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This American Life

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This American Life is a weekly public radio show, heard by 2.2 million people on more than 500 stations. Another 2.5 million people download the weekly podcast. It is hosted by Ira Glass, produced in collaboration with Chicago Public Media, delivered to stations by PRX The Public Radio Exchange, and has won all of the major broadcasting awards.
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Ira Glass All across the country this month college freshmen are starting their new lives at their new schools. And it is so hard to get into so many schools these days. At Columbia University in New York City, 33,000 people applied. 31,000 were rejected. That is fewer than 7% getting in. And the students who did get in, the students who made it here, they still wonder how they did it. You know, it was so hard to get here, what was it that worked? And they have their theories. Student I think it's because my application was very focused on physics, and especially females in physics, because obviously that's a problem. Student I had decent SAT scores, and I had a good GPA, but I think a big part of it was my essays. Ira Glass These Columbia students talked to reporter Phia Bennin. On their very first day on campus, it was obvious who is a freshman because they all had to wear neon bracelets, like they were at a waterpark. Student Well, I've been a competitive gymnast for my entire life. Student I was a rhythmic gymnast, and I competed for the US national team. Student I don't know. I'm pretty diverse, I guess-- Hispanic, disabled, good grades. Student I'm an Eagle Scout. That might have helped too. Ira Glass But you do not have to talk to many kids or scratch the surface very far at all before you get this response to the question, what got you into this school? Student I have no idea. Student I still actually have no clue whatsoever. Student Just the percentage of people that get in is just absolutely minuscule, so it's just what the admissions officers see in you. And I have no idea what they saw. [CHUCKLING] Phia Bennin You have no idea what? Student No. Ira Glass I totally relate to that. I remember I was completely clueless when it came to applying to college-- what to do to get in, what to say on the essays to convince them that I was worthy of their schools. And even more basic than that, I really had no idea what would possibly make one school better than another, how to figure out what schools I should apply to. It was overwhelming. And today on our show-- it's September, it's back to school-- we have stories of some of the most boneheaded things people try to do to get into college, plus the truly incredible story of how one man made it into college. That story from writer, Michael Lewis. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us. Act One: The Old College Try Ira Glass Act one, "The Old College Try." So here at our radio show, we went looking for a college admissions officer who would tell us the most misguided things that people do when they're applying to schools. And we found Rick Clark, who's director of undergraduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech. And he said that he and his team are regularly getting emails and phone calls from parents who are pretending to be their own kids. And he sent me some of these emails with the names redacted. Ira Glass You forwarded an email like this to us. This is from a mom's email address, and then it's signed from a son. Rick Clark Yeah, yeah. Ira Glass And it says, "I was impressed by GT's beautiful campus and its close proximity to so many athletic teams and facilities in Atlanta. I look forward to speaking with someone from the business school. Thanks again for taking the time to meet with us on Saturday, and thanks for the awesome T-shirt." Now, the word awesome, is that the most common word that parents use to imitate their kids? Rick Clark I'd say "awesome" and "cool." If they throw those in, I think they feel like they're covering their bases on impersonating a high school student. But ironically, I really almost never, in fact, see that in an email from a high school student. Ira Glass Ah. So Duplicitous parents, please take note. And then on the phone, when the parents call on the phone, do they use the word "awesome?" Rick Clark I actually just did hear from one of my staff members who said they talked to a mom the other day who clearly was trying to sound like her 17-year-old daughter, not so much in the language she was using, but masking her voice. About 15 minutes in, she started using "she" instead of "I," even saying, what if she-- I mean, I wanted to list more activities on the application? Ira Glass Rick Clark says that one thing that has amped this up, all the parents getting in touch, is that lots of schools take into account whether a student shows something called demonstrated interest in their college, meaning, did they show up on campus? Did they write emails to the admissions office afterwards? Were they in touch? Georgia Tech, he says, does not take that stuff into account, but parents do not seem to have gotten the memo on that. He forwarded me an email that a mom wrote to her kid, offering the kid $20 if the kid would email the admissions office, which might have been fine if she hadn't accidentally sent her email to the admissions office. And Rick Clark says that he gets where the parents are coming from. He is a parent himself. He wants to do everything he can for his kids. Rick Clark In fact, we've got a five-year-old right now on a waiting list for a charter school. Ira Glass Oh, so you have to deal with some admissions persons? Rick Clark Yeah. I'm getting a little taste of my own medicine because my kid is seventh on this waiting list. And my wife the other day was like, we're going to call him every week and see where he is. I'm like, whoa, whoa, whoa. You are really flirting with the line between loving him and just really being a stalker here. Ira Glass So you forwarded this email that you all got. And I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by this, but I've got to say, I didn't think it-- it's from somebody whose kid is not even applying to college. It says, "Dear sir or madam, my second grader--" [LAUGHTER] Rick Clark I'm sorry. Ira Glass I can barely finish this sentence. You know this email? Rick Clark Yeah, absolutely. Ira Glass "My second grader has decided on a career in electrical engineering. He is leaning towards MIT, [LAUGHS] but I do not find them helpful and would prefer a southern culture." [LAUGHTER] I