Few things more fun than attractive Ephs on the front page of the New York Times (previous examples here, here and here).


Does this article provide another example?

To anyone who knows 17-year-old Esther Mobley, one of the best students at one of the best public high schools in the country, it is absurd to think she doesn’t measure up. But Esther herself is quick to set the record straight.

At Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., a Wonder Woman mural offers a role model to some girls. Newton North, one of the best public high schools in the country, gears its teaching toward gears its teaching toward a wide range of students.

“First of all, I’m a terrible athlete,” she said over lunch one day.

“I run, I do, but not very quickly, and always exhaustedly,” she continued. “This is one of the things I’m most insecure about. You meet someone, especially on a college tour, adults ask you what you do. They say, ‘What sports do you play?’ I don’t play any sports. It’s awkward.”

Esther, a willowy, effervescent senior, turned to her friend Colby Kennedy. Colby, 17, is also a great student, a classical pianist, fluent in Spanish, and a three-season varsity runner and track captain. Did Colby worry, Esther asked, that she fell short in some way?

“Or,” said Esther, and now her tone was a touch sarcastic, “do you just have it all already?”

They both burst out laughing.

Esther and Colby are two of the amazing girls at Newton North High School here in this affluent suburb just outside Boston. “Amazing girls” translation: Girls by the dozen who are high achieving, ambitious and confident (if not immune to the usual adolescent insecurities and meltdowns.) Girls who do everything: Varsity sports. Student government. Theater. Community service. Girls who have grown up learning they can do anything a boy can do, which is anything they want to do.

But being an amazing girl often doesn’t feel like enough these days when you’re competing with all the other amazing girls around the country who are applying to the same elite colleges that you have been encouraged to aspire to practically all your life.

Indeed. Turns out that Esther (middle girl in photo) applied to Williams. Read her application essay here. I especially like the ending.

I live in Newton Massachusetts, where I cannot find my tradition. People here seem to be sitting on the edge of their seats, hardly able to wait for progress. Five minutes away, in Boston, there are prestigious schools and fancy, famous law firms on every corner. This is the seat of liberal thinking. But all of the thinking can jade you. I encounter so much skepticism, especially about religion. When I seek assurance about important spiritual things, when I begin to doubt that there is any kind of divine force regulating reality, there is nothing in Newton to grasp onto, no well of faith to replenish me. That’s when I long for unfaltering, faithful, devoted Kentucky. I long for its simplicity and pace.

The people here race to work, rush home, and dash off to Cape Cod or Maine on weekends…..

I want to be rooted somewhere. I want to belong somewhere. I want a place in the world to be a little part of me, and I want to carry it with me to other places.

Here’s what I’m looking for: I’m looking for the security, the familiarity, and the heritage of a small town. I’m looking for the free thinking, the openness, the accepting and welcoming attitude of Newton, of a big city.

What is Williamstown like?

Exactly that. I have carried a little bit of Williams with me for twenty years. Haven’t you? Much more below.

My lovely wife, a graduate of Newton South, didn’t like the essay but thought that Esther’s comments on the college application process were nicely done.

Speaking of that kind of conflict — the conflict between succeeding in our society and being genuine — we’re on book IV of the Aeneid in Latin class, and on Friday we got to the most poignant part of it, a part I’ve been anticipating for years. It’s when Aeneas tells Dido he has to leave her, because it’s his destiny to go on and found Rome. And Dido is completely distraught, she is in agony, and she appeals to him. To her, it sounds absurd that he would leave her because Cupid came and told him he had to go on and found Rome — he doesn’t even know where Rome is, or anything about it, he just expects to go found it. Aeneas explains to Dido that he wants to stay with her, he really does, but he has “pietate” — which doesn’t translate really into “piety” — it’s bigger than piety. It’s a sense of duty, a sense of purpose, of knowing where you’re going, an absolute devotion to that. Aeneas has such pietate that he would sacrifice his own happiness for his duty. The final line of the section is: Italiam non sponte sequor — “I do not seek Italy of my own accord.”

It makes me think: I do not apply to college of my own accord.

Amazing stuff. How can you not like Esther, not hope that she is coming to Williams next year? The article continues.

To spend several months in a pressure cooker like Newton North is to see what a girl can be — what any young person can be — when encouraged by committed teachers and by engaged parents who can give them wide-ranging opportunities.

It is also to see these girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents then from the culture, since elementary school. The first message: Bring home A’s. Do everything. Get into a top college — which doesn’t have to be in the Ivy League, or one of the other elites like Williams, Tufts or Bowdoin, but should be a “name” school.

The second message: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t work too hard.

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

Nothing wrong with hot, effortless or otherwise, but I certainly want my daughters to value character over appearance. Suggestions on how to accomplish this are welcome.

