NYT has an article with the following sentence

An admissions officer who reviewed his application to Harvard called him “the proverbial picket fence”...

Source: ‘Lopping,’ ‘Tips’ and the ‘Z-List’: Bias Lawsuit Explores Harvard’s Admissions Secrets

Can someone explain what "picket fence" refers to figuratively ?


The author explains immediately:

He had perfect scores — on his SAT, on three SAT subject tests and on nine Advanced Placement exams — and was ranked first in his high school class of 592. An admissions officer who reviewed his application to Harvard called him “the proverbial picket fence,” the embodiment of the American dream, saying, “Someone we’ll fight over w/ Princeton, I’d guess.”

Wikipedia says

Picket fences are a type of fence often used decoratively for domestic boundaries, distinguished by their evenly spaced vertical boards, the pickets, attached to horizontal rails. Picket fences are particularly popular in the United States, with the white picket fence coming to symbolize the ideal middle-class suburban life.

The author is roughly saying that this student was an ideal candidate--the kind of student every other student wishes they could be.

  • how does picket fence symbolize someone "whom every other student wishes to be" ?? "the ideal middle-class suburban life" (?) or people who want to have such a life is definitely NOT something or someone Harvard strives for pursue or recruit – B Chen Jul 31 '18 at 2:43
  • In the US, the idea is that if you don't have much, you can work your way up and get a house with a picket fence. It's the ideal many people strive for. In a similar sense, getting high (or in this student's case, perfect) exam scores and being ranked number 1 in your school is what all (competitive) students strive for. – Em. Jul 31 '18 at 2:54
  • By the way, that's just my interpretation. Please feel free to wait for more input. – Em. Jul 31 '18 at 3:13
  • 1
    It's an outdated metaphore from a time where the house with the picket fence was the american dream. He could have called him the Cadillac of students, and that would be an equally outdated reference to what was once the dream car. – Mattias Jul 31 '18 at 14:16

It is an idiosyncractic usage here. 99 out of 100 native speakers (even of AmE) would wonder what was meant in this particular context. A metaphor that has to be explained is not a clear one. A stereotypical house in the suburbs with a front lawn and a picket fence in front is hardly an apt metaphor for the desirability of such a brilliant and accomplished student. The metaphor-via-metonymy is very strained.

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