I’ve been thinking a lot lately about merit. It’s the subject of my new novel and a topic much discussed in the news today. Everybody seems to think the American education system can be improved if we can find a way to reward merit. No Child Left Behind was the previous president’s attempt to do this. And, in the face of this program’s overwhelming failure to elevate schools, the current president is letting states opt out of it. Standardized testing, it turns out, does not lead to a surge in merit, but rather, a surge in testing, test-prep, and cheating.

Now I read about a group of students from a presigious Long Island high school who paid someone to take their SAT’s for them. A spokesman from the College Board, which adminsters the SAT, applauded school authorities for cracking down on these students who tried to buy what they could not get through merit. The students might have been on to something however, as this story explains that a lot of colleges are now offering steep tuition discounts to applicants who score above 1200 on the SAT’s.

When I read these stories, and others like them, it takes me back to those anxious days when I was eighteen and waiting for those acceptance and rejection letters from colleges. I knew that going to college mattered. But what I really believed–and what I now know was completely wrong–was that where I went to college mattered even more. I could have gone to college on a full academic scholarship. But I made my parents fork over an obscene amount of money to send me to a “better” college. I received a good education. And I wouldn’t trade the friends I made or the lessons I learned there for anything. But the reason I got such a good education had nothing to do with the prestige of the institution and everything to do with my own attitude toward learning. My education is not summed up in my GPA, my SAT’s my GRE’s or any other numbers that sought to define me. My rank in class, my college’s rank are similarly meaningless. Not a single employer has ever cared where I went to college, what my grades were or whether I scored a combined 1200 on the SAT’s.

I graduated from college 2 decades ago. I’ve had dozens of jobs and two very serious careers and what I want to say to today’s teens currently navigating the college minefield is this:

it doesn’t matter.

Go to college somewhere. It doesn’t matter where. Go to a college your parents can honestly afford. Study something that fascinates you, not something you think is “practical.” No matter what you major in, you’re still going to graduate with virtually no skills and have to start out at the bottom of whatever field you pursue. College is about broadening your mind and sharpening your intellect. Take a few classes outside your comfort zone. You may find you like modern dance/physics/calligraphy. Appreciate that you are surrounded by adults who know more than you and are hungry to share their knowledge with you. Befriend your professors. You get more out of them that way.

Once you graduate, be wary of “networking” with college alumni. When you’re in a position to hire, is it truly fair to give someone the advantage simply because he or she went to the same school as you? What about those equally worthy candidates whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to your school? Don’t feed into the system that rewards privilege while calling it merit.

And, incidentally, those SAT’s? They measure nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you don’t believe me, just go to the College Board’s website and try to find out what SAT even stands for. It used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. But when it was demonstrated that the test failed to measure scholastic aptitude, they had to change it. Nowadays SAT is just three meaningless letters, as meaningless as the numbers they generate.

More on that later.