9 Practical Tips for Effective Email Communication  

Photo by flickr user joelogon/Creative Commons license.

Image by flickr user joelogon/Creative Commons license.

Email dominates every waking minute of our day – but only if we let it. Instead of pursuing the elusive and utopian Inbox Zero, try these incremental changes to restore some sanity to your professional email correspondence. Master these tips and your professional network will thank you.

  1. Remove that comically long email signature after the first message. This makes it easier for you and others to scan a long email string for a specific piece of information buried somewhere in the conversation. If anyone needs info contained within your email signature they can still find it by scrolling down to the initial message.
  2. Use deadlines to help others understand your intended timeline for completion. Include a simple sentence like, “My goal is to have this complete by 4 p.m. today.” Avoid vague phrases like “ASAP” that tend to create confusion regarding expectations for completion. Communicate specific deadlines to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  3. Use the Drafts folder. Not sure about the tone of an important message? Worried your message might come across the wrong way? Save it to the Drafts folder and revisit the next morning or even the next week. After sleeping on it for a few days you might think better of sending the email and opt instead for a phone call or in-person meeting.
  4. Consider batching your email times so you can focus on important-but-not-urgent projects. Completing long-term projects requires periods of uninterrupted focus, and constantly checking and replying to emails makes this nearly impossible. Unless your job requires truly constant monitoring, have the confidence to close down the email and focus on one thing at a time.
  5. When emailing a group, specify which recipients you are expecting to take action. The more people copied on any given message the less likely anyone will respond. What often happens is everyone assumes someone else is going to answer the question or complete the task. This is similar to outfielders having a protocol for handling fly balls that land between positions. Clearly stating what action you expect recipients to take will also avoid unnecessary follow up emails.
  6. Avoid using Bcc except for rare occasions. Using the blind carbon copy feature is perceived by many as devious and even conniving. Be transparent about your communication and avoid using the Bcc feature. The rare exception is when you’re emailing a large group and don’t want to expose everyone to a potential reply all chain.
  7. Assume your message will be read by people it was not intended for and keep this in mind as you’re drafting the message. Out of convenience — and sometimes out of carelessness — people will forward emails to others you did not intend to read the original message. This can cause confusion and embarrassment for the original sender who wrote the message specifically for the intended recipient. Similarly, practice good email etiquette and ask the original sender before forwarding to new recipients if you have any doubts about the intended privacy of the message.
  8. Stop sending non-urgent emails after work hours. Replying to emails at 11 p.m. is not impressing anyone — you’re only contributing to the work/life balance issues that tend to bubble up in any professional work environment. Clarify expectations with colleagues and supervisors ahead of time. If replying outside of work hours is not expected then don’t make the problem worse. Relax, decompress, and pick it up the next day. Everything will be fine.
  9. Don’t be the first to reply to a group email. Let someone else initiate the perpetual reply all email chain, unless the email is specifically addressed to you. By the time you get around to answering the initial email it will likely be resolved without any involvement required of you. More often than not an email sent to a large group is merely for informational purposes. Chime in to an existing conversation only if you have something substantive to add. Of course, use your best judgment in all situations. There may be occasions where the sender wants to have confirmation of receipt.

Do you have additional tips for effective email communication? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

New Startup Aims to Provide Nutrition for Those on the Go


MacroFuel founders set out with the goal to make consuming a balanced and nutritious diet simple and effortless.

Max Tave (Cornell) and his classmate, Gus, came up with the idea for MacroFuel last year after enduring the effects of missing meals and subsisting off energy drinks and cheap protein bars as a result of long nights studying in the school library.

They set out with the goal to make consuming a balanced and nutritious diet simple and effortless. They worked with some of Cornell’s top PhD food scientists to develop their initial product, a healthy, wholesome drink that aims to maximize physical and mental performance.

MacroFuel’s all-natural recipe and portable packaging are designed to satisfy all of the body’s macro- and micronutrient needs in 30 seconds or less. They worked with food scientists to make sure the product would blend well with water.

Max and his MacroFuel co-founders have witnessed early success so far, earning support from two venture accelerators and investment offers from other groups.

With an interest in pursuing the humanitarian aspect of the company, the MacroFuel founders are now exploring potential initiatives to improve nutrition developing nations. MacroFuel currently makes a nutritionally complete meal for under $1 (not including packaging) that requires only 16 ounces of cold water.

Max says his experience co-founding MacroFuel has boosted his leadership skills, particularly the importance of being a good teammate through active listening. “Leadership is all about creating a vision, aligning people, and motivating them to achieve that vision. Our team has achieved early success because we are all super motivated and believe in the vision our founders have created for the company.”