like that he's playing on your pride, on your southern pride. "Would you please tell me how to prepare him for admission? He will be an Eagle Scout by then and wants to go to the best school. Please advise." Rick Clark Yeah. I mean, apparently MIT needs to pay more attention to seven-year-olds in their admission process. Ira Glass Rick Clark also sent me a bunch of college essays written by kids that they have gotten at Georgia Tech, again, with the names redacted. Turns out, one common mistake that kids make when they're writing their essays is that they're sending out so many applications, they leave the names of other schools in their essays to Georgia Tech. Rick Clark All right. This is one, in fact, in a, I don't know, 14-line short essay. They twice mention a wrong school name. "So after visiting the campus, reading the information brochure, and researching the university website, I understand and believe that Duke offers what I hope to gain from my college experience." Ira Glass [LAUGHING] They're writing to Georgia Tech. Rick Clark And then it skips down a couple lines. And this is what really blows me away, because there's four words here separating two school names. "I've chosen to apply early decision to Georgia Tech because I believe Duke is the ideal university for me." Ira Glass Are there trends in what kids are writing about, the way you feel like you see little fads and you get sick of them? Rick Clark Oh. Well, the age-old one that, I mean, again, pretty much anybody that you would interview who's been in college admission for any period of time would be-- you know, we just call it now the "mission trip" essay. And great to go on a mission trip, great to have a cultural experience, but inevitably the way it reads is so predictable. We flew down to somewhere in Central America, and we got off the plane. It was really hot. And we got on the bus. And 20 miles outside of the village, our bus broke down, but we got picked up by a chicken truck and taken into town. And then over the course of my time there, I went expecting to help others, but it was, in fact, me who was changed. And even just when you first start reading that essay, you're like, oh, here it comes again. Ira Glass Most college essays are pretty bad. Rick estimates that only one out of every 20 or so essays that he reads is any good at all, that is, 19 bad ones if you're counting at home. But he says that he and his colleagues believe that they themselves are partly to blame for the essay questions that they actually put onto the applications, questions that always get the same mundane, suck-uppy answers from kid, after kid, after kid. Colleges just market themselves so aggressively to so many people. Rick Clark There's a girl that lives just on our street, and she's a senior this year. And she brought me over the stack of mail that she got from schools. I mean, this was just the last two months worth of mail, and it had to be two feet tall. And opening those up, I mean, they do start to just-- you put your hand over the name of the school, and it could be any place. Ira Glass It's funny when you put it that way. It's almost like the schools are being as generic in what they're saying to the students as the students are to the schools. Rick Clark That's right. Nobody puts dead squirrels on the front of their college brochure. I mean, it's all football teams winning, beautiful sunny day, kids under a tree with a professor. I mean, that's every other page. It just runs together. Ira Glass Rick Clark, director of admissions at Georgia Tech. Go Jackets. Act Two: My Ames is True Ira Glass Act two, "My Ames is True." So Michael Lewis is a pretty well-known writer and reporter. His books, Moneyball, The BlindSide, and The Big Short were made into movies. His bestsellers about Wall Street include Liar'sPoker and Flash Boys. But this particular story happens long before he was writing books. He was in seventh grade in New Orleans, trying to avoid reading them. Michael Lewis And the English teacher, Mr. Downer, asked us to write a book report on a novel called JohnnyTremain. And I went home and I looked at the book. And I noticed on the back-- there was this great book report with the book, and it was just on the back of the book. Ira Glass Oh, you mean a little summary? Michael Lewis Little summary. And I just copied it out and handed it in and [INAUDIBLE] with it. It came back with an A on it. And it says, "See me" on the top in big red ink. And I go to see Mr. Downer, and he says, that's plagiarism. Oh, my god. What's plagiarism? Ira Glass You had never heard of it? Michael Lewis Never heard of it. And the concept was alien to me. I mean, I just thought it was an odd concept because you repeat what other people say all the time. I was just repeating what someone else said. It just seemed like a very intelligent thing to repeat. And I was telling him this. I thought I was saving us all a lot of trouble. Ira Glass Saving us trouble, like? Michael Lewis It'll save him the trouble of reading something really awful. And I wouldn't have to write a boring book report or even read the boring book. I was doing both of us a favor. And it seemed kind of counterintuitive to have to generate a thing that had already been done. Ira Glass Mr. Downer does not agree, and the middle school principal decides to expel Michael. Ira Glass And at this point, do you understand what's wrong with what you've done? Michael Lewis No, I'm indignant. I understand I'm supposed to feel it's wrong, but I don't feel it's wrong. Ira Glass Michael Lewis says, by the way, if you are a seventh grader hearing us talk about this right now and you want to try this with one of his books in your classroom, you totally have his blessing. He wishes you the best, though he is pretty sure you're going to get the same results that he did. Anyway, ultimately, his parents get involved. Seventh grade Michael Lewis is not expelled from school. Michael Lewis But what I have to do is write 100 times a phrase that Mr. Downer has written on the blackboard, "I will not plagiarize the work of others." Ira Glass Wait. Michael Lewis The punishment is to plagiarize 100 times, over, and over, and over. And I didn't understand really the point of this because I thought, well, this is just plagiarizing again. And if this is the way they just want to show me that it's supposed to be harder work to plagiarize, that was it. [LAUGHTER] Ira Glass This has become one of the stories that Michael has found himself telling now and then over the years. Michael Lewis Every now and then, I wheel it out. And at some point, it occurred to me that the mere fact I like