Damaged goods looking to finish her BA.
January 28, 2009 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Once upon a time, I flunked out of college. I’ve been hiding out with a giant stack of books for 5 years, and have developed some pretty specific academic interests. I finally feel ready to return, but I stink on paper and I’ve got caviar taste in schools. Help me explain myself and understand the audience to whom I’m doing all this explaining?

I’m a 24 year old lady. I’m writing (and re-writing) (and scrapping) (and writing again) my essays which supplement the applications I’m sending out to finish my undergrad degree. I’m pretty facile with words, but the ghosts of my anxiety and self-doubt are giving me hell; I’m having a hard time understanding what kind of balance I should be striking between the conversational and the pragmatic, where I should allow my words to reflect fully the extent of my enthusiasm and ability (if I even should at all) or where I should just stick to the facts, where being penitent is useful and where it will hurt me. Essentially, I’m having a lot of trouble with the tone of my writing and presenting the information in the most palatable way possible for an audience I don’t fully understand. Also, brevity—what to emphasize, what to ease up on?

I am naturally a very candid person and writer, and I recognize how this has sabotaged me in some past professional contexts, or certainly dissuaded me from certain pursuits where I would have to appeal to any potentially very serious crowd. I am not exactly a very serious person. One of the things I want to communicate with the most clarity is that while I may appear on paper to be a somewhat risky prospect for admission, I am actually incredibly passionate, ambitious, and disciplined academically. I’m scared that any hint of my indelicate, admittedly sort of bawdy nature might read as a liability, but I sound mechanical and oblique when I write it out entirely. How do I manage sincerity without scaring anyone off?

—-

The specifics are these (obscenely long but relevant?):

I was a really lackluster student for my entire life. In 3rd grade they tried sticking me in special ed because I refused to do my homework, but I was quickly pulled (uncooperative, not disturbed, apparently). The homework tradition, however, continued and I was failing various classes starting from 6th grade. I frustrated every parent and teacher in my radius, pinned as one of those “exceptionally bright and lazy” students whom they assumed would come to full bloom in college.

I did not.

In fact, I mostly wilted. I was attending a good but ill-fitting school and found myself overwhelmed by a few things, specifically a new body (I had lost about 100 lbs in the last year), an existential crisis about this purported intellectual largesse of mine which I had never had to flex, and the complete terror of finding that while college was basically just high school with slightly nicer booze and less parents, I would find myself paralyzed in front of my desk trying to juice my brain for a breezy two page paper on something I understood with total ease for like, 8 hours at a time. I often wouldn’t hand things in at all. I had this habit of doing all the required work for a course, never submitting any hard evidence of that other than class discussions, and then imploding at finals, which were generally papers I wouldn’t hand in because I could never finish them, no matter how wisely I divided my time.

I felt stupid. Beyond stupid, and fraudulent. I, too, had given myself the benefit of the doubt and assumed that when “properly challenged,” I’d sprout upwards like a magic stupid beanstalk, but I wasn’t capable of that no matter how much I wanted it. I had also somehow charmed my way out of developing any sort of academic skill-set for my whole life. With my depression and drunken spiraling came some other life traumas, and after 3 semesters I was asked to “withdraw for a semester” to get it together. I had failed 4 of my 12 classes. The others I had done B minus to A minus range in.

I retreat home. Work 2 full time jobs, save $ to get away from parents who hate me for flunking out. Decide to give myself education I had not been able to hack at college, punish myself with French lit theory just to prove to myself that I can. Actually get into this theory. Actually get into a lot of theory, especially of the feminist sort. Move. Have nice life.

After 2 years, I signed up for some evening classes at the local state school to see if I felt up to the challenge, and to see if I was really meant to be a student—if so, I’d go back for real. I was more secure and decently well read, but very nervous. Shock, horror: same thing starts happening, with the paralysis, panic, papers. I am heartbroken. “These classes were for morons, WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME?” I ask psychiatrist. He tortures me with the equivalent of an 8 hour IQ test to conclude I have ADD, which I had never believed in and found mostly absurd or environmental or whatever; yes, yes, everyone has ADD, I say. My grades at end of the semester are nothing to write home about.

I sign up for two more classes. I read more about ADD and decide that even if it’s imaginary, I will manage my life as if it was real. Things improve a bit. I write a paper for a grad-level Romantic Lit course, trying to tie in independent interests to my education so I don’t get bored. Professor implicitly accuses me of plagiarism, offering that my work wasn’t undergraduate level even though I was, that she’d like me to resubmit my bibliography, and demands to know how I’d even heard of Lacan (“Are you taking a class or something?”). I decline because my work was all homebrewed. Also, I'm insulted. She does not pursue it further, but instead makes a few good attempts to humiliate me in front of the class. After declaring my presentation on Lamia/Lilith as “ridiculously unfounded,” I, like a cranky baby, tell her in so many words that I think she’s an awful cunt. Do not return to either class because of pride, arrogance, and a lack of will. This was dumb. Criminally dumb.


—-

That was then, however. In the last 3 years, I have learned how to stop fighting against myself, and I am much better at managing and avoiding the consequences of how my brain works. I have done some rad stuff like design and lead an intro course on feminist theory with a class of 15 at a local “free school,” and was teaching kids’ art classes at a museum. I audited a class with a professor from my first college last winter, and last spring took a continuing ed class at a very prestigious school; both professors really liked and encouraged me, pushing me hard to resume my education. Recently, a (reputable!!) literary agent found my blog and wants to develop a book with me (surreal but tentative). I’ve earned my (meager) living freelancing, and as a buyer/retailer of vintage clothing.