MacroFuel maintains a company culture that is open, fun, and competitive. Instead of micromanaging, the group has found success by focusing on robust discussions that lead to new ideas.

What advice would they offer to other startup founders? “Be scrappy,” Max recommends. Too many startups see early success and start splurging on offices with lavish amenities, only to see their initial success soon dry up. Max and the team at MacroFuel take a different approach by staying lean and investing every dollar back into the company.

Max also advises would-be startup founders to make sure they are prepared for the demanding lifestyle required to get a new company off the ground. “When you start a company you need to live and breathe your idea,” he cautions. “There is always room for improvement and things you can and should be doing to increase your chances for success.”

As for advice directed at fellow Sigma Nus, Max urges entrepreneurs to use alumni connections, both at the national and local level. “Sigma Nu has an amazing network, and the alumni want to help and share their experiences with you,” he counsels. “With our food startup, we were able to get in touch with experienced alumni who’ve been in our position running a young company.”

Sigma Nu’s Gamma Theta Chapter provided an environment that helped Max and his fellow brothers excel in the classroom and surrounding community. The brotherhood supported all the various endeavors, from the pursuit of competitive internships to campus-wide events that involved top Silicon Valley tech firms.

With leadership roles as Recruitment Chairman, Social Chairman, and Risk Reduction Chairman, Max says his Sigma Nu experience helped him develop the individual skills that would help him excel after college. The competitive but supportive chapter culture helped him further refine his entrepreneurial ideas.

Max and his team are looking to build off their early momentum by raising capital and opening up a second seed round. As with any startup, sustained success and eventual growth requires capital to build on the initial momentum.

Visit MacroFuel’s Kickstarter page to learn more about supporting their continued growth: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/macrofuel/macrofuel-fuel-your-life

Max Tave - MacroFuel

Co-counder Max Tave (Cornell) demonstrating MacroFuel’s ability to provide nutrition on the go.

The Delta of Sigma Nu – Summer 2015

Table of Contents



The Enduring Power of Quality Service
Bill Watson’s success in real estate is a testament to mastering the basics of sound business practices.

Bayou Baker
Pastry chef Dwayne Ingraham (Southern Mississippi) competes on the Hunger Games of
cooking shows.

Taming the Data Beast
How an under-30 startup CEO is using big data to help Fortune 500 companies turn profits.

An Authentic Shave
One startup founder’s quest for an authentic shave and values-driven entrepreneurship.


From the Editor
An introduction to the Summer 2015 issue.

A look back in history, plus updates from the General Fraternity office.

Chapter and Alumni News
Dispatches from around the country.

Book review: Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and William Strauss.

Plus the latest titles by Sigma Nu authors.

Higher Education
Exploring how a school’s prestige influences career trajectory.

Perspectives on Our Past
Grand Historian Bob McCully (San Diego State) chronicles Sigma Nu ties to iconic San Francisco landmarks.

Division Commander Chris Graham (Lamar) reflects on the challenges of advising today’s college students.


Chris Graham

Alumnus Chris Graham (Lamar/Stephen F. Austin), right, began his volunteer service in the early 1990s as Zeta Psi Chapter Advisor. He has since served as Zeta Psi House Corporation President and South Central Division Commander. Graham has been recognized by Sigma Nu as Chapter Advisor of the Year (2007) and twice as Division Commander of the Year (2010, 2014).

What do you think is challenging about working with today’s students rather than students from a previous generation?

Today you have so many communication mediums at your disposal, to me it’s harder now with the options available then it was back then. When I first started as an advisor there was no public internet. If you wanted to talk to someone you either had to find time to when you both could sit down and talk or you had to use the telephone.

Advisors have to come up with a communication medium that both he and the officer agree to. What is the communication standard between you and the officer you are advising? And you both have to agree to it.

What advice would you give to someone who just pledged Sigma Nu?

Don Humphreys had some words of wisdom at Grand Chapter that every candidate should listen to. He said very simply, “When faced with something new, you should go for it.”

Don’t become a candidate just because you want to say you’re a Sigma Nu, become a candidate because you want to be a Sigma Nu and want to make Sigma Nu better. Have a purpose and go for it, don’t just sit back and be the member in the back of the room or the member in the back of your candidate class who’s not doing something. You’re only going to get out of it what you put into it – that’s an age old saying – But I don’t think it’s ever truer than for a candidate.

What do you think are some of Sigma Nu’s best traditions?

I love going to any candidate and initiation ceremony, any chapter meeting; it’s very important to me that I have those opportunities to attend because they remind me of why I’m a Sigma Nu. It’s what we agreed to in our vows: to honor the five objects laid down by our founders. You are reminded of why you do what you do, why you behave the way you behave, what you want to be known for, what you want to stand for. It’s a constant reminder.

