When Yale first bowed to the spirit of meritocracy and began admitting large numbers of students from outside the New England upper class, it set in motion a nationwide arms race among high-achieving high school students. After fifty years of escalating competition, it is no longer enough to have an SAT score in the top 1 percent and a record of achievement in a single activity. To have a decent chance of being admitted to Yale, a student must be a top all-rounder: an academic star, a varsity athlete, a musical virtuoso, a community-service volunteer, and president of some extracurricular club. To have a better-than-even chance, he must be world-class or nationally ranked in one of these.

As a result, every admitted student believes he must be excellent at anything he tries. In the old Yale, campus culture developed from the upper-class traits that most students shared and the rest hoped to adopt. In the new, more diverse Yale, the only thing students share is ambition, and it determines attitudes toward grades (anything below an A-minus can be disputed with the professor), extracurriculars (hardly anyone spends four years in a club without achieving a leadership position), and even drugs. Instead of marijuana or cocaine, Yale’s pharmaceutical network now traffics mostly in Adderall, the wonder drug that, as one girl told me, “makes you want to work.” Surely this is the first generation of college students in which even the drug users are more interested in working hard than getting high.

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Articles by Helen Andrews

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