Neanderthals Unite!

NEANDERTHALS UNITE!….Harvard alum Michael Winerip has been interviewing Harvard applicants for the past decade. In the New York Times on Sunday, he wrote a piece that perfectly mirrors something I’ve thought for a long time:

Meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today’s fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant.

….What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

In 1975, I applied to Stanford, Caltech, and UC San Diego and was accepted by all three. This was no big surprise: I was an A student, scored 1420 on the SAT, attended an NSF math program the summer after my junior year, had two varsity letters, and was editor of the school paper. Not bad! But as near as I can tell, it would barely get me an interview at a place like Stanford or Harvard these days. I suppose I’d still make it into UCSD, but that’s about it.

I dunno. Is this true? Would the Kevin Drum of 1975 be able to get into a top school in 2007? I suppose it’s impossible to say. The SAT was renormed in 1995 and my old 1420 would be a 1490 today. I’d have a bunch of AP classes under my belt not because I was any smarter, but because suburban high schools all offer loads of AP classes these days. And I’d probably do outside volunteer work or something on weekends — not because I’m any more altruistic than I was then, but just because everyone knows that’s what you need to do if you’re trying to get into a top school.

So who knows. Maybe it’s just a trick of the light. But all I can say from reading news reports is that the kids who get into elite universities today sure seem a damn sight more accomplished than me or anyone else I knew back in 1975. Like Winerip, I feel like a neanderthal.

On the other hand, we boomers still rule the world. Smarter or not, homo super-accomplishmentus will just have to wait their turns.