What do you think makes a great Alumni Advisory Board?

Wherever possible, bringing in diversity really seems to foster growth and strengthen the collegiate chapter.

Zeta Chi’s (Houston) AAB is almost an all-star team. It’s because of several things that are there: there’s a huge diversity of age, the positions they held in the chapters, and what chapters they came from. To see the information coming from other chapters on how they did things, to help strengthen their chapters has been really great.

Additionally, with Zeta Chi Chapter wanting to become a Rock Chapter, actually finding some advisors that were part of Rock Chapters, so they really understand that commitment that it takes. The advisors ability to express that and to see that dialogue taking place between the officers and the advisors has been really encouraging and has given me ideas on how to strengthen some of the other AABs that I have.

What are some of the best things you have seen AABs put in place?

Recently I watched an AAB take an approach during officer transition that I think has a lot of potential. The transition was designed by taking the Pursuit of Excellence Program and breaking it down by what each officer or committee chairman was responsible for. It’s not just looking at the officer manual, but taking the Pursuit of Excellence Program and what it takes to be excellent in each criteria and determining who really has the responsibility to make sure that happens.

It’s amazing when you spread that out, it’s pretty much every officer, every chairman in the chapter that has a responsibility for bringing in the information and putting it into the submission.


Sigma Nu and San Francisco – A Golden Pairing

Golden Gate Bridge with fog cropped

By Grand Historian Bob McCully (San Diego State)

Everybody loves San Francisco and chocolate!  Well, almost everyone.  My topics in this column are about two icons of San Francisco: one considered among the seven wonders of the modern world and the other, a famous San Francisco confection. Both celebrated notable anniversaries recently and, more importantly have strong connections with Sigma Nu.

I’ve lived just north of San Francisco for over 40 years.  During my professional career, I crossed the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge almost every day. The drive across the bridge is always stunning – whether the sun is shining or the fog is pouring through the Gate.  The Bay Area celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the bridge in 2012.

However, it’s only recently that I learned of the strong connection during the construction of the bridge with Sigma Nu.  It involves our two oldest chapters in the West and another on the opposite side of the country, in Pennsylvania.  In addition, there’s a connection with two Regents of Sigma Nu and two chapter founders.

My second topic is the story of the second oldest chocolate factory in the United States.  This year celebrates the 163rd Anniversary of its beginnings in San Francisco. It’s the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, founded in 1852, well before Sigma Nu was even a thought in the mind of our Founders.

Spanning the Golden Gate

John C. Fremont: an American military officer, explorer and politician, named the strait between San Francisco and Marin County.  He called it Chrysopylae, or “Golden Gate” because it reminded him of a harbor in Istanbul called Chrysoceras – or the “Golden Horn”.

Dreams of spanning the Golden Gate between San Francisco and Marin County go back to the early days of California’s statehood.  Engineers proposed various ideas, but none of them went very far; the task just seemed too daunting.  The distance to span, the depth of the channel, the powerful tidal currents, and the high winds made it almost foolhardy to even try.  Its fog and rocky reefs resulted in over 100 shipwrecks – not to mention the political battles and special interests that aligned themselves against a bridge ever being built.

Most engineers of the time felt it was physically impossible to construct a bridge over the Golden Gate.  The length required to span the strait, combined with the water’s depth (372 feet at its deepest), would be a monumental task if it were even feasible.  The powerful tides were a result of the Pacific Ocean, twice a day, pouring millions of cubic feet of water into the San Francisco Bay every second. Countered by the rivers of the Central Valley of California pushing right back into the Pacific twice a day.  The rivers drained over 40% of California’s massive interior land mass.


The political realities of building a bridge across the Golden Gate were just as formidable – some said they made the construction of a bridge the easy part.  The City of San Francisco in the 1930’s had a population of around 500,000.  Marin County, across the strait, only had a population of around 50,000.  Oakland on the east side of the Bay (population 300,000) and the southern part of the San Francisco Peninsula down to San Jose and Monterey, were responsible for most of the commerce with San Francisco.  The thirteen counties north of the Gate had tiny populations in comparison.

Golden Gate Bridge from the west side

California’s legislature established the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District (the “GGBHD”) at the end of 1928 to design, construct and finance a bridge.  However, only six of the thirteen northern counties voted to become a part of the GGBHD.  It’s not surprising when voters realized they’d be required to guarantee the repayment of the construction bonds, whether a bridge got built or not.