Most importantly, though, I really, really want to go back to school. I am focused in a way I once didn’t know how to be, and have followed my academic interests into serious depth entirely on my own. At a certain point, while I believe zealously in learning outside the structures of an institution, a classroom setting can also be invaluable (further elaboration goes on in essays). Here are some things I am concerned about:

1) I do not want to sound permissive or as if I’m trying to excuse any of the really terrible decisions I have made. I am EXTREMELY reticent to make any mention of being diagnosed with/managing ADD. I also do not want to sound like a Disappointed Dad and let on how hyper-critical and in some ways ashamed I am of what a fuck-up I was, as self-depreciation melts nicely into bloated ego. I’ve learned from my mistakes, I’m mostly grateful to have made them, now I want to move on.

2) I do not know how (or if) to put tastefully that, to be frank, I’m not exactly interested in a degree just to have a degree. If I had to endure the assholism of academia without any of the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other, I don’t think I will be able to tap into the necessary motivation I would need for success. I sound repulsively, grossly snobbish, but I wouldn’t survive any academic environment where a professor is cynical and suspicious that you may have read Lacan independently.

I’d like to study human sexuality and semiotics/sociolinguistics, etc; most of the schools I’m applying to are not messing around, and I feel like a total punch-line even asking them to consider me given my unsavory academic history. I am applying to “safety” schools as well, but my commitment to that is questionable when weighed against how much debt I’d be signing up for. I sound like an unworthy brat. I realize this, but I have never been able to get jazzed on mediocrity. I am not at all as sensitive as I used to be about fellow students or even difficult professors, but without the freedom to chase after what I was really passionate about and a faculty who encouraged students to do so, I don’t think college would be a wise choice for me.

3) I screwed up TWICE. That is really ugly. How might you recommend I spin this? Is it even possible? Where do I explain the past and where do I look towards the future?

Apologies for my neuroses. I am just trying to crack into a world I only really have related to through books and the disappointed undergrad memories of my friends. I’m open to and grateful for any insight you may offer.
posted by snizz to Education (37 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
I sound like an unworthy brat.

Sweetie, you sound like someone who has been, and is still, growing up. Happens all the time and, while I am not an admissions officer, I think schools see this quite often.

I’d like to study human sexuality and semiotics/sociolinguistics, etc; most of the schools I’m applying to are not messing around, and I feel like a total punch-line even asking them to consider me given my unsavory academic history. I am applying to “safety” schools as well, but my commitment to that is questionable when weighed against how much debt I’d be signing up for.

It's not clear to me here what type of schools you are trying to get into, and I think providing that information is key to getting a helpful answer. Top ten, ivy league, etc? Your local state university? Why would debt from your safety schools be lower than the presumably top-tier ones?
posted by txvtchick at 9:10 AM on January 28, 2009


Okay I misread the debt/school choice part. But still, it would be helpful to provide more of a description of where you're trying to get admitted.
posted by txvtchick at 9:13 AM on January 28, 2009


I think your questions will probably be answered if you can answer a question in turn: Why do you want to go to school? Are you planning on a career change? It sounds as if you're making something approximating a living as it is. Do you want to do that some other way? Do you want to be doing something different? Because if your idea of going to school is getting a degree and then going back to what you were doing... why bother? School is expensive in terms of both money and opportunity cost, so unless you plan on actually having your degree do a significant amount of work for you, you should really consider whether or not you want to do this.

I'm not saying that you should only go to college to get a job or that there is not some kind of inherent value in study. But unless you want to start publishing papers or take a tenure-track position somewhere, I'm not sure what the value-added here is. You're talking about studying a ridiculously narrow, abstract, and, if you'll forgive the presumption, basically useless field. Unless you plan on making a career out of that, and good luck with that should you try to, an undergraduate degree in your desired fields will be completely worthless beyond the fact that it happens to be a college degree of some kind. And if you are considering graduate school, as was recommended to me earlier, read this.

Your project would be daunting enough to someone without two pretty big strikes against them. But if you have a clear idea of why you want to do this and can articulate that--you haven't here, by the way--how to go about writing your essays should become apparent. Don't ignore past failings, but don't obsess over them either. Tell them why you want to do this and why you can.
posted by valkyryn at 9:15 AM on January 28, 2009


I audited a class with a professor from my first college last winter, and last spring took a continuing ed class at a very prestigious school; I audited a class with a professor from my first college last winter, and last spring took a continuing ed class at a very prestigious school; both professors really liked and encouraged me, pushing me hard to resume my education.
These. Them. Here are the folks are either the connections you need or the people who can get you the connections you need.
  1. They can write you solid letters of recommendation. That's really important for someone with a spotty record (he says, as someone with a spotty record -- I'm one short of having attended as many schools as Sarah Palin, though I have more degrees to show for it than she does).
  2. If they're tenured/tenure-track, there's a good chance they've been on admissions committees themselves and can tell you how to massage your record into something that looks awesome. It's best, in my opinion, not to think of your applications essay as being an attempt to represent yourself in the "best" light possible -- there's no such thing as an abstract "best" in this case -- but instead as an attempt to create a solid model of the applications essay genre out of the raw material of your life history (if that makes sense). These professors will tell you what this model looks like. They will read your essay for you. They will tell you how it doesn't fit the model. If you have professors who like you and think you have potential, you need to rely on them shamelessly.
Good luck! And even though you have caviar tastes, apply widely. Given your field and the level and nature of your interest, things aren't going to get fast enough for you until grad school anyway. If you end up at a mid-tier/"safety" undergrad institution and kick ass, that'll get you into the kickass school you want for your MA/PhD.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:18 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I apologize if this sounds harsh, but...

