Admission: Chapter One
"You've got Toni Morrison," said a girl with a long red braid, seated on the loor in front of the foremost couch.
"Okay. And twelve other Nobel laureates. Thirteen, if you count Woodrow Wilson." She smiled. "But who's counting? We're not the only university with an outstanding faculty."
"What about Albert Einstein?"
"Alas," she said, "we no longer have Einstein."
"No," the boy said, chagrined, "I mean ...he was there."
"Well, more or less. He was at the institute, not the university proper."
Due to the small matter of endemic academic anti-Semitism at the time. But why rain on her own parade? "Here's my point," said Portia. "At Princeton, we're all about the undergraduate. Yes, we have graduate programs. Graduate students are an important part of our community. But our professors are dedicated to the undergraduate. Now, you can go to a university with marquee-name faculty, and you can park yourself in a very large lecture theater and have your mind blown by an hourlong talk on Milton or Buñuel or fractals, or whatever it is you're into, but you may never get closer to that lecturer than the first row of the lecture hall. And for many students, that's just fine. But the ones we're looking for want more than that. If you're the kind of student who wants more than that, we hope you'll apply."
They laughed uncomfortably.
"Look, there is no mystery about this," she said bluntly. "There is no secret formula or hidden agenda. I'm going to tell you right now what we're looking for. We're looking for intellectual passion. What it's for—that's secondary. We are looking for the student who is so jazzed about ...whatever ...that he or she can't wait to get to Princeton and find out everything there is to know about it. And that's, by and large, not going to be the student who's content to sit in the lecture theater and take her notes, and take her exams, and collect her grade, and move on. We're looking for the students who are looking for our faculty."
Now there were expressions of real dismay as well. She wondered if she'd been too strong.
"Does this mean," she said, "that every Princeton undergraduate is a genius? A prodigy? Absolutely not. But what makes Princeton such an exciting place is that it's an environment where people care about ideas. We have a faculty who are doing work they're passionate about, and every fall, about twelve hundred bright and excited new students turn up to meet them and argue with them and learn from them. And that makes them happy." Portia shrugged. "Intellectuals ...can be strange." She laughed. "But sometimes that's what I think admissions really is: the care and feeding of the Princeton faculty. We procure fresh young minds to keep them busy, and I have to tell you, we're very good at it."
She told them a story—true story—related to her some years before at a History Department party. The man who'd told her this was a post- colonialist in a limp suit, who'd had a student he was quite fond of, a sophomore from Pittsburgh. The student had a twin brother at another Ivy league school, which she naturally refrained from naming, who was also majoring in history. One day, the professor had been in his office at around ten in the morning when this student arrived, his identical brother in tow.
"This is Peter," said the student.