Powerful special interests lined up against a bridge as well.  The railroads, then operating most of the ferries and barges on the bay, were dead set against it.  The timber interests in the northern counties felt new residents would fight against logging the vast redwood forests. Dairymen and ranchers believed that hikers and campers would interfere with the grazing of their livestock.  Environmentalists were upset that it would damage the natural beauty of the Golden Gate. The military, which owned the property on both sides of the Golden Gate, opposed the plan because of concern that the destruction of a bridge during wartime could block the harbor.  All had strong lobbies and fought strenuously against a bridge.  Plaintiffs filed 2,307 lawsuits, and they took over six years to resolve – eventually making it all the way to the Supreme Court.

After all the lawsuits were concluded, and approvals obtained, the GGBHD still had to approve and sell bonds to finance the construction of the bridge – during the very heart of the Great Depression.  With minor involvement by the federal government, the District successfully sold the bonds, and the Bridge began construction in 1933.  Four years later, at a cost of $35 million and 11 lives, workers completed the bridge – $2 million under the original estimate.

Sigma Nus Step up to the Task

Francis V. Keesling (Stanford) served as Regent of Sigma Nu from 1906-1908.  After graduating from Stanford, he earned a law degree and became a successful attorney and civic leader in San Francisco.  After an unsuccessful run for governor of California, he successfully ran for the Board of Supervisors, the political body that governs San Francisco.  The Supervisors appointed him as one of the first board members of the new GGBHD. In addition, he served as chairman of the crucial building committee for the bridge from 1929-1937, through the bridge’s completion.

Two other Sigma Nus –Henry Westbrook, Jr. (Cal/Berkeley) and Arthur M. Brown, Jr. (Cal/Berkeley) joined Keesling on the twelve member GGBHD board. Westbrook represented one of the northern counties (Del Norte), and Brown represented San Francisco. Effectively 25% of the total board, the three Sigma Nus provided strong and effective leadership in the many daunting, and some thought insurmountable, obstacles faced.

Close up of Golden Gate Bridge

A detailed list of those obstacles is beyond the scope of my column. Suffice it to say, eight years after establishing the GGBHD, on May 28, 1937 the bridge, that many felt was impossible, was opened to auto traffic with the official dedication ceremony.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from the White House, pressed a telegraph key to open the span officially.  Past Regent Keesling, delivered the closing speech at the dedication over national radio and ended with the following:

“We wish that this Golden Gate Bridge may remind the traveler as he leaves or approaches his native shore and also everyone who views it of the liberty and glory of his country where life, liberty, and happiness have so long persisted, so that he may be re-consecrated and, as a result of his “high resolve,” actively devote himself, as he should, to his country’s problems so that the continuity of life, liberty and happiness may be assured.”

A week-long Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta of various events around the city celebrated the opening of the bridge.  Several evenings during the Fiesta, a spectacular outdoor pageant dramatized eight episodes from California’s history.  Another Sigma Nu, B. Kendrick Vaughn (Cal/Berkeley), later to serve as Sigma Nu’s Regent from 1958-1960, managed this enormous production of 3,000 participants. To provide a sense of its immensity, here’s a section of the promotion for the pageant from the official program for the Fiesta:

The Span of Gold, with JOHN CHARLES THOMAS, famous baritone and cast of 3000.  An embellished Historical Pageant of the History of California from primitive times to statehood – presented in eight stirring episodes climaxing in the breath-taking illumination of the Bridge for the first time – the greatest Pageant ever seen in the West – bringing to life the very spirit of the Fiesta – staged in an incomparable setting in the world’s largest outdoor theatre at Crissy Field in the Presidio.”

Our Eastern Connection

However, Sigma Nu’s involvement was not only at the political level, but also with a critical construction component of the bridge itself.  The Art Deco designed bridge rests on a concrete base with a steel structure – 83,000 tons of structural steel to be exact.  That steel is where Sigma Nu’s eastern connection comes into the picture.

Sigma Nu installed our Lehigh University chapter in 1885, and two of its charter members were Charles D. Marshall and Howard H. McClintic, II.  They both graduated from Lehigh’s young civil engineering program.  Shortly after graduating, the two partnered in starting up a steel manufacturing firm, McClintic-Marshall, which, over the next forty years, would grow to become the largest independent steel manufacturing company in the country.  Some of their many significant projects included the Marshall Field Store in Chicago; the George Washington Bridge and Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York; half of the floors of the Empire State Building; the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Canada and the locks of the Panama Canal.  The company was so successful that they were acquired in 1931 by Bethlehem Steel – although they continued operating as McClintic-Marshall for several years after that.

The Bridge District chose the firm to supply the structural steel for the Golden Gate Bridge.  McClintic-Marshall manufactured the steel, all 83,000 tons, in the East and shipped it to San Francisco through the Panama Canal over a six-month period to coincide with the building phases.