It sounds to me like you just don't f-ing need school. I ain't no psychomagician but it sounds to me like you are trying to substitute academic approval for approval from mommy and daddy that you feel you're missing.

"...Parents who hate me for flunking out... blah blah...Disappointed Dad and let on how hyper-critical and in some ways ashamed I am of what a fuck-up I was.."

See... you seem to have this internal daddy telling you that you are damaged goods. That's fucked up, man... sorry. Why do you want to keep subjecting yourself to this? Why do you want to relive it over and over?

If I were you I would decisively move on with my life. You wanna read Lacan, read Lacan. Study sociosexual humolinguistics. Move to France. Write books. Be brilliant. You don't need some douchebag professor's approval. (Even if he does look like your dad!)
posted by Theloupgarou at 9:20 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think you're doing this backwards. Unfortunately you may have to pay your dues at a school that's less than top-shelf, given your background, and play by the rules. Playing by the rules for a while, and proving you can do it, is what allows you to then be given the freedom to pursue your interests freely. Accept that you're going to have to put up with some mediocrity for now, bust your ass, do great, then apply to the grad school of your dreams.
posted by footnote at 9:22 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is true! It is one Ivy, and about 3 others that are definitely top tier. There is not much hope in being bashful, I guess--ideally, I'd love to go to Brown for their Modern Culture & Media program. They have a "Resumed Undergrad" program, which I applied to last year and was a "finalist" for, but I was ultimately not accepted (my professor had asked if they might accept my last minute application way past deadline, as I was not planning on actually applying, and I was also a year too young to qualify--but who knows if that was the reason I was rejected.)

There are also a few I am considering applying for in Canada, but those seem even less likely. As for the "safety" schools, the tuition would be lower because they are state schools, but definitely not insignificant. I won't be able to work as much as I do and do school full time, so loans would be a big part of this.
posted by snizz at 9:24 AM on January 28, 2009


Talk more about the actions you TOOK and WILL TAKE, and less about WHO you are when you communicate to the people who have your fate in your hands.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:31 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


But if you have a clear idea of why you want to do this and can articulate that--you haven't here, by the way--how to go about writing your essays should become apparent. Don't ignore past failings, but don't obsess over them either. Tell them why you want to do this and why you can.

Yes, this.

But also, through what I'm reading here, I get a strong sense of defensiveness. You say things like this: "I have never been able to get jazzed on mediocrity" and "If I had to endure the assholism of academia without any of the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other." You don't sound like someone who wants to be taught. As someone in graduate school, who teaches undergraduate students, I dread having students like you--they're typically the ones who don't do the assigned work (because, for whatever reason, they feel they don't need to) and then assume that their poor grades are due to my not "getting" their references to Ulysses. I'd likely react similarly to those professors and ask you to resubmit a bibliography--homebrewed or not, if you write about something, you should have the citations to back it up. That's how academia works.

Look, much of academics is bullshit, and you're right about that. But if you don't feel like difficult, challenging people have something to impart to you, I really don't know what you'll get out of it, even at schools that "aren't messing around." Lose the preconceived notions about why people are doing the things that they're doing and try to learn something from every situation, even if it's that you can't win em all.

I'm reacting strongly to this whole thing, and it's not even an application essay. My first instinct was to snap back--"It's hard to hear the question over how awesome you think you are." And I'm not even the biggest fan of academia out there. I would not include your feelings about academia--they'll certainly alienate people who have dedicated their lives to it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:37 AM on January 28, 2009 [12 favorites]


Some "caviar"-level schools aren't that hard to get into. I'm talking about excellent, cutting-edge liberal arts schools whose student bodies are pretty self-selecting, and therefore have quite acceptance rates. Perhaps the numbers have changed, but when I was applying to schools (back around 1990), excellent schools like Oberlin, Reed, Bennington, Bard, Hampshire, Grinnell, Denison, Kenyon, Knox, St. John's (Annapolis or Santa Fe) were not very hard to get into. I consider those colleges to provide an education every bit as good as the more famous Ivy League schools and little Ivies (like Amherst and Williams). And I get the feeling that those smaller, progressive liberal arts schools are more tolerant of people like you. Why don't you try one of those schools? Whenever I have encountered graduates of one of those excellent progressive schools, they have impressed me quite a bit, often more than graduates of more illustrious schools.
posted by jayder at 9:50 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Many of us have an academic history that we aren't crazy about. I wish I could go back and shake my past self up a bit. I've been able to redeem my history a bit by improving my academic work over time; and I feel now that I have some good opportunities to do post-graduate work that I wouldn't have had originally. But I'm still feeling the pain of lost opportunities.

I do hope you can get into the school of your dreams. But if for some reason this doesn't happen, I wanted to encourage you to still go back to school and finish up your degree somewhere. You can use that time to redeem your grade history, show your seriousness to your work, and improve your chances of perhaps transferring to another school that is closer to your choice. Also, if that doesn't happen, you may have the opportunity to do M.A. level work in your field at a good school, if you can establish that you have redeemed your wayward past at the undergraduate level, as far as grades and academic performance is concerned. For graduate schools, the GPA is an issue, but also improved performance over time, if the start was rocky.

