Positioning For Success

By Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admission, Harvard

College admission - the chance to position oneself for "success" through the acquisition of the "right" college degree - looms large for increasing numbers of high school students. Particularly because selective colleges are perceived to be one of the destinations on the road to success, we want to do everything possible to help the students we enroll make the most of their opportunities.

It is important to remember that access to higher education around the world is at present limited to a lucky few.  Those fortunate enough to enjoy such a privilege have a responsibility to use their talents to provide expanded opportunities for future generations.  Our young alumni and alumnae have been successful in meeting the formidable challenges they have faced since college.  But they continue to remind us that the rigors of competing in the new world economy impose high standards on everyone.  They do not (nor do we) tell today's students to "slack off" and achieve less.  Recent graduates advise today's high school and college students to prepare themselves emotionally as well as academically.

It is worth noting that extraordinary achievements are never based on emulating someone else's achievements, but on some immeasurable combination of (a) marching to one's own specific and unique drummer and (b) accidentally - perhaps unconsciously - doing something that captures the Zeitgeist in new and unexpected ways.  Many of those whom our society considers successful either used their own ingenuity to give the public a product or image it desperately wanted, or happened to catch a hot wave of the time, or (ideally) both.

Bill Fitzsimmons
Dean of Admissions

While their achievement stands as an ideal for which others strive, others cannot by definition duplicate that achievement because it is induplicable.  The only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed in the field and on the terms that one defines for oneself.

So, following some prescribed path to “success” may have the unintended effect of delaying a student’s finding herself and succeeding on her own terms.  We should all have the right to gape with awe at Tiger Woods' achievements or Yo-Yo Ma's musical triumphs, while at the same time achieving our own more modest ones in our own fields and ways: finding hominid bones that shift our conception of paleontology, or composing smooth jazz melody, or tracing the rise and decline of Romangentes.  Parents and students alike profit from redefining success as fulfillment of the student's own aims, even those yet to be discovered.

The fact remains that there is something very different about growing up today.  Some students and families are suffering from the frenetic pace, while others are coping but enjoying their lives less than they would like.  Even those who are doing extraordinarily well, the "happy warriors" of today's ultra-competitive landscape, are in danger of emerging a bit less human as they try to keep up with what may be increasingly unrealistic expectations.

The good news is that students themselves offer helpful suggestions about how best to handle the challenges they face.  They learn at an early age how to cope with both victory and defeat and with the formidable demands placed on them by adults and peers.  In part because of all the obstacles that confront them from the earliest stages of their lives, this generation has emerged generally more mature, sophisticated, and, at their best, better prepared to cope with the demands of the twenty-first century.