Sigma Nu’s involvement with the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t end when it opened in 1937.  William H. Harrelson (Stanford), entered the first class at Stanford University in 1891.  He played quarterback on the football team when Herbert Hoover, later President of the United States, was the team manager.  After a successful career as an owner of a large construction company and banker, the District hired him in 1937 as the general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge.  He served in the position up until 1942, when he retired for health reasons.

Thus, Sigma Nus played crucial roles in ensuring the Golden Gate Bridge became a reality.  Today, more than 75 years later, it remains an endearing image for residents and visitors to San Francisco alike.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Company – 163rd Anniversary

In 1849, during the California Gold Rush, an Italian immigrant, Domenico Ghirardelli, came to seek his fortune in the gold fields.  He soon discovered that his road to success was not chasing ore, but utilizing the retail and entrepreneurial experience he developed as a young man. The onslaught of prospectors driven by the dream of striking it rich resulted in an enormous need for supplies of food and tools.  Seizing the opportunity, Ghirardelli opened a general store selling supplies and confections in Stockton and later in San Francisco.

Ghirardelli Square – San Francisco.

Ghirardelli Square – San Francisco.

While growing up in Italy, he apprenticed at an early age to a candy maker.  With this knowledge, in 1852 he imported two hundred pounds of cocoa beans and started making chocolates.  In the same year, he incorporated the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco.  It is the second oldest chocolate company in the United States, behind Baker’s Chocolate in Massachusetts.

Until 1963, descendants of the founder owned and operated the business.  Six initiates of our Beta Psi Chapter at the University of California, Berkeley were among those descendants.

A Timely Discovery

One of the reasons Ghirardelli was so successful is due to a monumental discovery, made entirely by accident.  Prior to the mid-1860’s, chocolate was a very perishable commodity.  Due to its high fat content, it was not transportable long distances without spoiling. Thus, the geographical market for chocolate manufacturers was small.

By chance, bags of chocolate paste were left hanging and forgotten in a hot room at the Ghirardelli factory.  Over time, fat seeped out of the bags leaving a greaseless residue behind.  Ghirardelli found that this residue could be ground, sweetened and easily made into hot cocoa and other items.  The miracle was that it was nonperishable and could be shipped great distances.  With the opening of the first transcontinental railroad several years later, Domingo Ghirardelli hit the pay dirt he never found in his short time in the gold fields of California.

Ghirardelli chocolates were very successful up until World War II.  However, during the war, the military entered into a contract with Hershey’s to provide all the chocolate bars for troops in Europe and the Pacific.  Due to that agreement, 75% of the chocolates consumed during the war were made by Hershey’s and transformed the country into lovers of Hershey’s chocolates.  This transformation resulted in a demise in the fortunes of the Ghirardelli company.

Entrance to Ghirardelli

Domingo Ghirardelli’s Grandsons

After Domingo Ghirardelli retired in 1889, his three sons took over operations of the business.  One of the sons, Louis, also had three sons – Alfred, Louis and Harvey, who attended the University of California at Berkeley. They all initiated into Sigma Nu and went on to run the company in various capacities.

Alfred Ghirardelli (Cal/Berkeley), the oldest son of Louis initiated into Sigma Nu in 1902.  He graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with the “earthquake class” of 1906 – so called because their final months were interrupted in April, 1906 by the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  Alfred was at the Sigma Nu house when the earthquake struck at just after 5:00 am.  He was extremely concerned about the status of the factory, housed then in brick buildings in San Francisco.  He hired a boat to ferry him across the Bay and found that the facility was largely intact and had sustained only minimal damage.

After graduation, due to his engineering training, he worked with the company’s chief engineer. In 1944, upon the retirement of his uncle, he took over the presidency.  He served as president until 1955 when his health declined, forcing him to retire.

Alfred’s brother, Louis L. Ghirardelli (Cal/Berkeley), followed his older brother to Berkeley and was initiated into Sigma Nu in 1906. He also later joined the family company and due to his outgoing, warm and gregarious nature eventually was put in charge of sales for the business.

Their youngest brother, Harvey T. Ghirardelli (Cal/Berkeley), initiated into Sigma Nu in 1909.  He was detail oriented by nature, and once he moved into the family’s operations, he became the plant manager.  Upon Alfred’s retirement as president in 1955, Harvey took over the presidency.

A fourth grandson of Domingo was Virgil W. Jorgensen (Cal/Berkeley), initiated in 1907.  He was close to his cousins and worked for the Ghirardelli company for many years.