I don't say this to discourage your dreams, but to encourage you that it's not the end of the road if you don't get into your top choices. There are plenty of other schools out there with lower entry barriers that will provide excellent opportunities for an education and camaraderie with fellow students and faculty, and the opportunity for future work as well.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2009


Think of this from an admissions perspective - I don't need a postmortem on your failures. I do need to see that you've matured and have a plan to succeed. This isn't therapy, don't go into every nook and cranny of your psyche. Instead, acknowledge past problems and mistakes and discuss your readiness and approach to resume your studies.
posted by 26.2 at 9:55 AM on January 28, 2009


...if your idea of going to school is getting a degree and then going back to what you were doing... why bother? School is expensive in terms of both money and opportunity cost, so unless you plan on actually having your degree do a significant amount of work for you, you should really consider whether or not you want to do this.

In defense of the study-for-study's-sake perspective: there are those people for whom learning things is like crack. (I'm one.) But you make a good point -- if you don't as such plan a career in it, why bother with college?

But there's an answer to that -- not just for the education, but also for the connections you can make there. And also for the exposure to yet even more fields you didn't know about when it was you and a stack of books. I didn't even know dramaturgy and literary management even existed when I started college -- I just new I wanted to study theater. I was going to be an actress. But studying one thing gave me a clue that lead in an intriguing direction, which lead to another thread, which lead to...and within three years, I'd totally ditched acting as a career and am now a literary manager running a playwriting contest instead.

Going to a college increases the likelihood of those kind of out-of-left-field kind of connections you can make where you stumble upon a career path you never even knew about, only to discover you were born to it.

....But we digress.

To the OP: just about any medium-to-biggish university has some kind of program for "non-traditional students" -- people who dropped out of college and are coming back, people who never went to college and are finally getting the chance to go now that they've retired, all kinds of scenarios. It may be worth reaching out to them to see if they have any advice or counsel.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:59 AM on January 28, 2009


Pho, I understand completely your reaction. And you're right about my defensiveness, but I definitely do believe I have something to learn from difficult situations and people, and I am not at all the student you describe--I once was (sorta--believe me, there wasn't one terrible grade I didn't think I deserved)! I have been super humbled in the last few years, and especially my actions in that situation I regret terribly, that's why I described it. I was not in any way ready to be a student.

I didn't go over why I specifically want to return to school because I was so preoccupied with thinking about the negatives as I wrote this. I am very wary of academia many ways, somewhat hostile even, particularly because it is very hard to be taken seriously without having been deeply embedded in it for some length of time. Without its inborn connections, without a degree, without knowing intimately the private language one needs to speak inside of it, I have a lot of reservations.

On the other hand, I obviously want to be a part of it. I do believe its worth it and necessary. I am missing this whole chunk of my education, and that is engaging ideas with other people. I am working from books, monologues--a classroom is dynamic and alive and invigorating, and exercises your mind in totally elastic directions that you just do not get alone in your bedroom. I question if it's worth it, too, especially since I know I am perfectly capable of doing things on my own. But it is a smaller view, sort of myopic and in many some ways less challenging.

There is also the idea of being challenged to defend my ideas and expand them, every one of them if necessary, more gracefully than I am able to now, with more confidence. I think a classroom is deal for that, and I miss it. I miss other people's stories, witnessing how they interact with new ideas in ways that are different from my own, the hundred different ways each of us will read the same passage. I can appreciate how important that is now, I am slow on the uptake but in a way glad I will be focused enough to not squander it.
posted by snizz at 10:08 AM on January 28, 2009


What hal_c_on said. I'd want to hear about the facts. And what You Can't Tip a Buick said.

But about the essay, do you get two? If so, one could be about your interests and how they fit the school. It is straight-up professional. The other could be mostly a conversion narrative. It could start with the good recent stuff (your blog and how you lead an intro course on feminist theory). Then you say something like "but it took me a long time to get to this point" and spend the middle section talking a bit about your troubles and how you overcame them. The close is about what you dream of now and/or how going through those things will make you a better person, classmate, and contributor to the world. What you have to convey -- and you might have to prove this to yourself first so you truly believe it -- is that you're not a risk, you're a person who had internal obstacles (eg, anxiety, ADD) and has overcome them.
posted by salvia at 10:27 AM on January 28, 2009


I also do sort of plan to make a career out of it, at least in some ways. Not that this is a career by any means, but I've published one journal article over the last year. Generally speaking, they won't look at your work without a university's blessing, not to mention finding jobs in related fields. I'm mostly interested in the possibilities of radio and new media, and exploring them in deliberate and strategic ways. So some theory, some practice.

All of your answers are incredibly helpful, by the way. Thank you.
posted by snizz at 10:30 AM on January 28, 2009


heh, as i read your post i thought to myself "sounds like a brown student." as in, they look for the weirdos. since you're probably taking your CE classes there already, have you taken advantage of the advisor program? they'll probably ease your concerns, as well as provide support.

my impression is that they may look at your history as a plus: returning students tend to be more focused. on your app, stress how your past led you to find a subject you were passionate about, led you to be more demanding of yourself, your professors and your peers. since you're in the area... try to meet someone from admissions for advice, particularly in the ADD area.

(background: former brown student, similar but different situation, 24 yrs old, dropped out, looking to transfer elsewhere, no hard feelings)

the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other

yes and no. i think there's a lot of arrogance, competition, and intellectual denial (as in, let's forget we're in college to learn)... you'll find that anywhere. so finding those people who are intelligent hard workers, but not a) overly competitive b) eternally anxious about whether they aced a test (when you're certain they could have re-written the text book), is like shopping at a second hand store. they're there, it takes work to find them.

definitely second jayder's suggestion to also apply to other "quirky" schools. but definitely re-apply at brown. right now you just need to cast a wide net. worry about logistics once you know where you've been accepted.

also, at your age you should qualify as an independant on the fafsa. so there's that.
posted by vaguelyweird at 10:35 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Okay, I can see why you might really like to spend some time in school. College is awesome, no two ways about it. But I don't see you moving beyond having a degree just to have a degree. "Because I'll be a better person" makes education a luxury, and you need to ask yourself whether or not you can/want to afford it. "Because it would be fun" is not going to be a compelling reason for an admissions counselor. They've got a finite number of spots available, and there are plenty of people who are more focused than you who don't have, umm, "tarnished" academic histories.

You need to be able to tell an admissions official why they should pick you instead of someone who hasn't made your choices. Unless you are willing to address how a college degree fits with your plan for your life after you earn it, this is going to be hard. College is not supposed to be the culmination of anything. It's supposed to be a means of getting you someplace else. That someplace may or may not involve a job--yes, education can be valuable apart from its effects on potential employment--but you need to be able to say something about how college is a step on a journey leading somewhere.

Thus far, no offense, I'm not seeing anything which would convince me of that. Your current life trajectory seems to be towards small-business ownership with some avocational teaching. Which can be a fine life, if you let it. If you get a degree in literary criticism, you have exactly three options: go back to what you were doing before, get a job that requires a college degree but doesn't actually have anything to do with lit crit (and good luck with that in today's economy), or go to graduate school. If you're going to do the first one, why bother with college? It doesn't sound to me like you want to do the second one, and you've expressed no interest in--or understanding of--graduate school.

So I ask again? Why, exactly, do you want to do this? And I say again, that if you can figure out a compelling answer to that question, your essay will write itself.

Oh, and the previous responses are dead on: this isn't therapy, and no one wants to hear much about your personal issues. Talk about how you're moving forward and where you want to go, not where you came from and how awesome you are for having overcome adversity. Seriously.
posted by valkyryn at 10:36 AM on January 28, 2009


You've got a publication already? And you're an undergrad? Good lord, okay, lean on your professors to help you write your essay, don't feel bad about applying to top-notch schools, and get ready to aim crazy high for grad school.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:41 AM on January 28, 2009


Thanks valkyryn, that is exactly what I needed to hear. I need to better articulate those to myself first, certainly.

As for therapy, I'm glad I let it out here! "Adversity," wakka wakka.
posted by snizz at 10:46 AM on January 28, 2009


Despite all of what you said, you still seem to be operating under the same assumption that you and your family were when you were in highschool--that you'll blossom when "properly challenged." Your entire post read like it's academia's fault for being boring and pedantic, that only if your professors appreciated, say, Lacan, like you did, than you would have excelled, and that you'll only find a return to education valuable if "properly challenged" at an Ivy today.

But I went to a university that was not highly ranked (in fact, it was a state school and largely a commuter campus) and I call bullshit--while, yes, I had to take a crappy health class, I also had a number of professors who were incredibly interested in helping students with independent research projects, works in criticism, and pursuing academic and creative publication. They took their bright students very, very seriously, assuming that these students were willing to do the basic grunt work of college, which included things like following paper guidelines and fulfilling basic assignment requirements. Essentially, what footnote says: "Playing by the rules for a while, and proving you can do it, is what allows you to then be given the freedom to pursue your interests freely."

(And, honestly, those students in my graduate program who came from "better" schools, even Ivy league schools, have often had school experiences that sound fairly close to mine--and we're talking in terms of publications and that sort of thing as well. Those whose experiences were drastically different were because they went to universities like Hampshire that had drastically different educational models.)

Incidentally, in graduate school, I've found that conditions are largely the same except that people care less if you're bright. In graduate school, people will have assumed that you've read Lacan and won't be impressed by it (or by things like undergraduate publications--these are pretty common for grad. students where I'm a student, at least), but they will want you to be able to demonstrate thorough knowledge of theory in practical ways. So you might still get people saying your arguments are ridiculously unfounded, if they are. And, from what I've seen, sometimes if they aren't, too. Things get snitty in graduate school in a way that's often worse than middle school.

My objections to academia at the undergraduate level aren't that far from yours--it's a commercial entity more concerned with churning out diplomas than actually teaching; courses are sometimes irrelevant to a student's interests; many professors are bored by teaching and burnt-out and don't hold students to very high standards. My educational ideal is much closer to something like free schooling, where the needs and interests of the students are primary. But we're talking about the way schooling in our country works in practice. If you want to participate in this world, you need to get used to things that are not useful to your research interests directly, because (if you want to go on to the graduate level), you're at the very least, at some point, very likely going to be saddled with teaching bored undergraduates composition. Which will hardly involve your research interests, promise.

So I guess my thought is that if 1. You don't like the way most of academia works and 2. You won't succeed in a program which follows a typical American educational model, absolutely apply to the places jaydar mentioned, where your actual research interests will determine the course of your education. Ignore the idea of a "good name" and instead look for an educational model through which you'll actually be able to succeed.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:53 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


"3) I screwed up TWICE."

The third time's the charm! And no, I don't mean to be flippant. Go ahead and try. But remember how much material your reviewers have to slog through and pare it down. Also, I agree with whoever said de-emphasize your past love-hate relationship with academia/academics and talk/write about what you want to do in the future. All the best to you.
posted by emhutchinson at 10:55 AM on January 28, 2009


1)Find a way to work on your anxiety and self-doubt (the right therapist can do wonders), but know that the admissions officers don't care about your insecurities. As long as your applications aren't suffused with self-criticism, you'll be fine.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't acknowledge that you're getting a second start. But just mention it in a sentence, and then say briefly what you've done since your previous shot at college (how you've grown, ways in which you've demonstrated the ability to work through things, etc.)