The article mentions other girls, no doubt chapters (one Asian American, one African American, one pianist and so on) in reporter Sara Rimer’s upcoming book (hat tip to Dan Drezner ’90), but Esther is the focus here. Given that she is one of the “best” students at Newton North, what are her chances at Williams?

“I think it’s unfair,” Esther said, explaining why she decided against an SAT tutor, though she worried about her score (ultimately getting, as she put it, “above 2000”). “Why do I deserve this leg up?”

The most intensely pressurized academic force field at school is the one surrounding the students on the Advanced Placement and honors track. About 145 of the 500 seniors are taking a combined total of three, four and five Advanced Placement and honors classes, with a few students even juggling six and seven.

Esther’s schedule includes two Advanced Placement and one honors class. Among certain of her classmates who are mindful that many elite colleges advise prospective applicants to pursue the most rigorous possible course of study, taking two Advanced Placement classes is viewed as “only two A.P.’s.” But Esther says she is simply taking the subjects she is most interested in.

Anyone with a clue about elite college admissions knows that Esther does not stand a chance at a place like Williams. Without a hook (URM, athletic tip, billionaire family), 2 AP classes at a place like Newton North will never cut it. You simply must take the most demanding class schedule that your high school offers. Also, “above 2000” is not a great score on the SAT, especially if a lot of those points came on the writing section, which colleges care much less about, mainly because it doesn’t correlate with college grades (see Jen Doleac’s ’04 thesis). Moreover, the math and (especially) verbal sections are not very coachable, so even if Esther had taken a class, her scores wouldn’t have gone up much. If she got 700 on the writing, then a 1300+ would not be a Williams caliber score for a rich white girl from Newton.

How did things turn out?

By Dec. 15, Newton North was in a frenzy over early admissions answers. Esther’s friend Phoebe Gardener had been accepted to Dartmouth. Her friend Dan Lurie was in at Brown. Harvard wanted Dan Catomeris.

Esther was in calculus class, the last period of the day when her cellphone rang. It was her father. The letter from Williams College — her ideal of the small, liberal arts school — had arrived.

Her father would be at her brother’s basketball game when she got home. Her mother would still be at the office. Esther did not want to be alone when she opened the letter.

“Dad, can you bring it to school?” she asked.

Ten minutes later, when her father arrived, Esther realized that he had somehow not registered the devastating thinness of the envelope. The admissions office was sorry. Williams had had a record number of highly qualified applicants for early admission this year. Esther had been rejected. Not deferred. Rejected.

Her father hugged her as she cried outside her classroom, and then he drove her home.

Esther said several days later: “Maybe it hurt me that I wasn’t an athlete.”

But she was already moving on. “I chose Williams,” she said, with a shrug. “They didn’t choose me back.”

About that thin envelope: Mr. Mobley, unschooled in such intricacies, said he hadn’t paid much attention to it. He had wanted so much for his daughter to get into Williams, he said, and believed so strongly in her, that it was as if he had wished the letter into being an acceptance.

Heart-breaking. As Dan Drezner points out, all early decision envelopes are thin. If Rimer gets these sorts of details wrong, what else is she missing?

But an outright rejection on early decision is harsh! What’s the back story? Well, Esther was certainly not getting good college advice. She never had a shot at Williams and would have been better off applying early to some other school. I suspect that Williams did her a favor by rejecting her, making her realize that there was a mismatch between her resume and her aspirations. Also, this may have been a not-so-subtle signal to the college counselors at Newton North that they need to get a clue.

Like Dan Drezner, I live in the part of Newton covered by Newton North. He and his editor discuss the topic.

[Hey, won’t your children be attending this high school at some point?–ed. Yes, but that is many, many years from now and I’m sure the time will pass very, very, slowly.].

No. I may be only 2 years older than Dan and not nearly as smart, but the time between now and high school for our children will be fleeting indeed.

Aidan points to “The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Safety School,” a much less, uh, charitable take on the article.

Pity the “Amazing Girls” of Newton North. Their heroic struggle to be smart and pretty was detailed on the front page of yesterday’s Times. They are “encouraged by committed teachers and by engaged parents who can give them wide-ranging opportunities!” They might not get into the exact pricey private college they would like to attend! It’s very hard. Perhaps the most troubled of these overachievers is Esther Mobley (center), who is “a standout in Advanced Placement Latin and honors philosophy/literature who can expound on the beauty of the subjunctive tense in Catullus and on Kierkegaard’s existential choices. A writer whose junior thesis for Advanced Placement history won Newton North’s top prize. An actress. President of her church youth group.”

Unfortunately, she’s also kind of a retard.

We know this because the Times, in its wisdom, has seen fit to publish the essay that Esther wrote seeking admission to Williams.

The comments which follow are even harsher.

In any event, the article captures the town of Newton perfectly. That is how we live, for better or worse.

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