The remaining two Sigma Nu connections to the Ghirardelli chocolate company were Robert O. Ghirardelli (Cal/Berkeley), initiated in 1932 and Chris W. Anderson (Cal/Berkeley) initiated in 1939.  Robert, the son of Harvey T. Ghirardelli, was a legacy when initiated into the chapter.  Although he worked for the company, he had an artistic bent that kept him from being heavily involved in the management of the firm.  When he died, in 1990, he was the last descendant of Domingo Ghirardelli to bear the family name.  Chris Anderson also worked for the company but did not play a significant role in its operations.

Selection of Ghirardelli chocolates

The Ghirardelli family sold the company in 1963, ending their more than 100-year connection with the business.  The Swiss company Lindt & Sprungli, now owns Ghirardelli Chocolates.  It has once again risen to be part of one of the top chocolate manufacturing firms in the world.  Thanks to the Ghirardelli family, it will always be a sweet reminder of San Francisco.

The next time you visit San Francisco, appreciate the beautiful Art Deco Golden Gate Bridge with its surrounding natural beauty and pay a visit to Ghirardelli Square.  As you enjoy these San Francisco landmarks, don’t forget their connection with Sigma Nu.

Higher Education

Beyond Elite: Life After Rejection from a Top College

Nassau Hall on the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy of Flickr user James Loesch.

Nassau Hall on the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy of Flickr user James Loesch.

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)

IN a March 15 article entitled “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni laid out what he saw as the chief problem of the college admissions process: the effects of an increasingly large number of rejections coming from elite colleges.

Take Harvard’s class of 2018 as an example. Of the 34,295 applications the school received, only 2,048 were granted admission, or about 6%. The year before, Harvard set a record for the most applications it has ever received: 35,022. Similarly, Princeton, Penn, Brown, Yale, and Columbia all received large numbers of applications and accepted less than 10% of applicants for the class of 2018. Along with the Ivy League schools, other elite colleges maintain low admission rates. MIT admitted less than 8% of its applicants and Duke only 10.7% of its record-setting 32,506 applicants.

What’s behind this hyper-competitive admissions process? Bruni thinks it’s parents and potential students seeking a means to assess self-worth. “For too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or the University of Virginia or the University of Chicago is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when judgement is made,” writes Bruni.

The article proceeds to show that getting into an elite college isn’t “a conclusive measure of a young person’s worth.” Bruni sees many opportunities found on the other end of a rejection letter from an elite college and he chronicles the stories of two recent graduates who achieved high levels of success despite their initial rejection.

Peter Hart attended a state school after being rejected by his first choice at the University of Michigan. Through his own initiative, Hart managed to secure employment with prestigious management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group and later went on to pursue an MBA from Harvard. Another recent graduate, Jenna Leahy, was rejected from all of her top school choices but is now managing a charter school after a stint with Teach for America. “I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn’t been rejected so intensely before,” said Leahy.

“People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates.”

Bruni makes several admirable points in critiquing the rush to gain admittance in selective, elite colleges. For one, success may not come immediately or predictably, even for graduates of elite colleges. “People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates,” says Bruni. As an example, Bruni points to a high school classmate of Peter Hart’s – who despite a perceived advantage of attending Yale – also ended up working for Boston Consulting Group.

Along with his argument that a self-directed path to career success is still attainable, Bruni offers a less tangible consolation of attending a lower tier college. “The nature of a student’s college experience – the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed – matters more than the name of the institution attended,” says Bruni.

It is here that Bruni might agree most heartily with former University of Chicago president and liberal arts defender Robert Hutchins. “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives,” wrote Hutchins.

Bruni is laudable for showing that, through motivation and effort, individuals can form successful career paths on their own merit. Furthermore, in alluding to the less concrete goals of college, Bruni allows for a type of success that only comes through an examined life.

If there are weaknesses in Bruni’s argument, it is his overly narrow definition of success and inadequate description of how college – regardless of reputation – can lead to a meaningful life through self-examination.

In Bruni’s reporting on Peter Hart and Jenna Leahy, he emphasizes their employment by and selection into several highly respected institutions. Bruni also lists individuals who did not attend elite colleges who are in leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies or stand out in the prestigious startup school Y Combinator.

Implied in Bruni’s examples is the idea that organizations like Teach for America and Boston Consulting Group have confirmed that Hart, Leahy, and others like them are “successful.” Bruni’s argument still uses a paradigm that defines success as getting employed and admitted into the most prestigious and well-known companies, graduate schools, and organizations.

“The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”

For Bruni’s argument to work fully, it needs to consider a wider range of recent graduates who may not have ascended to the heights of a prominent career like Hart, Leahy, and Fortune 500 executives.