2) In the admissions process, you want to show enthusiasm for school and for the topic, and the ability to stick it out (or, at some schools, enthusiasm plus the ability to pay). If you have any relevant experience, mention it. Get letters of reference from the profs whose classes you've taken.

3) Oh, and you need to be able to say concisely what it is you're interested in, and what it is you want, stripped of the extraneous. In your question above, strip out everything about your history and your worries -- what's left is what you want to learn and what to achieve. Make that your goal.

Finally, I'd also add: don't start with a need for a caviar school, start with the desire to figure out what kind of program and school will work for your style, and *then* rank them by prestige. You know, from your past experience, that you need a certain kind of school to do well. Maybe the most important thing is small class size, or access to professors, or that the school is in a city, or has a diverse student body, or ... Figure out what those attributes are and then go hunting.

And good luck. 24 is not an unusual age to go to school. Figure out what you need, present yourself well, and you'll do fine.
posted by zippy at 11:26 AM on January 28, 2009


You say you are missing the classroom aspect of learning. You may also be missing on the meeting your instructor's requirements aspect. It sounds like you have issues with this in the past (not doing assignments or being upset with negative feedback). It is an extremely important thing to learn. Whether you are in school or a job, you will be asked to do things that you think are stupid. Your opinion doesn't matter and you need to learn how to do them anyway. Sometimes, you will be surprised what you learn. Other times, you may learn nothing. The skill to swallow your pride will come in handy throughout your life.

With regards to your application, there are lots of reasons that people are unable to excel. What you need to do is show how you are now ready to succeed. Your supportive professors will be invaluable
posted by Gor-ella at 11:29 AM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh, and there are backdoors to the Ivy League, if that's what you're after -- I have heard that Columbia's General Studies school is not that difficult to get into, and offers an education substantially similar to the regular undergrad college; and there was recently a NYT article about Harvard's Extension School which is essentially open admission and offers a bachelor's degree.
posted by jayder at 12:23 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pho, it does sound like I'm operating under the same assumption, and what you're saying is really useful for this especially--though there are a lot of different narratives in my head about this stuff, what I've said here the clearest among them, I don't think I've been able to soften them in a way that's most true to how I feel. I don't think I'm going to "finally blossom," but I do think I could grow and be challenged in important ways. This is what I was talking about with tone; my defensiveness often shows itself through a lot of barely-sincere bravado and I sometimes have some trouble adjusting it. There’s an impulse that makes me feel like I sound uncomfortably earnest without it, but I guess I’d prefer that over sounding like such a dick.

I also cannot stress enough that I could not give a shit about “prestige,” and have only been attracted to the programs where I think I’d fit (some listed by Jayclon). I haven’t really earned access to the kind of schools offering what I’m interested in, and I understand that. They are the places I will probably feel the least at home in some respects. I don’t have the same expectations I once did for whatever program I enter, and I understand now exactly how much responsibility I have to make the most of the resources available to you in school, no matter where that is.

Aside from my own awful reaction, that experience with my professor seemed to speak for a lot of what I’d seen in classrooms, as what you describe. It might already be uncomfortable for an academic outsider to speak freely about what they’re learning or excited about. I wasn’t looking for a pat on the head for having read Lacan or published a paper, believe me I keep that to myself, but if there’s ever an appropriate forum to discuss that stuff it’s in a classroom. Part of what’s important to me is that the whole educational model is based on encouraging curiosity and not stamping it out. It’s a naive hope, but more possible in some places over others. If I have to I will do the degree mill thing just to move on through, but I’d like to at least try for something more ambitious. How do you mediate your frustrations with academia? Why do you stick with it?
posted by snizz at 12:27 PM on January 28, 2009


I think that (inter alia) PhoBWanKenobi and jayder are giving you very good advice here, and I am going to pile on a little – with the hope that what I'm about to write doesn't sound harsh or augment your self-doubt. Instead this should be taken as a hint that your approach to making a good academic experience for yourself needs to be reoriented a bit.

The worst mistake you're making as a relative outsider to academia is not in the realm of ideas at all – not about the great intellectual seminar-room experiences you're missing, though you may be right about that – but in how you imagine the student experience is going to be magically better at those "caviar" schools. You sound most misguided not in wanting to go back to college for the sheer thrill of ideas – that's fine – but when you talk about needing to be at some fancy brand-name institution in order to get

the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other... I sound repulsively, grossly snobbish, but I wouldn’t survive any academic environment where a professor is cynical and suspicious that you may have read Lacan independently.

I don't want to go too far into what the reasons might be for this very bad interaction with one professor (let me just say that I share PhoBWanKenobi's suspicion that your approach may have contributed to the otherwise inexplicably cruel-seeming reception of your Lacan paper, and being asked to fix your bibliography should not by itself be insulting). But it is very revealing that you have taken this bad interaction as a confirmation of your "snobbish" opinion: you've seemingly concluded that what you need to do is just get to a "better" school where people are more "brilliant," and you'll never have a bad interaction with a mean professor again, and your talents and brains will finally be appreciated. This is totally wrong and you should drop it immediately. Not only do you sound like the kind of student who'd work better in a student-driven nontraditional curriculum (as jayder suggests), you also sound like someone who, at whatever institution, needs to start taking more responsibility for her own education. Seeking out courses and teachers and colleagues and peers who click with you, creating the intellectual environment you need, can be done at any institution; a self-motivated and engaged student like you should be able to get a truly first-rate education almost anywhere, not just at very selective big-name schools. Trust me, the faculty at almost any halfway decent college or university is stuffed with "brilliant" professors (especially in humanities and social-science fields like the ones you seem to be interested in) who are always grateful for smart and engaged students. You should leave behind the grass-is-greener longing for a "better" undergrad experience at a competitive/selective school and focus on creating the intellectual environment you want.

