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Matching Perception With Reality

The ongoing discussion about Cornell's Image Committee (of which I'm a member) seems to me a bit hypocritical. On the one hand, there are those who believe the group's mission represents a profound lack of self-esteem and Harvard envy. On the other are those who swear by rankings as absolute bearers of truth. Isn't there a more approachable way to look at the issue?

As an oft-repeated quote from the recent Times story puts it, our self-worth is intimately tied to Cornell's U.S. News ranking. Please. You don't have to believe that in order to admit that there's a little surge of pride every time Cornell gets recognition in the press, and a little tinge of disappointment every time it screws up in the public eye. We know we get a top-notch education, but we wish our public perception matched what we know to be true.

When I applied to college, I bought a book of 10 Real SATs and practiced till I was happy with my score. I made sure I took the right SAT IIs and AP courses, crafted my essay, and generally created an outward image that I hoped represented the best of who I was, what I wanted the admissions committees to see. In turn, that's what everyone else does when they apply to a prestigious college, and lately, they go much further. Students -- even some who criticize efforts like Cornell's Image Committee -- regularly take rigorous SAT courses, hire firms to rewrite their essays, and use consultants to tailor their applications. As recent reports have suggested, this is snowballing into an admissions climate in which applying to 15 or 20 schools is becoming less and less unusual.

If that's the situation you're stuck in, however unfair, you join the fray. You don't stand back and say, "My self-worth can't be measured by a test score or a class grade." The same exact principle is at work in university rankings. While schools far inferior to Cornell -- say, a Washington University in St. Louis -- have recently shot up to higher slots, Cornell has in recent years felt content to stay where it is. That only changed with Image's public pressure and President Lehman's commitment to media relations -- but there's more work to do.

The point is not that Cornell could inflate itself to become a Top 5 school. The point is that, with a little more work improving factors that the rankings deem essential, Cornell's own quality as well as its public perception will rise to a point where the two are equivalent. Today, in my estimation, its reputation is far below what it deserves to be.

Andy Guess | Posted on May 03, 2006 (#)

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