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The College Resume

Young men and women who wish to attend selective colleges learn that it is important that they develop a resume that will impress recruitment officers at these schools. So their whole lives are devoted to creating a “selling” resume, which involves things like joining groups that help poor and disadvantaged people, joining clubs at school, participating in sports, learning to play musical instruments, belonging to churches and mosques and synagogues, and so on.

A friend of mine had a son who wished to get into Harvard. My friend’s son learned how to play the Oboe, recognizing that by being an Oboe player, he would be a good candidate to play in the Harvard University symphony orchestra, since not many young people play the Oboe and all orchestras need Oboe players. It might not have been the Oboe but it was some instrument that young people do not usually learn to play. It worked and my friend’s son got into Harvard. My son played the viola and I think that helped him get into Harvard, though he also had very high test scores.

The point is that, as a rule, young Americans learn that there is a lot of competition for any goals they may have and they have to “sell” themselves to achieve certain goals, such as getting into a selective university. Doing so becomes an affirmation of themselves and their parents. Like Willy Loman, the hero of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, we believe that “personality always wins the day.”

But what is a persona? It is, literally speaking, a mask that we present to others which often bears little resemblance to our character and the way we really are. And so young people learn that if they want to be able to get into Harvard or Yale or any of the selective universities, they have to plan a self-promotional marketing campaign and develop a powerful resume. Developing this resume takes over their lives, but this resume-based life may be one that alienates them from their true selves.

There is also the problem of relative sameness in student super-resumes. Does any college admissions officer in a select university ever receive a resume that doesn’t have the typical laundry lists of accomplishments from students? They do, no doubt, but it is probably quite rare. I heard an admissions officer from Stanford talking about student applications on a radio program. He said that Stanford receives ten or fifteen thousand applications and half of the students applying could do well at Stanford. How do they decide which ones to choose? It is a complicated process but after spending years looking over student resumes and applications, they look for certain things that are hard to explain.

Students who spend their lives building their resumes so they can apply to selective schools, and don’t get in, experience a traumatic shock. It is as if they had lived their whole lives in vain. The signifier of this failure is the thin letter from an admissions office. Most young people are able to get over these shocks, but they have had a serious reversal that may linger with them for years. Those whose applications are successful have a sense of achievement and accomplishment that colors their whole lives. Their marketing campaign has been successful and they assume that adding their select university to their resume will be helpful in the future— especially when it comes to getting into a good graduate school.

Branding is based on claims of distinctiveness—relative to other brands, that is. If three men or three thousand men wear the same brand of brand of blue jeans, they cannot claim to be distinctive, except in relation to other brands. It is advertising, more than anything else, which helps brands establish their identities and portrays the kind of people who use, or should use, a particular brand.

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