(On preview, maybe you're right that the "snobbish" thing is just your defensiveness: pay attention to how it is coming across to academics here, though.)
posted by RogerB at 12:53 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am a professor who adores non-traditional students. Every year they are among the top-performing students in my classes. All of them have spotty personal backgrounds. If you wish to return to college after a few false starts, I commend your decision as well as your efforts at self-education.

Because of its length and apparent irrelevance, I admit I skimmed the middle parts of your question. Overall this question raises a lot of red-flags for me as a professor. PhoBWanKenobi already hit upon a lot of my own reservations, and I'd like to expand a bit.

The idea that there are "caviar schools" makes me bristle, and I went to what you'd think as one for graduate school. You need to abandon that kind of thinking now. Sure, apply to your dream schools, but apply to affordable state schools as well. The professors who teach you will have the same credentials wherever you go. As an undergraduate, you're going to be doing the basic grunt work of a degree, regardless of what you believe you are ready to do. If you're looking forward to an Ivy League classroom filled with eager, brilliant students, you're in for a big disappointment.

You say:

If I had to endure the assholism of academia without any of the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other, I don’t think I will be able to tap into the necessary motivation I would need for success. I sound repulsively, grossly snobbish, but I wouldn’t survive any academic environment where a professor is cynical and suspicious that you may have read Lacan independently.


You sound immature and insecure, qualilties often projected as snobbery. I think it's rare for a trained academic to regard a student who read Lacan on her own with suspicion. I can imagine a professor becoming frustrated with that student who refuses to learn from class or accept that she has misread Lacan. Obtaining a B.A. is not the same as "academia," which you really first enter in graduate school. The B.A. can be preparation for the career path of an academic if you want it.

You (the universal You) are not the best judge of your intellectual ability. Reading your question I caught many grammatical errors and odd constructions that I would correct in my students' writing. That will not going to kill your admissions application, but given the content of your question and its tone, you need realize that you have a lot to learn about writing, your field of interest and the other disciplines at any school that offers you admission. I know I still have a lot to learn about all of the above and more. Humility has not hurt my career at all and you would do well to express yourself in ways that convey that quality.

Contact the professors whose courses you have recently taken. Have them critique your draft essays and ask them for recommendation letters. Follow whatever advice they give you, as long as long as they don't use terms like "caviar school." Also contact the career centers at those schools. They are underutilized by students, and they may be willing to help you with your essays and decisions.

The admissions essay should be original and creative, but should not outline your life history, your family relationships, personality flaws, or every failure in detail. Emphasize the successes you've had in the past few years and why you want to pursue formal education at this point in your life.
posted by vincele at 1:09 PM on January 28, 2009


I realized after posting that it might sound like I was discouraging you from applying to Brown and whatever other selective institutions you feel drawn to, but that's not what I meant.  I just want to insist that it's unlikely that there is any One Perfect College for you, that there is no such thing as a "caviar" school except in the shallowest brand-name-recognition sense, and that it'll be more useful to focus on seeking out and/or creating the intellectual experience you want for yourself, wherever you are, rather than trying to shop for an institution that can hand it to you on a plate. Take a long look at the book Colleges that Change Lives, not so much for its institutional recommendations (though they're great) as for its picture of how to be an engaged and active student.

Also, sorry about all the "scare quotes" up there.
posted by RogerB at 1:16 PM on January 28, 2009


Thanks Vincele, I don't disagree. I posted the "mostly irrelevant" information because it's at hand, informing what I am writing but DEFINITELY not the subject of it. I was also very much joking about "caviar schools," haha. It was meant to contrast my non-kosher hotdog of a record. Again, I have zero interest in names. I've done a lot of research into the schools I want to attend, that was never in question.

I'm finding all this super helpful, especially just hearing others perceptions of what I was saying, ways I need to adjust my own perspective and ways I need to refine my communication to reflect what's happening now with me, not once upon a time. I really appreciate it.
posted by snizz at 1:26 PM on January 28, 2009


Snizz, one more thing occurred to me. You may feel more comfortable in a big state or private school vs. an Ivy, simply because there's more diversity among students. A lot of Ivies make undergrads live on campus (I don't know about Brown) for at least the first two years. I know I would feel really weird about living, socializing and attending classes-- spending all of my time inside and out of the classroom-- with 18-20 year olds. If I were in your shoes, I'd opt for the cheapest, best-for-you school nearby, finish the BA quickly, and move on to graduate studies if that's your ambition.
posted by vincele at 1:43 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Snizz, I understand what you mean when you say this:

If I had to endure the assholism of academia without any of the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other, I don’t think I will be able to tap into the necessary motivation I would need for success.

There are differences of quality between, say, a garden-variety urban commuter state school, versus a high-quality liberal arts college or private university. I think it is legitimate, and not at all snobbish, to want to be surrounded by high-quality students. I agree with the people who say you will find excellent professors everywhere, but there is a lot of variation among student bodies.
posted by jayder at 2:26 PM on January 28, 2009


How do you mediate your frustrations with academia? Why do you stick with it?

