Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

December 5, 2001:
Admissions impossible

Not every Tom, Dick, and Harry makes it into Princeton these days

By Hugh O'Bleary

On these mild fall mornings, I walk past West College, my shoes crunching over the gravel, and I can't help but think about the life-changing deliberations going on in that building these days. Some 13,000 hopeful young students apply to Princeton each year. About 1,600 are deemed worthy of admission. For the rest, it's Thanks, but no thanks. Tough beans. Better luck next time. Only, there is no next time. What's particularly dismaying is that a vast number of those rejected are extraordinary students - at the top of their classes, armed with extracurricular achievements, athletic honors, and glowing letters of recommendation. Too bad. These days Princeton can afford to pick and choose, and increasingly the choice is only the cream of the cream, with special emphasis on the hallowed "Academic One." Remember Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," scamming a recruiter and being told, "Princeton could use a guy like you, Joel." Not anymore. My friend Bernie, Class of '80, who by the way graduated cum laude and now has a prestigious, high-profile publishing job and never misses a P-rade, shudders whenever the word "admissions" is mentioned. "I'm just glad I wasn't born 20 years later," he says. "These days I wouldn't stand a chance."

Indeed, so strong and accomplished are today's applicants that it must take, well, magic to select an entering class. Which brings us to the following hypothetical case study of a typical "well-rounded" applicant.

An autumn evening, sometime after midnight. The campus, bathed in the silvery light of a full moon, is perfectly still. Suddenly, with a flutter of wings, a large, snowy owl swoops down in front of West College. Something drops from its talons to land with a thud on the pavement in front of the door. With a mournful "Whooo," the bird flies off. In the moonlight, the fallen object is revealed to be a large manilla envelope. It is addressed to Admissions Office, Princeton University. In the upper corner, in clear block letters, is the return address: 4 Privet Drive.

Afternoon, a few days later. Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon and three other admission officers are seated around a conference table piled high with folders, each one labeled with a student's name. "All right, next," Hargadon says. He reaches out, takes a folder from the top of the stack and lays it open on his lap. Looking down, he reads aloud, "Potter."

"Another prep school kid, right?" says one of the officers. She furrows her brow in an effort to recall.

"Yeah, Hogwarts," says a second officer. He is on his fourth Diet Coke of the day.

"Decent grades, I thought," says the third officer, glancing at her notes. "But he wasn't at the top of his class, was he?"

"No," says the first officer. "That Granger girl blew him away - she was a total Ac.1. Valedictorian, aced her SATs, all AP courses.." "What about Potter's extracurriculars?" says Hargadon. He thumbs through the folder. "It looks like he's quite an athlete. In fact, there's a note in here from Gary Walters."

"Hmph, the jock factor," says the second officer with a snort. "Just because he can catch a snitch doesn't mean he can do Princeton work." "His letters of recommendation were very strong, though," says the third officer. "As I recall, his headmaster wrote that he hasn't had a more impressive student in his 600 years at the school." "Oh, they always say that," says the second. "Besides, he didn't do anything during the summers. Just sat in his room." "Then again," says the third officer, consulting her notes again, "he did save the world from the forces of evil four times."

"Yes, but that doesn't mean," begins the second officer, "that he can do Princeton work!" Hargadon and the other two chime in. All four laugh happily.

"Okay," says Hargadon, tossing the folder into a pile on the floor,

"Harry Potter: Wait list. Next!"

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu