Stop the madness

Admissions officers at top-rated colleges prescribe time out for burnout.


Maura Kelly
December 16, 2000 1:30AM (UTC)

In a front-page New York Times article last week, admissions officers from the nation's top-rated colleges bemoaned the fact that new students were arriving on their campuses drained and frazzled after competing for places in their hallowed halls. In the article, titled "Ease Up, Top Colleges Tell Stressed Applicants," the mostly Ivy League gatekeepers fretted that the admissions process "has become such a high-stress exercise in résumé-padding that students are arriving at their campuses on the brink of burnout."

A paper released earlier in the week by the Harvard University admissions office apparently prompted the Times' coverage. "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation," written by Harvard dean of admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons and other Harvard admissions officers, reported that today's students are significantly more stressed about getting the "right" college degree than previous generations were. Fitzsimmons and his colleagues added in the paper that, these days, the pressure to put together the right blend of talents and abilities often starts when children are infants and builds continuously, leading to self-destructive behavior or a sense of discontentment later in life.

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The observations of Fitzsimmons and those of his peers at other colleges quoted in the Times are hardly surprising to the students who are driving themselves or being driven by their parents to achieve greatness as defined by college entrance. Nor is it any mystery how the applications process has become a painful and frequently defeating exercise spanning a period of years.

More people apply for the same number of slots at a handful of institutions every year, in part because many of the schools intensified their marketing efforts and partly because their rankings have become a subject of intense media coverage. With more students than ever vying for places, the schools refined their selection criteria, creating intimidating expectations that applicants (and their parents) push harder and harder to meet.

Despite their public statements of concern for students who labor to the point of exhaustion to meet ever-higher standards of admission, the administrators of colleges quoted in the Times had little to offer in the way of relief. In their paper on burnout, Fitzsimmons and his co-authors at Harvard made some suggestions on how parents can help their kids to ease up -- by building "down-time" into the fabric of family life, for instance, or seeing that students use summer time for vacation or old-fashioned summer jobs instead of highly structured programs. But there was little in the paper, or in the Times, to suggest that concrete steps will be taken by admissions offices to reduce pressure on applicants.

We asked admissions officers at a selection of colleges (Harvard University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Dartmouth College, Williams College, Stanford University, Wellesley College and Yale University) if they had plans to go beyond offering sympathy to applicants -- by making changes that would offer relief in the applications process and by acknowledging, institutionally, the limits and needs of adolescents interested in a top quality college education. Writer-reporter Maura Kelly conducted the interviews for Mothers Who Think.

Harvard University: Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions

What steps are you taking to ensure that kids stop putting so much pressure on themselves to get into the most selective institutions?

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We want students to know that being busy, or over-commitment in and of itself, is not a quality that we respond favorably to in the admissions process. We are looking for people who are whole, who are balanced, who have some perspective. We hope candidates applying here -- and people in general -- pause to reflect on how they can make a difference.

We accept people at Harvard who have done well in the area they have chosen to commit themselves to, which is different from filling all the hours of the day with some kind of commitment or developing one's self without a kind of humane balance in one's life.

Are you taking any specific steps to relieve the pressure on high schools students?

I don't think there is much we can do beyond what we said in the paper. We wanted to point out that there are lots of pressure points along the way in life and parents and students can respond to them in any way they want, and that people are not admitted to Harvard according to our assessment of who is busiest.

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We admit people who follow their own passions. We are looking for people of talent and interest who want to develop those talents and interests further, and who persuade us that they will do that, who take direction from within. [But] that is not a new prescription for getting into Harvard.

Do you think pointing out this problem is as much as you can do?

I think it is what we can do now. We hope the paper gets discussion started on this issue. It is the one contribution we thought we could make.

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Do you think the real burden is on parents?

I wouldn't call it a burden. But the opportunity here is for parents and students to think about how they want to conduct their lives. The paper was a message to parents, students and, to some extent, the people who advise students ... a message we thought they would find particularly helpful or interesting. We don't think we created this problem. We refuse to take the entire blame for this.

Who created the problem?

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I don't think the colleges are the sum total of the problem. Part of the reason there is all this angst about getting into colleges is ... because people are ambitious. Now, it would be hypocritical for us to point a finger at people who are ambitious [but] getting into any one college is not necessarily going to produce a more fulfilling life.

There are lots of people for whom Harvard would be a good fit that we don't admit. But it is foolish to think we would be the only good fit. It can't be true that the only path to a happy life is a particular college.

Duke University: Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions

What concrete steps are you taking to ease the pressure on high school applicants?

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When we are recruiting, we try to explain how the admissions process works and emphasize that it is not the quantity of activities that matters when we are evaluating applicants.

People think they need this incredibly long list of commitments, that they need to fill every day, do something spectacular every summer. That is just not the case. We try to explain that quality matters more than quantity, that depth and commitment matters more than a long list of superficial commitments.

We look for people that have made a difference in some arena, in some community. We try to explain that impact often comes from focusing on a small number of things, from developing a real and sincere interest in something.

Also, people don't realize how much recommendations count. Students think they need to have great grades, great SATs. What recommendations establish for us is the students who think from those who simply get good grades. We'd rather have someone who thinks, who engages in the material, than one who gets good scores.

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We turn down over 50 valedictorians every year but often take students who are ranked lower in the same classes, from the same schools, because thinking well is more important to us than good grades. It really is the passion and the impact more than filling every minute.

There is a distinct perception in this country that students who don't get into the top schools won't be as successful later in life as those that do. Are you taking any steps to change this impression? Or is it simply true?

That's a tough one because we are in the position of recruiting for our school. We counsel prospective students to try and make sure to let them know that a reason to choose Duke is because it is a good match, not because it is a good name. One of my favorite books is called "Colleges That Change Lives." It's about 40 colleges, none of them Ivies or the most selective schools, that do a really wonderful job of changing students, of really adding to their lives.

We do not troll for applications. We don't ask students to apply just so we can deny them. We don't try to make Duke appeal to everybody. Obviously we want students to look at us. But it is not the right place for everybody.

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Do you think colleges have a responsibility to try to counteract the effects of the marketing push in the '80s?

Well, actually, I don't think colleges are doing any less marketing now than they were then. In the '80s we saw the number of high school seniors was declining and would keep doing so into the '90s. So we all increased our recruiting so we would have nice big applicant pools.

As the number of high school seniors has started to increase again, nobody has tamed their marketing efforts because everybody learned the institutional benefits of a larger applicant pool -- you get to make more interesting choices, your selectivity statistics improve, and so on. Colleges saw the advantages of fairly aggressive and sophisticated marketing. There is no institutional pressure to do less of that. I think the landscape has changed in a way that has exacerbated the pressure students feel.

But shouldn't the burden be on institutions like Duke to change this?

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I think there is a burden on institutions to be honest with their audiences. But one can't expect institutions to act in a way that is not in their own best interest. Institutions can be honest with their audiences while acting in their own best interests. I think colleges and universities have an obligation not to misrepresent themselves or their policies.

It is going to be very difficult to change this landscape, to convince students who have been high achievers for much of their lives and whose parents only want the best for them of the value of relaxing a little. I think it will take a lot of explaining and making some courageous admissions decisions.

What kinds of courageous decisions?

I think we will have to admit students who don't have long laundry lists, but students who have the personal qualities that we seek. To turn down some students who seem to have everything but who actually have a little less than meets the eye. But it is hard.

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Is that something you plan to do, something you plan to institute at Duke?

It is a continuation of what we have been trying to do and what we plan to keep trying to do. But it is not a black-and-white situation, where students are clearly split into two groups. We changed the application so that now we ask students to describe two to four current or ongoing activities that required the greatest commitment or meant the most to them rather than just asking them to list everything they were involved in. The old way made it hard to tell the true nature of a commitment.

The way our application is now structured should help us distinguish those students who really exhibit a depth of interest and commitment that we may not have been able to see before. It will help us to make the sorts of decisions that we have been trying to make all along.

Did parents help to create this problem?

Part of it is our own fault. The degree to which we've been recruiting students is at a much higher level than it was 15 years ago, so to a certain extent, we are responsible. But I will say that that is not all bad. More students on the East Coast have learned about Stanford, more in Maine about Duke ... so part of it is a good thing. But the unintended consequence is that it has created greater stress.

A second thing that fueled this is the increased interest in rankings. Fifteen years ago people would not have thought about precisely where a school was ranked in relation to its peers. The incorrect assumption that colleges can be precisely ranked has really fed into this. So that some people think it really matters whether you go to a school that is ranked 16 over one that ranked 25.

This imposition of value has threatened to overshadow the much more important issue which is the match between a student and an institution. A student does not gain by going to a school that is not the right match because it is ranked higher.

The problem, I'm sure, is related to larger societal issues -- how we define success, what parents want for their children, the idea that parents can help their children create their success rather than letting the children find it for themselves. I think there are a lot of forces that are coming together here and it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it is all coming from.

But we do find in general that the issues of prestige and ranking tend to be more a concern of parents than of students. When we get phone calls asking about why we made a particular decision [not to admit an applicant], we get them more often from parents than we do from students. We think students understand the real meaning of the process, that this is not a reflection of their values as people, more than their parents do.

Georgetown University: Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions

What steps are you taking to ensure that kids stop putting so much pressure on themselves to get into the most selective institutions?

Georgetown representatives travel with representatives from Harvard, Duke and University of Pennsylvania to meet with prospective applicants and their parents and high school counselors. We go as an advising group rather than a recruiting group and travel to 115 places in all 50 states. We go as a group in order to give general information rather than hype one school. We try to give them as much information about the application process as possible in order to demystify the process.

One of the things that we try to convey, for instance, is that it is a misimpression that you need to have all A.P. courses. If you're not going to be doing a science or math major, you don't need A.P. calculus.

There is not a lot we can do about the hysteria that has developed around this process, but we are doing what we can do at the grass-roots level to make it more reasonable and relaxed.

Most students who get in to Georgetown are well-rounded students. The intangibles count as much as the tangibles. By intangibles, I mean the human qualities -- the way a student comes across through their interviews, essays, and so on. These personal qualities are very important. Georgetown is also stressing that there is no advantage to applying early -- we're accepting the same percentage of students from the early pool as the regular pool. We're holding early applications to a similar admittance rate as regular applications in an effort to bring some sanity to that process.

But what steps are you taking to say, "If you don't get in here, it's not the end of the world"?

We do it at the front end, in the outreach programs. One of the messages we deliver as a group is the importance of [recognizing] that there are many good opportunities. We try to advise students to keep this in perspective at the front end, to realize the kind of competition they are facing. It is something we've always done, but in a more pointed fashion in recent years.

Do you think pointing out this problem is as much as you can do?

I think we can advise students to the best of our ability rather than just recruiting them. If a person is a long shot for our schools, we need to tell them rather than encouraging them to apply to improve our [selectivity] statistics ... [Some schools] try to improve their numbers in the pecking order, sometimes artificially by encouraging students to apply just so you can build your applications numbers.

In the current marketing environment, where how you rate seems to be very important, there is a tendency to try to soft-pedal [to students] the importance of having good academic credentials just to get them to apply. People in my profession should be realistic with students about their chances of getting in rather than just encouraging them to apply to improve their statistics. We have to be more honest with students about the competition they face so people can really figure out what their chances are. We have to be very honest upfront with them.

Do you think the real blame is on parents? On the media?

You have to look at all the influences. Parents certainly contribute to it with the expectations they put on children -- of course, that is an age-old issue. The media contributes by stressing the import of rankings. That in and of itself elevates the importance of getting into certain schools and there should be more balance to that. But then again the media has a job to do, and that is to report the situation as it is. So I don't know that the media really has a responsibility.

Dartmouth College: Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions

What concrete steps have you taken, if any, to reduce pressure on high school applicants?

There are a variety of things we're trying to do and the question is whether or not it will make any difference. We are very consciously spending more time trying to describe our selection process and what we are looking for in students, both on and off campus. We try to be very honest and candid with people. We try to get to know applicants as individuals. We try to make the process as fair and equitable as it should be. People tend not to believe that; they feel they have to do unusual things to distinguish themselves.

But don't they?

They don't. The students who are successful in our admissions process tend to be students that are bright, enjoy learning, trying new things and meeting new people. They tend to be individuals who are engaged in what is going on around them. That kind of approach to their education comes from a genuine curiosity ... and depends less on what they do than that they do it well and if the student has the discipline to do it. The student could have a job and not an extracurricular activity, for instance, and that would be OK with us.

What steps are you taking to say, "Relax, you don't need to get in here to be successful in this world"?

We are willing to talk to anyone who doesn't get in here, and guidance counselors as well, and share information about how the process works in general. If the student calls up, we are pretty honest with them. We are not trying to keep the process secret.

Gaining admission to a top college is a highly prized outcome for many students and the applicant pool has gotten larger and much stronger in recent years. It is much more of a national and international market now -- whereas 15 to 20 years ago it was a more regional process, a local process -- because of things like the Internet and U.S. News and World Report. People all over the world now know about the top schools, and that makes it harder to get in.

But there is a perception that if you don't graduate from a top college, you will be less successful later in life, that you will not achieve as much after you graduate.

There is that perception. [But] if you look at people who are successful in this society, there are plenty of people who didn't go to Ivy Leagues who are successful ... The fact is that it is hard to get into these places and for many of these students it is the first time they have ever not been successful. That is hard for them but when you shoot for the big time, you aren't always going to make it. And, by the way, students do much better with this process than their parents do. I think parents are [often] much more disappointed than the students are.

Have you done any marketing to get out statistics that show you don't limit acceptance to class valedictorians?

We publish many stats, and not just how any valedictorians we accept but also how many people we admitted that were doing social work, for instance. Our publications stopped using SAT averages. Instead of saying the average student accepted had, for example, 712 verbal and 715 math, we started giving the middle 50 percent range of the class -- which for Dartmouth is about 670-750. So people have a better general sense of where the class is. It is a less off-putting statistic.

It is a funny chicken-and-egg problem: Did this process get tougher because schools started recruiting more aggressively or because our academics are better? I don't think colleges like Dartmouth have any self-interest in getting more and more applications because that just means we're going to have to turn down more and more students, because we're not getting any bigger.

We try to give as much information about what we're looking for and what works but again, people are very much fascinated by the process. Colleges like Dartmouth are more popular than ever for the economic value of it ... which really misses the point of education.

The top colleges get more attention because of the media -- the New York Times article talked about what needs to be done but they only talked to people at very competitive places -- which just feeds the frenzy.

Williams College: Richard Nesbitt, acting director of admissions

What concrete steps have you taken, if any, to reduce pressure on high school applicants?

We exclusively accept a common application -- the kind that can be used to apply to a number of different colleges. We started doing this two years ago to reduce some of the anxiety and take pressure off senior year. Many colleges do the common application and then ask for a separate essay. But we don't ask for a separate one because we think that defeats the whole purpose; we accept the common application essay.

Also, the trend toward early decision seems to cause a lot of anxiety. It seems students think they have to apply early. There are colleges and universities that are accepting over half their classes early decision, which is a real shift from what it was in the past. But we are holding the line. We only accept about one-third of the class early, which is the same amount we have been taking for the past 30 years or so. We use the same criterion to judge early applications as we do regular decision so it is not necessarily an advantage if you apply early.

Have you done anything to combat the perception that a student needs to get into a highly selective school like yours or he or she will not be as successful?

I don't know that that is a perception that we are promoting. I used to be a college counselor and I felt my job was to convince students that, in fact, the best colleges to go to are not the most prestigious but the ones that are the best match. I think it is important for students to understand that, but I think it is really something the high school counselors have to do. The misperception is that there is only one school out there that is the right fit and that is not the case.

So what should colleges do? What about toning down marketing efforts?

When you look at a lot of the brochures out there, it seems a lot of the colleges are not playing up their unique attributes but rather playing to the middle ground. So that every school starts to sound the same.

By doing a direct-mail search [similar to direct-mail advertising], we have broadened our applicant pool. We've gotten students applying from schools that we are not able to visit. We've increased the socioeconomic and geographical diversity of our applicants, which is very beneficial to our college.

If colleges are misrepresenting themselves, that should be toned down. But it is helpful to educate students about the particular benefits of a particular college, and I don't think that is something that adds to the anxiety.

Stanford University: Marlon Evans, assistant director of undergraduate admissions

What concrete steps have you taken, if any, to reduce pressure on high school applicants?

When we're on the road doing outreach and talking with prospective applicants and their families we try to emphasize ... that we are trying to look at students as complete packages, as complete people. They shouldn't get caught up in looking at the [acceptance] numbers.

We try to emphasize that there is not one ideal Stanford student out there, so they shouldn't be trying to turn themselves into what they think that person is. The misconception is that we only want the captain of the team, the president of the class, the world-class musician.

While we have some students like that at Stanford, we don't want all our students to be like that. We don't want applicants to manufacture interests or get involved in everything because they think that's what we want. That is not how our process works. We look at each individual person to see what he or she brings to the table.

But don't colleges like yours play up the perception that if you want to be successful, you need to graduate from a top institution?

You don't need to go to a school like Stanford to achieve all of your goals. But of course, one of our roles in the admissions office as a part of the institution is to play it up and say lots of doors will be opened to you if you graduate from here, so you should apply.

But doesn't that just contribute to the problem?

At a college fair, it is hard for us [as admissions officers] to compete against what parents and the media are telling students. If they are being told since nursery school that these are the places you need to get into, we can't change everything they might have heard over the past 18 years. Ivies and schools like Stanford are not the keys to everything in life. There are other great universities out there that can help students get to where they want to be.

Wellesley College: Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission

What steps are you taking to ensure that kids stopping putting so much pressure on themselves to get into the most selective institutions?

A couple of years ago, we went from having just the Wellesley application to having just the common application. We figured it was one way to reduce pressure on students -- they didn't have to fill out so many forms. Yes, we have a supplement, everyone does, but it is not a long process.

Another thing I've done, now, when a student writes to me after she's been admitted saying she wants to take a year off, I automatically grant it. They don't even have to give me a reason anymore. I will grant it to any admitted student if she feels she needs it.

Why?

Far be it for me to demand a student come to college when she might not be ready. I think there is a great advantage in a student being ready for this very rigorous academic experience. Sometimes they just feel they need a year off, and I rely on their judgment.

But I'll be honest, I don't know how we can reduce stress on the high school students. The world of admissions itself has gotten extremely competitive.

You don't think schools bear any of the responsibility for that?

Well, it's a chicken-and-the-egg question. We have more students applying now than we did 10 years ago and there is a higher premium placed on the top-level schools. I don't think we did that; the selective schools have always been selective.

The public has decided that going to a name-brand college means more. Parents want the best for the children and believe they will have better job prospects and have bigger successes in their lives if they go to one of the top 50 most selective schools.

Though I believe in the Wellesley education, you can get a great education at many, many places in this country.

Ten years ago, admission officers didn't sit down and decide to make this process more stressful. We are educators. That was never our goal and yet it is absolutely more stressful. Yet I think the fact that some of the Ivies have been admitting a larger percentage of their classes early has had the unintended consequence of adding to the stress.

But who bears the responsibility, then, for reducing the stress on these kids?

My hope is that the families separate the questions of prestige and quality. There are lots of places to get a quality education. I want them to ask themselves, "What is the best match for my son or daughter?" and work with their children to find that best match, not only academically but also personally.

Parents need to separate their own goals from the goals the children might have for themselves. Sometimes parents are ambitious for their children in ways the children aren't. I have seen too many families come through my door saying, "We are applying to Wellesley this year!" I think, "No, you are not. Your daughter is."

Parents sometimes see this process as a report card on their parenting and it isn't that. It is often the first time their child is competing on a national and international basis, and that is difficult. It is hard on parents to see their children judged on paper.

