as an aunt or teacher and can’t afford coaches, one of my friends told me I’d probably be better off financially if I just quit my job and went into the admissions advising business.

I thought he was kidding, but of course he wasn’t, and he was also probably right, although I can’t imagine charging a kid to tell them what they have a right to know, or limiting my help to those who need it least instead of those who need it most. Nonetheless, it is clear to me every day how much the world has changed.

I read about admissions advisers who charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to "advise" high school seniors about college, and college seniors about graduate school. Even I now routinely recommend that kids who can afford it take prep courses for the standardized tests, if only because they are competing with so many other kids who do. I try hard to answer each of the emails I get from students needing help, but some weeks, like right now, which is prime season, I fall way behind, and can barely find the hours to help old friends’ children review their choices.

I’d like to believe that none of it matters, or at least that it doesn’t matter very much. In my own conversations with smart admissions people, and in my own book, I emphasize the critical importance of authenticity. What you say has to ring true with who you are; how you describe yourself has to jive, in critical respects, with how the people who know you describe you.

You don’t have to be an Olympiad or a concert pianist to get in; the critical thing is to know how to communicate the truth of who you are and what you care about. Passion is more important than how many times you’ve circumnavigated the globe (in my case, the answer is still none).

Admissions people, or at least the ones I respect most, are more interested in what you will do with the education they have to offer than what your parents did with theirs, or how much money they will give back.

To pretend none of that matters would be silly, but to let it matter to you, especially if those aren’t the cards in your hand, is even sillier. But as I watch young people, and their parents, stress out beyond words about what to write on a piece of paper, beat themselves up about things they haven’t done or connections they don’t have, let themselves start believing that where you go matters more than who you are, it strikes me that the more important lesson is even simpler.

Unlike many things in life, which don’t work out for the best, getting into college or graduate school usually does. I don’t know too many people who look back and say, "If only I’d gone somewhere else." I know many who look back and say, "Thank God for all I was given."

Last year, a friend’s daughter was desperate to go to Columbia. She deserved it, by my lights, if there is such a thing as deserving what is in many respects a winning ticket at the lottery. But she didn’t get it. She was rejected at Columbia, wait-listed at Barnard. Mother and daughter called me in tears. Did I know anyone? Could I help?

I pulled up the list of the Board of Trustees on my computer, started parsing the list of faculty. Who could I call? Before I had time to figure out if anything could be done, she went to the open house for one of the schools that did accept her, the USC Theatre School. She came home in love. Call off the horses, her mother told me. She’s found her home. And she has. She is where she belongs.

Sometimes, I’d like to think much of the time, that’s how it works. I’m a Radcliffe reject. So it goes. It was not the last time I lost out on something I desperately wanted, not the last time I learned that life is about making the best of things, not always getting them. I am also a proud graduate of Wellesley College, a place that took care of me when I had nothing, supported me when I was no one, made me who I am today.

Many of my closest friends, to this day, are the women I met there. I didn’t lose. I just didn’t quite understand what winning meant. And somehow, I doubt that’s something those high-priced coaches teach.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless. "

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.