For every Teach For America and Boston Consulting Group alumnus, there are many more public high-school teachers and assistant managers at local grocery stores. How do these people define success? Might they have had more post-graduate opportunity with an elite college education vs attending a local college?

The reader is also left to wonder how a college education can contribute to a meaningful and successful life beyond giving one career prospects. How do college graduates find meaning in their lives? How might their college educations have contributed to their living an “examined life?”

The article also makes the vague claim that “education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways.” While this is certainly true, there are no examples to back up the claim.

Fraternity members are well familiar with these outside-the-classroom educational opportunities, but these and other students in similar groups are beyond the scope of Bruni’s thesis. No examples of the fraternity members who made lifelong friendships or athletes whose commitment to the team kept them accountable to class attendance are included. These considerations and questions Bruni leaves largely unexplored.

For the best example of how higher education can lead to a life of meaning, Bruni should consider the work of Scott Samuelson and his essay entitled “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers.” Samuelson, a community college professor, has extensive experience teaching philosophy to blue collar workers. “I recently got a letter from a former student, a factory worker, thanking me for introducing him to Schopenhauer,” recounts Samuelson. “The letter explained that I’d quoted some lines from Schopenhauer in class, and they’d sparked my student’s imagination.” Bruni would have done well to find someone similar to Samuelson’s factory worker to articulate the intangible benefits of college education.

Several interesting ideas are presented in “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness.” Bruni’s points about not defining self-worth as acceptance into elite colleges and allusion to the intangible benefits of higher education are well received.

However, if the goal of an education is purely focused on post graduate employment in high status institutions, potential students may be justified in feeling disappointment in rejection from elite colleges. After all, for every Peter Hart and Ivy League graduate, there will be many more recent graduates of average colleges who won’t ascend to prominent careers. That doesn’t mean that their college educations were a waste of resources or they won’t have successful lives.

Broadening the scope of success and better showing how college leads to a life of self-examination would further help prove Bruni’s thesis that college is still valuable beyond elite schools. Like the factory worker cited by Scott Samuelson, the reader may find that a college education has led to a lifetime of discovery and a love of learning.

Generational Generalizations Gone Wrong

How the guys who coined the word millennials missed the mark

By Jesse Walker

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and William Strauss, Vintage, 432 pages

When some parents of the 1980s and ’90s started sending their kids to schools where uniforms were required, who could have imagined the social consequences? Those dress codes became a core part of that rising generation’s identity—”a defining symbol of a much larger effort to clean up child behavior,” as one history of the trend recalls—setting the stage for the “compulsory uniformed service” that those same kids joined en masse after they left college. Even outside the service corps, young people took to wearing “‘general issue’ clothing reminiscent of the G.I.s.” With time the generation’s conformist style came to represent a “collective grandeur,” leading historians to see the millennials’ school and soccer uniforms “as harbingers of monumental deeds that came later.”

What’s that? You say you don’t remember any of that happening? Strange: It was predicted in such detail in Millennials Rising, a book published in the year 2000 by the court astrologers of the social sciences, William Strauss and Neil Howe. At that point, Strauss and Howe had spent nine years flogging a generation-based theory of social change that had just enough believability to hook an audience and just enough hubris to spin such wild speculations.

“Underlying those failed forecasts you’ll find a flawed theory.”

With this book, they turned their attention to the lives and worldviews of the millennials, their word—yes, they’re the ones who inflicted the term on us—for Americans born in the two decades following 1982. Looking back from 2014, how have those theories held up?

The saga of the uniforms was at least presented in conditional language: a tale that “may emerge,” not one that was sure to happen. At other times Strauss and Howe didn’t even include that caveat. Under millennial pop culture, they assured us, music will be more melodic, sitcoms will be more wholesome, and young people will turn against “the gothic genre” with its “pessimistic view of man as victim,” since that species of story “reminds them of what they sometimes find irritating about older generations.” (These changes “will be fully locked in” by 2010.) Millennial courtship rituals will stress “deference to parents.” Economic class “will rise above gender or race as a flashpoint for student political argument.” And the new generation will create a more common culture, reacting against the social fragmentation of previous decades. Somehow I missed those developments.

Even when Strauss and Howe’s predictions came true, they sometimes managed to be right in ways that suggest their larger theory of historical cycles was wrong. “Youth voting rates will rise,” they declared, and sure enough, the percentage of young people casting ballots rose in 2004 and again in 2008. Even so, the voting rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2008 was about the same as it had been when Generation Xers voted in 1992 and somewhat lower than when young boomers went to the polls in 1972—a sign that this might not be a break with prior generations after all. And in 2012, the rate started falling again.

