College Admissions

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Monday, October 08, 2007

The Truth About College Admissions

Jack Scheidell
Lower Hudson Online
September 29, 2007


Early Decision Does Work
A college wants to see that it's your No. 1 choice, and this is the best way of showing that. But there's an advantage for you, too: Applying early decision (considered binding; early action is considered non-binding) can give you a leg up at your most favored school. How big of an advantage? Consider that at Rye High School last year, 66 percent of the seniors applied early decision or early action, according to Director of Guidance Patricia Taylor. Of those, 74 percent were admitted.
At Duke University in Durham, N.C., one of the most competitive schools in the country, only 18 percent of students who applied regular decision were accepted. However, 40 percent of the early decision applicants got in.
Harvard recently did away with its early decision program altogether, saying it favors wealthier applicants, and Jeremy Hyman, co-author of "The Professor's Guide to Getting Good Grades in College," says more schools may soon follow its lead.


Melissa Dzenis was devastated when she found out she hadn't been accepted early action to Yale, where she applied last year. The Pelham High School honor student cried for two nights straight, says her mother, Estrellita Dzenis. "It was a very stressful time for the whole family."
Granted, Yale has a long history of breaking the hearts of bright Lower Hudson Valley teens, but even by its own standards, Melissa would appear to be a worthy candidate.
There's the five AP courses she took, her stellar test scores (she was a National Merit Honors-commended student), the three sports she played, the hours she spent tutoring her peers after school, the slew of other honors she received and the weekends spent coaching Girls CYO basketball teams ("I didn't sleep very much," she jokes).
There's also the summer job at her grandfather's woodworking factory in Latvia, in Eastern Europe, her Model UN experience, and the fact that she's played the flute and piano since grade school.
Beyond all that, when she speaks, Melissa comes across as intellectually curious and genuinely passionate about learning. And, after all, isn't that what colleges are looking for?
The problem is that there are thousands of Melissa Dzenises and not enough freshman spots at top universities like Yale. In the past few years, seniors from around the region have come face to face with a troubling reality: The college admissions process is stacked against them.
Historic numbers of applicants have flooded the nation's most competitive schools (an elite group of a couple dozen colleges that, rightly or wrongly, has come to dominate the focus of many of our communities' brightest students).
Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., for example, saw an increase of 1,000 applicants in the last year, while the applicant pool at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., grew by 19 percent (largely due to its decision to accept the Common Application). Meanwhile, Harvard had 23,000 students vying for 1,662 spots.
Making matters worse, schools that were once considered "safeties" by top students - like Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., - are "basically Ivy League now" in terms of the competition to get in, says Chappaqua's Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica, a tutoring and SAT prep program.
"I went to Yale in the early '80s, but there is no way I would have gotten in if I was applying now," says Bruce Hammond, co-author of "The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College." The reason, he says: supply and demand.
Factors include a larger pool of international students, an easier application process (thanks to the Internet and the one-size-fits-all Common Application, which allows you to fill out one application for multiple schools), more students willing to travel farther, more information about colleges (hundreds of books and Web sites) and simple demographics. The baby boomers are seeing their own offspring - another generational boom - ready to leave the nest, a phenomenon that experts predict will peak sometime in the next two to five years. Until then, what we have is the perfect storm for an admissions logjam.
That means students who choose to pursue admissions at the most elite colleges face a daunting application process. Melissa Dzenis says she began looking at schools during her sophomore year. "It's such a competitive enterprise," she says. "Nowadays, kids are aiming their entire lives to get into these schools. I don't even know how many revisions to the essay I went through. It's a horrible experience. There were so many late nights. You worked hard and [then] to hear someone telling you you're not good enough is hard."
What's in a name?
Many young people face their first taste of rejection when it comes to the college admissions process, a rite of passage current high school seniors are now going through. But especially in this region, where students tend to apply to the same 30 to 40 schools.
"What's happened in our society, especially in these kinds of suburban communities, is that the highly selective schools have become kind of a status symbol for families," says Paul Martin, a former coordinator of counseling at Mamaroneck High School. "You get the feeling there's a competition about which bumper sticker you have on your car."
It may be a moot point for students intent on whichever school has captured their interest, but colleges are businesses. And they rely on building and maintaining their brands. At the moment, the admissions process favors the schools in what may be the most massively unfair supply-and-demand equation on the market today.
"The market is broken," says Hammond. "These colleges are just relying on their brands to charge any price. What other product are people going to fall over themselves to pay $50,000 for? Is that the kind of climate that fosters academic success?"
Hammond says there are certain benefits to going the Ivy route, but not as many as people think. Which is why, he says, when you measure the cost-benefit ratio just based on education, the elite schools are ridiculously overpriced.
And yet, try as they might, many guidance counselors in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam have a hard time convincing their students that this is the case.
"I tell them - I'm not sure they listen, but I honestly believe this - you're going to end up where you're supposed to be," says Dr. Rose Guberman, who recently retired as the director of counseling services at Pelham High School. "And I tell them you're going to come back and tell me you love it. I've been doing this for 31 years."
What do schools want?
As the glut of applications hits admissions offices, the people who do the sorting are more and more in the position of seeking reasons to reject students, rather than accept them.