this story says an awful lot about me. Ira Glass And so what does this one say about you? Michael Lewis Well, I think it rhymes with sort of my worldview and the general sense that authority is often absurd, a general sense that punishments often don't fit crimes, a general sense that often things that are supposed to be wrong don't actually feel wrong, and maybe they aren't as wrong as people say. Ira Glass You know, we all have certain stories from our childhoods that we trot out from time to time, out of all the thousands of things that ever happened to us. And usually, it's not many stories that we'll actually trot out, right? And the choices that we make, you know, the selection that we make of which incidents we find ourselves telling people, it says so much about us and how we see the world, which ones we pick. And I bring all this up because the actual real story that Michael Lewis is here on the radio show today to report is a very good example of that. Of course, this is our "How I Got Into College" show, so this is the story of how one guy, named Emir Kamenica, got into college, but it's also an illustration of this other thing. Anyway, here's Michael. Michael Lewis I think if I were telling you Emir's story, I'd probably just start at the very beginning, how he was born in Bosnia in 1978, how he grew up in Sarajevo with loving parents and a happy family. But it's his story, so let's let him tell it the way he tells it. Emir Kamenica All right. Well, I guess the natural place to start the story might just be the outset of the war. I was 13 at the time. The war, from my perspective, because I wasn't particularly paying attention to the political situation, comes truly out of nowhere. It's sort of one morning, you wake up expecting the world will look just the way it did yesterday, and instead there are these people in leather jackets with stockings on their heads and machine guns in their hands. Michael Lewis So the Serb troops hadn't gotten to his neighborhood yet. And one Sunday, his mother took Emir and his sister across the river to visit his great aunt. The walk was about a mile. Emir Kamenica So when we realized this might not have been a good idea is that we start crossing this bridge, some shooting starts. And it's clear some people are shooting at us because you can see the bullets ricochet around. And we just kind of run. Michael Lewis They managed to get to the other side of the bridge without getting shot, but they couldn't go back. And his dad was trapped back where they lived. The Serb troops ended up killing a lot of the men in Emir's old neighborhood and raping the women. But when Emir tells the story, he stresses just how lucky they were to get out, for example, how lucky they were to hitch a ride from two women, complete strangers, and to join a convoy of 5,000 Bosnian refugees, all of them women and children fleeing for the Croatian coast, how lucky it was that they owned a camper near the beach where they spent the summers, how lucky it was that it was May, when the weather was warm, how lucky they were even after the weather turned cold and their camper became uninhabitable. Emir Kamenica Which was actually another pure, fortuitous coincidence. My mother happened to be in a market and ran across a woman who was my sister's homeroom teacher in Sarajevo. Michael Lewis This woman happened to be moving to London and needed someone to watch her apartment, more good luck. Clearly, there was some bad luck too, but Emir doesn't mention it. I have to prod him to fill in the piece of the story he most obviously leaves out. Michael Lewis So let me stop you for a second. Emir Kamenica Yeah. Sorry, go on. Michael Lewis I was going to ask you, do you know exactly what happened to your father? Emir Kamenica I don't know exactly what happened. What I do know is that a neighbor of ours, a person who lived in our high rise, he found my father's body on the street, and he took him to the local cemetery and buried him. So we at least do know where he is. Michael Lewis Anyway, Emir and his mom and his sister moved into this apartment in a city crawling with hostile Croat nationalists. His mother wasn't allowed to work. And before long, Emir and his sister weren't allowed to go to school. When he went outside, Emir would be chased by these thugs who wanted to beat him up just because he was Muslim. His family wasn't even faintly religious, so he thought this was especially bizarre. He was stuck inside this apartment. In his telling, he did almost nothing but read books. Emir Kamenica So I would get the books from the local library. I would sort of run there to make sure I don't encounter any of the nationalists that are trying to prove their patriotism by beating me up. Michael Lewis And I'm trying to picture this, actually. So you're actually running through the streets with library books under your arms and running back with other library books under your arms? Emir Kamenica Yeah. It was library books. I also tried to teach myself a few things. Because eventually, you get bored of reading novels, so I tried to learn some more physics. I read a lot of Freud, which I decided was not that good. And one of the books I read was called The Fortress, by an author called Mesa Selimovic. And I do not know why. I guess, 15, I was impressionable. I was very much moved by that novel. Michael Lewis I've never actually read TheFortress. But according to the description on the back of the book, it's about a young man who, quote, "overcomes the psychological anguish of war, only to find that he has emerged a reflective and contemplative man in a society that does not value the subversive implications of these qualities." Emir loved the book. He read it over and over. One day, his mother announces that they'd had another lucky break. Out of a million Bosnian refugees, they are among the first few thousand being handed tickets to the United States. They packed to leave, but all Emir has is some T-shirts, blue jeans, and this library book. Emir Kamenica Which is still in my room. And so when we're packing to leave, I decide to bring it with me to the US as my most prized possession. Michael Lewis So when you take this book, are you sensitive to the fact you're stealing a library book? Emir Kamenica I am entirely aware of that, yeah. I didn't feel like the community or the town had treated me very nicely, so I perhaps had less guilt than I might have in other circumstances. Michael Lewis The UN dropped Emir and his mom and his sister in Atlanta, which was as good as any other place since they didn't know a soul in the entire country. They were picked up at the Atlanta