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Manic About College? Why Frank Bruni Says You Shouldn’t Be

When I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, going to college was always something I knew I would do. It was a given. I was also fortunate that my parents could afford to send me. While I don’t remember my family putting any real pressure on me about where specifically I’d end up going, the playing field and climate around college admissions seems to have changed a lot over the last few decades—and not for the better. 

When people hear I have an eleventh grader, the first question that usually comes up relates to college. Are we thinking about it? Have we started looking? Where does our son want to go? While we are SO early in the process, it already feels pretty daunting, even without all the anxiety-provoking questions. While I know that many people mean well and aren’t trying to put us on the spot, instead of talking about the topic, I much rather focus on putting together a realistic list of schools that seem to be a good academic and social fit for our son without having to deal with all the pressure and background noise or judgments from the outside world.

To help those of us trying to navigate (and not drown in) the college admissions process, The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni wrote the terrific new book, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. Hallelujah! In it, Bruni peels the layers of what has become a daunting and sometimes horrific process to help parents get a grip and to focus on the right things in the quest to find a school at which our kids can likely be happy and thrive. The book successfully integrates findings from studies and real stories from many successful people including politicians and business leaders—many of whom did not attend so-called elite colleges—to show that what you do with your college experience matters so much more than where you go. 

It goes without saying that all of us parents want the best for our children. That includes guiding our children to work hard and to do the best they can. But the reality is that even if they put in 100% effort, they may not get into their dream school or have much choice if any about where they attend because of how competitive the process has become. This does not and should not ruin them for life. And as I have learned, we are all so much more than our accomplishments which includes where our college degree came from. And that’s just one of the reasons why I love Bruni’s book. 

In Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, Bruni aims to show readers that kids’ futures and their worth as human beings will not be determined by where they go to college. He also provides a fresh and convincing perspective of the college admissions process—he refers to it as a “brutal, deeply flawed competition”—and suggests a path out of the anxiety that it provokes. 

I was excited when I heard Bruni would be the featured speaker at a benefit luncheon of the New York City-based Parents in Action. The event took place today and it was wonderful. Bruni gave a fantastic and very well received—and important—talk. He even signed our books (see Bruni and I below).

Bruni was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions via email. Please read on for his thoughtful and eye-opening responses.



EZ: On page 9 of your book, you say, “College has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional success or for a life well lived.” In your opinion, what are three ingredients for success and living a good life. 

FB: Enthusiasm, which means taking the time and having the space to discover what you can be enthusiastic about and not just following a predetermined script. Relationships: They’ll mean more to you, in both you professional and personal lives, than any degree, and they’re most nurturing and rewarding if you’re approaching them, and living life, in a way that’s not entirely pragmatic. Principles. They’re your mooring, your compass, your center of gravity, and breaching exclusive realms isn’t a principle, it’s an activity.

EZ: As parents of an 11th grader, my husband and I—like many parents—are often questioned about where our son is in the college process. Our son is also questioned, most often by friends and other well-meaning people, but still! We personally don’t want to talk about it—not because we’re being competitive, but because of the anxiety and judgment (positive or negative) it provokes. Can you suggest a nice way for parents and their kids to handle inquiries about college without being rude or dismissive? 

FB: What needs to happen is for people not to ASK those questions so readily and instantly in the first place. I used to begin conversations with teenagers, including nieces and nephews, with: What are your college plans? What schools are you looking at? I was doing it merely to find a bridge into a conversation, but then realized that I was sending a message that college choice defines you. I’ve reformed. Others haven’t. What to say to them when they inquire? How about, “We’re pleased with his test scores and think they’ll give him a range of options.” And, “We’re still taking the lay of the land and trying not to get too fixated on it.” If they hear a gentle reproach in that, so be it. 

EZ: What advice do you have for high school kids who want to best prepare for college but not get sucked into the competitive and stressful vortex? 

FB: I’m not a counselor, so I’m cautious about doling out advice. My job here is to correct the record, so to speak, and paint a picture more nuanced and truthful than the obsession with elite colleges leads the media and parents and kids to paint and to behold. So let me simply emphasize some truths, and my advice would be for kids and their parents to stay focused on them. Not just scores but hundreds of colleges can give you a superb education, if you go to them with the determination to get that education and to take an active rather than passive role in it. Life is bigger and longer than the college admissions crossroads, so to read too much into this one moment is a big mistake. Ten years after college, no one cares about your alma mater. Employers and others care about the person you’ve become. So focus on character and on learning, not labels, and you’ll be preparing for the marathon, not just this one sprint.

To read more from Bruni, check out the following:

How to Measure a College’s Value

How to Survive the College Admissions Madness

You can also follow Bruni on twitter at and on Facebook and learn more about his books and work on his website

To learn more about Parents in Action, visit their website.

Thoughts? Please leave your comments below. 

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books and is currently working on her first novel. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

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