So there is a certain amount of responsibility families need to take in researching the schools and finding the right place for their children, which might be one of the very selective schools and might not be. I urge families in this process to cast a wide net. Students need to have a range of schools they are applying to.

So do you think there's not much more schools can do beyond acknowledging the problem?

I think the colleges do have a responsibility to be clear about how they choose students and to publish statistics -- to be really honest about the group they admitted the previous year and the group they didn't admit.

We make decisions knowing that we have far more qualified students than we have spots. We need to keep being really honest about how we make our choices. I think my colleagues are really good about being honest, about articulating the process.

The hard part is we are not telling people what they want to hear. I think this doesn't fit with what a lot of people in America think: that if you worked hard and you earned it, you deserve a certain spot. Unfortunately none of us have enough space for all the qualified applicants. But unlike other countries, every one in this country who wants to go to college can, so it is about finding the right match.

Yale University: Richard H. Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid

What steps are you taking to ensure that kids stop putting so much pressure on themselves to get into the most selective institutions?

Why students feel this stress is a complex issue. Some places, some communities, some families feel the pressure more than others do.

What kinds of places?

Well, let's say that if you look at where the most newspapers are writing about these things, you will find where the most angst is. Maybe it is even overplayed a little by the press.

The best way of dealing with kids feeling this tremendous stress about getting in is to emphasize that there are many schools across the country that might be excellent fits. Sometimes [high] schools and families don't do that. They don't help kids make application choices that take into account ... that there are plenty of great colleges.

If the eye is always on the prize, and the prize is [one of] the most competitive institution[s] in the world, anxiety will always be attached to the process because students are competing for rarified positions. Family and students should realize there are lots and lots of alternatives that are excellent. There aren't just 10 or 20 or 30 schools and if they don't get into those, it will be the end of their lives.

In this country, students can go on to take advantage of the opportunities at public and private schools. It is really what they make of their experiences in institutes of higher education that will determine [their futures]; it is a matter of how they translate their experience into their own success. We shouldn't put so much emphasis on the most competitive institutions and should instead emphasize that there are lots of different opportunities for students to take advantage of.

What about the link, which is publicized by some colleges, between success and a degree from the "right" college?

People are successful if they work hard. We're not involved in the business of going out to try and combat the behavior of students at the moment. The message of the Times article is clear: Take it easy. The message is there are lots of alternatives, choices and opportunities that students have in applying to colleges and universities and they ought to be wise in choosing places where they will be happy.

There are lots of myths that float around about what makes a person successful. One of them is you have to go to one of the top 25 schools. The reality is, it is what you do with your opportunity and how you translate your opportunities into your own future.

No, we are not spending all our time talking about what students should be doing, nor do I think we should be. We are trying to say ... that students should stop and smell the roses. They are wound so tight they don't take the time to have fun and they should.

So do you think pointing out this problem is as much as admissions offices can do?

I'd ask you, "What would you expect?" Our role is to provide education ... My message would be: "Make sure you understand the nature of schools where you apply and pick schools you know you are going to be competitive for. Make sure you've got a good spread. Don't simply turn to a ranking chart and pick the first five schools you see.

If students and families do the research, they are going to find a happy place, a happy solution. They should have other choices besides the top institutions. One of the downsides of all this is that students feel a need to strive to get into the most competitive institutions and if they are not successful, they respond with outrage and disappointment. The focus should be on the other very fine schools they get into. The focus should be on the idea that they do have some very fine opportunities.

So then is the real burden of guilt here on the parents?

The real burden to some extent is on the press. I think a lot of this is really emphasized heavily in the public domain, in the popular press. The popular press is establishing the cues. So I think the responsibility may very well lie with you.

Don't focus only on schools that are ranked at the top of the charts. Focus on opportunities. When we think that only certain places are the right ones, that is where we lose ground. Parents will respond to what they read, and what you write will make a difference. Everybody has responsibility for approaching this in the right way.


Maura Kelly

Maura Kelly is co-author (with Jack Murnighan) of "Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals."

MORE FROM Maura Kelly

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