airport along with an older Bosnian couple they don't know at all and taken to their new home. Emir Kamenica And we pull into this apartment complex. And I remember very well when the van stopped, I just saw this look of terror on my mother and sister's faces. So I immediately turned to them, reassuring, said, oh, no, no, no. They're not dropping us off here. This is just where this couple is going. We're going elsewhere. So the guy opened the door. The other couple got out. And I just sort of, with my hand, signaled to my mother and sister to sit still because surely, surely this is not where we're going. But in fact, that was where we were going, and it's just horrible. There's cockroaches running all over the place. Michael Lewis So far as he could tell, there weren't any other white people in the neighborhood. And to Emir, this whole black people, white people thing was an entirely new experience. But the first thing that struck him was that the black people didn't really seem to like the white people very much. Emir Kamenica Which was particularly ironic, given that, first, I don't know that I'm Muslim. All of a sudden, people try and kill me because they think I'm Muslim. I did not know I was white. Now, all of a sudden, these kids want to beat me up because I'm white. Michael Lewis Once again, he couldn't leave his home without feeling a little bit scared, even when he went to school, which was called Clarkston High. Sitting in his literature class one day, Emir heard a kid get shot right outside the classroom. Emir Kamenica The teacher was reading out loud from Romeo and Julietat the time. I'm not sure if others noticed the kind of appropriateness. There was lots of racial tension. I was one of, I would guess, like 12 or 20 white kids in a school of 900. There were lots of fights, lots of fighting. Probably the worst class of all, by far, was this biology class. And the teacher there-- this was, I think, his first year of teaching. And he did not have any method for controlling the students. So one day, he brought a bunny to class, but the other students decided that it would be much more entertaining to use the bunny as a soccer ball. So they would just kick the bunny around while the teacher sort of ran around the classroom, trying to stop this. The bunny survived, but it looked like he'd gone blind. One of his eyes was completely mangled. Michael Lewis In those first few months, Emir made just a single friend, another Bosnian refugee named Emil. Emir and Emil were inseparable, but they were joined mainly by their fear of everyone else. Michael Lewis And how is your English at this point? Emir Kamenica Terrible. Michael Lewis That was another problem. He says he couldn't really talk to the other kids or his teachers, and so he sort of walked around the school in silence, like a mute. To improve his English, he returned to The Fortress, the novel he'd stolen from the Croatian library. At night, he'd sit down with a dictionary and translate The Fortress from Bosnian to English. Emir Kamenica It was useful because it did improve my English, and it also gave me the sense of sort of-- it made me feel literary. It made me feel like I was creating something beautiful. Michael Lewis So he was back to sitting alone in his room with his novel. But as Emir tells it, all of this really just set the stage for his biggest stroke of luck, the one that would not only get him into college, but would change his entire life. It came in the form of a teacher who descended for maybe two weeks upon his English classroom. Emir remembers only her last name, Ames, Miss Ames. Or maybe it was Mrs. Ames. He thinks she was an intern training to be a teacher. Anyway, she wasn't around for very long. Unlike his regular teacher, she was full of energy. She tried all these new tricks to engage their interest. One day, she handed out these photographs to the kids. The one she gave to Emir was of a boy with a haunted look on his face, looking over his shoulder. Then she told them all to write an essay about the pictures. Emir Kamenica Write an essay-- that's a pretty difficult thing for me, given my limited knowledge of English. So first thought, I'm going to dread this task. But then I realized, there's this really beautiful passage, this beautiful chapter I had translated, I had worked on the previous night from The Fortress.So I decide to, pretty much, word for word replicate this passage and use that as my essay for Miss Ames. I still remember a little bit about what the passage was about. The protagonist has witnessed an injustice. I remember I closed my essay with this bit of internal monologue, which roughly says, "I'm slowly becoming a repository for decomposing sorrows, regrets, ignored injustice, forgotten promises. I can still feel its stench. But when I get accustomed to it, I will call it experience." And I think Miss Ames was impressed. Michael Lewis And since The Fortress had never been translated into English, there was exactly zero chance she'd ever catch him. Emir Kamenica What happened is, the next day, Miss Ames walks up to me and pretty much whispers into my ear, you have to get out of this school, which is not what you typically expect teachers to tell you in school. But I'm like, yeah, where? Where do I go? And she said, well, you know, there are private schools. I was like, well, don't those cost money? She says, well, some of them have financial aid. In fact, I have a job interview at a very nice private school on Monday. Why don't you just come with me and ask whether they have financial aid? And I was like, OK. So the following Monday, instead of going to Clarkston High in the morning, Miss Ames comes to pick me up at our apartment complex. And she drives me to midtown Atlanta to this just beautiful, wonderful school with manicured lawns. It just looks lovely. Michael Lewis This new place is called The Paideia School. He's never heard of it. Emir Kamenica So she goes to have her job interview, and I go to the admissions office. And there's the admissions officer. So she's sort of looking at me as sort of, so? And I remember pretty distinctly, I said, I am a Bosnian refugee. My school is really bad. Can I please go here? Michael Lewis You'd memorized that sentence? Emir Kamenica I think I had practiced it ahead of time. So it's stuck in my head because I had kind of planned this great pitch that I had, which is, I'm a Bosnian refugee. My school is really bad. Can I please go here? She points out to me that applications were due three months ago. She asked whether I need financial aid. I asked how much it would be. She said something, which to me, was equivalent