"When they look at a transcript and see there are four B's, in previous years that might have been OK, but not any longer," says Patricia Taylor, Rye High School's director of guidance. "It's a difficult situation because we encourage students to take the most rigorous courses and to stretch themselves academically. But we also have to tell them now that they should make sure they can perform in these courses."
According to Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, Harvard's dean of admissions, combing through the applicants to her school can be "a daunting task. It's not a science. There is a large committee that listens to every single case," she says. "Most students who apply here are very well-qualified."
In fact, she says, it would almost be possible to dump a stack of applicants onto a table and randomly choose a qualified student body ... which is probably not a comforting thought for potential applicants and their parents.
"It's a humbling experience," says Janine Heitner, a guidance counselor at John Jay High School in Cross River. "Years ago, if you called admissions people about this or that student, they could have given you a reason why they were or weren't accepted. Most of the time now, they really can't tell you."
So what is Harvard looking for? "Students who already have a record of developing whatever talents they have, and students who will do something great with their lives," says McGrath-Lewis.
Find a hook
Assuming your child still wants to enter the elite college sweepstakes what does he or she need to do to stand a better chance of winning acceptance? Steve Roy Goodman, an educational consultant, likens it - only half jokingly - to a first date. You have to make a good impression, you have to make it fast, and you have to make sure you don't have any spinach in your teeth.
"This is big business for universities," Goodman says. "A lot of students apply and they forget the admissions process is designed to benefit the colleges. Their job is to satisfy what the colleges want."
So how do you become a desirable candidate in the eyes of admissions officers? In general, the goal is to stand out from the other applicants and offer something the college may need that other equally talented students can't give, such as playing an obscure instrument for the school's orchestra or being one of the best athletes in a sport.
In a similar vein, schools respond to passion and focus. The notion that a student who joins every extracurricular activity has an advantage is false. Admissions officers say they prefer a student who has devoted considerable time pursuing one or two genuine interests.
Keith Todd, the director of admissions at Northwestern, says he's looking for students who show passion and dedication to certain things, especially things that resonate with that individual. In other words, don't just volunteer because you think it will help you get into college.
"It has greater resonance for us when we can tell it's part of a greater sense of engagement in some arena," says Christof Guttentag, the head of admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "When colleges admit students, it's not that they are also rewarding academic accomplishment, but they are building a community," he says. "We want our graduates to be active participants in the communities they're involved in as alums."
Of course, identifying the achievements someone makes as a 17-year-old as indicators of future greatness is a heady task. But admissions officers consider it their responsibility to find the signs of raw talent. And those signs often go beyond the classroom.
Jacobson, of Inspirica, says, "It's a myth that good grades and good SATs are enough. It gets you into the 'maybe pile.' Once you're there, it's all about who you are and what you bring."
What a student offers is sometimes referred to as a "hook." According to Hammond, there are certain hooks, which - sorry to say - are a dime a dozen: The student with a great GPA and great test scores who edited the yearbook falls into this category. Compare this student to one with more unusual achievements (a national equestrian champion, for example, or someone who began a Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter or demonstrated entrepreneurial skills), and the former will not leap out at admissions officers. The least-crowded category (and therefore the applicants who tend to go to the front of the line) is the star athlete who also happens to be a superb student.
Still, Hammond cautions, it's not productive to try to sell yourself into a category in which you don't fit. Schools can tell when an applicant isn't being genuine. It's just a reality that when you go the route of applying to the most selective schools in the country, there's only so much you can do.
For example, Goodman says, "Schools are trying to fill their classes with the largest number of students possible that satisfy diversity criteria and max out the number of students who can afford to pay." That's right, according to Goodman, need-blind admissions is a myth. "It's the same as on the first date when you say, 'It doesn't matter what you look like.' A person who's paying full fare at the University of Pennsylvania versus someone who's not means a $400,000 difference. That's a lot of money for a university to ignore."
With all that working against you, perhaps the best advice can be summed up by Inspirica's Jacobson: "Figure out what you love to do. If you like fashion and old movies, pursue those things. It's OK to be the fashion kid who likes old movies."
Senior-year blues
Maybe then the most important lesson about the college admissions process is learning to put rejection behind you. "If you don't get in," Jacobson says, "it has nothing to do with intelligence."
Emily Chen certainly proves that. The Tuckahoe High School grad admits she probably didn't start thinking about college early enough. In her senior year she decided Columbia University in New York City was her first-choice school, but applied regular admissions.
She had plenty going for her. She took five AP courses, was a member of the Science Olympiad team, the National Honor Society, the school's drama club, and the chorus. And in her spare time, she happened to earn high enough grades to be her school's valedictorian.
And yet, last April, when she went online to check whether Columbia had admitted her, she learned she was placed on the wait list. The blow was slightly softened by the fact that her best friend, who also applied to Columbia (and who happened to be the salutatorian), was also waitlisted.
Chen, however, was accepted at the other five schools to which she applied, and this fall she matriculated at New York University, also in New York City, a choice she says she's happy with.
Melissa Dzenis, the Pelham senior deferred from Yale, also got into her second-choice school - Brown University in Providence, R.I. She plans on studying International Relations. "I'm ecstatic," she says. Still, Melissa says, "When you think about all the time and energy you put into looking perfect for someone else, you can't help but think, was it worth it?"

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