To be fair, I don't, and I'm not planning on sticking with it. I'm not sure how helpful my own experiences will be for you, because I think our educational attitudes differ greatly. I had a great teacher in ninth grade tell me that half-assed work was unacceptable and that I was clearly capable of more, and, since then, I've essentially held myself to her high standards. Of course, I also don't suffer, or possibly suffer, from ADHD. In college, I realized that my professors had a lot to offer me, and that the key to this knowledge was not just fulfilling coursework expectations but exceeding them. Sure, there were stupid people around me, but they were largely irrelevant--and they certainly weren't my professors. Many of them encouraged me towards academia, and I thought I might go that route but I decided to do a creative writing Master's first. At my program, we get to take a whole bunch of English seminars, as well as teach, and while I found some of them interesting and instructive, I realized how utterly disinterested in theory I am, despite the fact that I've done pretty well in my coursework, and, also, how few undergraduate students were motivated learners. While I could have easily gone on to get my PhD from here, I've decided that I'm not really comfortable contributing to an academic system I don't really agree with, and that the job isn't the scholarly and creative pipe dream that many make it out to be, so I'm leaving with my MFA in May.

If you're going to continue to pursue academics seriously, though, I can't favorite what vincele said enough: "If I were in your shoes, I'd opt for the cheapest, best-for-you school nearby, finish the BA quickly, and move on to graduate studies if that's your ambition." Your best chance at finding the environment you want lies in graduate school. The best, fastest, and cheapest (a really important part of the equation, by the way) route is to get yourself to an undergraduate environment, hold yourself to standards much, much higher than the ones set for you by your professors, take responsibility for your work, and distinguish yourself as an exceptional student. Take even the most Mickey Mouse assignments seriously. I promise if you do at least that, your professors will notice--and eventually, your grad school recommendations will reflect that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:46 PM on January 28, 2009


I can't favorite what vincele said enough: "If I were in your shoes, I'd opt for the cheapest, best-for-you school nearby, finish the BA quickly, and move on to graduate studies if that's your ambition." Your best chance at finding the environment you want lies in graduate school.

I like the sentiment behind this, but I think it is somewhat questionable advice because so many of the best graduate schools look to your undergraduate "pedigree" when considering applications, and a degree from a better school counts for a lot; and if you want an academic career, you really need to go to a top grad program. All things being equal, the Reed graduate stands a far better chance at getting admitted to a top program than the graduate of Southeast Missouri State University.
posted by jayder at 4:16 PM on January 28, 2009


All things being equal, the Reed graduate stands a far better chance at getting admitted to a top program than the graduate of Southeast Missouri State University.

Respectfully disagree that this is an absolute, particularly if OP could earn stellar grades and recommendations from a "smaller" school. I've seen many friends market themselves, successfully, to graduate schools as big fish in small ponds after forging incredibly strong working and personal relationships with professors at no-name schools. Names matter some--performance still matters more.

(Do avoid schools where you'll be taught almost entirely by TAs, though, because that's a situation where you'll be short shrifting yourself in the rec department down the line.)


posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:40 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


First, I want to express strong agreement with what PhobW, RogerB, and others have said, regarding your tone and its intersection with academia.

the pleasures of being around a bunch of reasonably brilliant people who expect a lot from each other

At a highly selective liberal arts college, yes, particularly in advanced seminars in your major (but with the caveat that 99% of the students in your intro classes will be 18 -- most small liberal arts colleges have vanishingly little age diversity). At an honors program or in an advanced and highly selective sub-program within a big, well-funded state university, yes, definitely.

But in your basic, garden variety classes that you take in your first two years at any university, including in the Ivies, probably not. Your classes in the Ivies will be full of (white, wealthy, young) students who express extraordinary entitlement at just being there, and whose attentions will be focused on Friday night partying, Facebook, and their argument with the instructor about why they deserve an A++ instead of an A-. Yes, I'm exaggerating a bit, but anyone who genuinely things that every class at the Ivies is full of brilliant ideas brilliantly expressed by brilliant people, all of whom have done the reading and shown up without a hangover, needs to spend a week sitting in on some classes.

The advice to get the BA done, and done fast (and cheap -- this is probably not worth $100K in debt for you), is really good advice. If you want deep ideas, and time to develop those ideas with close collaboration with smart faculty and smart fellow students, you want grad school, not undergrad. Treat undergrad (complete with good grades and forming good relationships with professors, such that they welcome the opportunity to write you strong letters of recommendation) as something that you have to get done in order to get to where you are going. A BA opens job possibilities, and opens the possibility of grad school -- but for itself isn't all that earth-shattering, honestly.
posted by Forktine at 4:53 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jayder is right about a school's reputation playing a big role in graduate admissions at the departmental and advisor level. Some advisors or their departments won't consider applications from highly qualified non-Ivies, period. Some don't care. Both extremes can be seen within any given institution. Snobbish departments tend to be run by a much, much older generation. I think that name brand of your undergrad institution is becoming less relevant as this generation retires. So do not let that snobbery deter you from pursuing an affordable, nearby college.

Running with Jayder's example, if you went to U.Missouri at Columbia or a branch, and pursued their honors program, attended student or national conferences, and got excellent letters from tenured professors, you'd have a very good chance of getting into a top grad program. Even Southeastern Missouri is not going to automatically count you out. Departmental graduate admission decisions depend so highly on individual personalities that it is hard to generalize.

What Forktine said about Ivy league undergrads is 100% correct. At least 1/3 of slots for incoming students are reserved for legacies at many Ivies, likely the true percentage is higher. Imagine a classroom with at least 33% of the seats taken by guys like Pres. W. Bush and you've got your typical Ivy League class. No doubt there are brilliant kids present, but they are not going to contribute to your classroom experience or education in any significant way.
posted by vincele at 5:47 PM on January 28, 2009


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