Sep 22nd
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Alex Mercedes

whew! so hard to listen to those Beckers.

Sep 19th
Reply

Michelle Walsh

7

Sep 15th
Reply

Michelle Walsh

73mb z's

Sep 15th
Reply

Michelle Walsh

rye %

Sep 15th
Reply

Michelle Walsh

yz

Sep 15th
Reply

Michelle Walsh

Oh no s6z5

Sep 15th
Reply

Michelle Walsh

77z9sz

Sep 15th
Reply

Damien Temperley

I love the stories but the vocal fry is really hard to listen to, which has turned this into my "listen to if I have nothing else".

Sep 15th
Reply

Hector Avena

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Sep 13th
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Peter Lansdale

TAL has stayed sooo good for sooo long. Mad props.

Sep 11th
Reply

Eduardo Rodriguez

dj

Sep 10th
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Natalia Maus

Beautiful final act. Thank you.

Sep 7th
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janelle mcleod

Just the opposite

Sep 7th
Reply

Christina Hernandez

janelle mcleod I'm al

Sep 22nd
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Gord Young

This is a re-run, but is probably my favourite ever TAL episode.

Sep 6th
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Ethan Morrison

the questions of loneliness follow what seems to be the question we ask ourselves as we grow. In adolescents we ask more existential questions. As we grow into a spouse those questions don't fade but me must also ask how to be a partner. later as a result of this we must now ask how to be a parent. The beauty of this had me crying

Sep 6th
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Disciple

this is an old episode.

Sep 5th
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Leen O

I love his Rent rant.

Sep 5th
Reply

Communardan X

This podcast is so lifeless and droll... Jesus lol

Sep 4th
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Trevor James Crookston

Absolutely loved this episode!

Sep 4th
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