The more sensible parts of the book came when the authors cooled down the breathless TED-talk prose (“Millennials will be a generation of trends”) to present some survey data about young people’s attitudes and give a refresher course on then-recent social history. It’s always easier to describe the present than to predict the future, and the authors astutely note developments ranging from the rise of charter schools to an increased national focus on kids’ safety.

When it comes to popular culture, though, they weren’t even adept guides to what was then the present. Millennials Rising spends a lot of time trying to establish that the arrival of wholesome pop stars like Britney Spears (remember when Britney Spears was wholesome?) and retro styles like the ’90s swing revival marked a major break with the “angry and alienated” music favored by Generation X. They seem unaware that the Xers bought their share of innocuous pop records in their teens too—poor Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, consigned to the ash heap of history—and they do not appear to have noticed that the swing revival was largely driven by Xers in their twenties and thirties, not millennials in their teens. And how did the authors deal with rap, today the dominant force in pop music? They reported it was “no longer connecting” with the young.

Underlying those failed forecasts you’ll find a flawed theory. For Strauss and Howe, generations are a series of discrete units of roughly uniform size, one following another in a largely predictable pattern. A team-oriented “hero generation” does great deeds (like, say, winning World War II) and is followed by an “artist generation” born during the crisis. A post-crisis “prophet generation,” like the baby boom, then leads an “awakening.” Then we get a “nomad generation,” like the Xers, and after that we’re set for another cohort of heroes.

Our theorists nodded here and there to historical contingency—acknowledging, for example, that there is no rigid length to the period that constitutes a generation. They even decided, in the one great rupture in the cycle they think they’ve identified, that the U.S. skipped a hero generation in the middle of the 19th century. But they were confident enough in their pattern to make concrete predictions and to assign personalities to entire generations.

Those mass personalities, in fact, are central to how the book defined a generation in the first place. A generation, Strauss and Howe wrote, is “a society-wide peer group, born over a period roughly the same length as the passage from youth to adulthood (in today’s America, around twenty or twenty-one years), who collectively possess a common persona.” They accepted the existence of exceptions and edge cases, but they insisted a core persona is there.

“It’s always easier to describe the present than to predict the future.”

Contrast that with Karl Mannheim’s “The Problem of Generations,” a 1923 essay that has become a touchstone for sociologists studying generational change. Like Strauss and Howe, Mannheim defined a generation not just by when its members were born but by the events that shaped their worldviews in their youth. Unlike Strauss and Howe, Mannheim did not write as though those events shape an entire generation the same way. Instead he wrote of different “generation units” with different reactions to their formative experiences. The Napoleonic wars, he elaborated, produced “two contrasting groups” in Germany, “one that became more and more conservative as time went on, as against a youth group tending to become rationalistic and liberal.” (For a more recent example, consider the ways different American boomers reacted to the upheavals of the 1960s.) For Mannheim, those opposing units still belong to the same social cohort: “they are oriented toward each other, even though only in the sense of fighting one another.” But they did not have the “common persona” that Strauss and Howe imagined.

Mannheim also had the sense to see that a biological generation “need not evolve its own, distinctive pattern of interpreting and influencing the world,” since those biological rhythms will not necessarily be matched by a parallel set of influential historical moments. In a passage that should serve as a warning to anyone tempted by Strauss and Howe’s schematics, he cautioned against “a sort of sociology of chronological tables…which uses its bird’s-eye perspective to ‘discover’ fictitious generation movements to correspond to the crucial turning points in historical chronology.”

Strauss and Howe assigned Americans to different generations as though they were drawing lines on a map, inserting artificial borders that obscure the gradual rolling changes that define so much of the landscape. They apply the label Generation X, for example, to everyone born from 1962 to 1981. Hailing from 1970, I fall smack into the middle of the cohort; and yes, I recognize myself in much of what the authors said about my peers. But I’m also acutely aware of the differences in perspective between me and those fellow Gen Xers who were born about a decade before or after.

Consider the period that came after the cultural revolutions of the ’60s and before the heightened restrictions on minors’ freedoms that began to arrive in the ’80s. Americans who experienced this time as teenagers had rather different early lives than those of us who experienced it as preadolescents and then hit our teens in a more closely controlled epoch. The youngest Xers essentially missed it altogether, getting childhoods more like the millennials’.

I suspect that writers from Strauss and Howe’s other generations could similarly divide their cohorts into finely cut segments, with some slices exerting more cultural pull than others. Some millennials were in college on 9/11; some were in elementary school; some weren’t born yet. Do all these people really belong to the same generation at all, in Mannheim’s sense of the word? Like the uniforms they failed to wear, their uniformity existed only in Strauss and Howe’s heads.

This review originally appeared in Reason magazine’s October 2014 issue. Jesse Walker is the books editor for the publication.


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