Friday, February 8, 2002
Stop the madness! Getting into college with your sanity intact
Back in the good old days, getting into college was just one thing you did during your senior year in high school. Back in the really good old days just after World War II, this involved taking the college track courses at high school as opposed to the "business" or "general" courses, filling out an application or two, and sending them in along with a couple of teacher recommendations. No standardized tests, no tours, no frantic search for the right extra-curricular activities, no "process," and definitely no anxiety. For all intents and purposes, getting into college was much like getting a job. You just did it.
What happened? How did a simple thing like going to college turn into a monster with a hundred heads?
Today, high school students worry that their Pre-Scholastic Aptitude Tests/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Tests (PSAT/NMSQTs), taken in the fall their junior year, won't be good enough to score them a merit scholarship or at the very least an achievement to report on their college applications. Then they worry that their Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), usually taken late in their junior year and sometimes several times thereafter, will knock them out of competition entirely. What if the verbal is higher than the math section? Or vice versa? What if the combined score is less than...what? There is the grade point average (GPA) of their regular courses to worry about too, and the pressure of all those Advanced Placement (AP) courses. And there are the SAT IIs, which test ability in specific subject areas, and the AP tests, which test higher ability in specific subject areas. If all these scores were not enough, students worry that being president of the French club isn't enough to make them interesting and well-rounded. Athletes worry if they are not this year's MVP or state champion. Musicians worry if they are not first chair in their section in the orchestra; thespians if they haven't had the lead consistently in all the school plays. Everybody has to worry if not enough community service and interesting life experience appears on the application. There must also be great rending of hair and gnashing of teeth over the application essay, for this is the place where students can really distinguish themselves from all of their peers, as long as they can do it combining perfect grammar with the writing style and technique of, say, E.B. White or John Updike.
Enter Early Decision
If all this is making your head ache, add to it the idea that all these scores, activities, and brilliant writing must now be in place and reported to at least one college by November 1 of the senior year in order to qualify for Early Decision. That's only two months into the fall. Binding Early Decision (E.D.) programs allow students to select a college, apply by November 1, and hear before Christmas whether their applications are accepted, deferred into the regular April decision pool, or rejected. If accepted, they must agree, in turn, to attend that college. Some colleges subscribe to Early Action (E.A.) programs, which allow a student to apply and receive notification early, but do not require him to attend the college is he is accepted. If a student decides to apply E.D. or E.A., there must be a backup of several applications to other colleges (one student I talked to had written twenty-six) ready to go by January 1 if that first choice college doesn't work out. All this must be done while the student is still going to school, doing homework, going to sports practices, club meetings, rehearsals, volunteer work, and, theoretically, enjoying a social life. Does something seem just a little skewed about this whole perception?
You bet it does. And perception is the key word here. There is no question that the college admissions landscape is different from what it was ten, twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago.
What's the competition really like?
For starters, a lot more people are going to college. After World War II, public perception dictated that a college education was the ticket to a better job and more money, and the race was on. Good public high schools today like to report that between seventy-five and eighty-five percent or more of their students go on to higher education. Fifty years ago, fewer than fifty percent of the grandparents of today's students went on. The percentage of international students competing with Americans for places in American colleges and universities has risen astronomically since the end of World War II. And more adults are returning to school to earn degrees they never finished or to change fields.
So are there more people for fewer places? This depends on your perspective. Colleges love to make themselves sound competitive and highly selective by counting out a random quarter of the students at an information session, designating them "admits," and indicating that the other three-quarters will be rejected. This technique is designed to make a school look very desirable. What the school really wants, according to Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University and author of Admissions Confidential, is to get as many applications as possible. That way they can reject more students and their selectivity rating will go up.
Counselors refer to the "top 100" schools, including the Ivy League, many of the small liberal arts colleges in the northeast and the traditionally selective schools which line the corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., as those for which competition for places is fiercest. There is no doubt that the competition is tough, but the interesting thing is that the competition to get into these schools is toughest in the northeast itself. As Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) guidance counselor Tom Curtin puts it, all colleges want strong students. The fact is, of course, that there are strong students all over the country. More New England students apply to the eastern schools than to
Perception and reality about the "best" schools: good news
This squeezing of the northeastern students has given rise to another change in the landscape of college choice and admissions. As a marketing tool, many of the independent high schools in our area publish lists of the colleges their students attend. In years past, the bulk of the alumni of the New England independent schools who didn't attend Ivy League colleges went to the small, rural, elite New England "little Ivies" Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, and others. Those lists served to perpetuate the idea that the best, or "first tier" schools, were all in the northeast. The independent high schools, from the Phillips Academies at Andover and Exeter to the smaller schools like Concord Academy, Middlesex, Milton, St. Paul's, and the like, are still getting roughly the same percentage of their students into Ivy League colleges as they did years ago, but the complexion of the rest of their lists is now changing dramatically. Students are now attending small elite colleges farther away, like Ohio's Kenyon and Oberlin, California's Pomona, Reid College, and others. Even more interesting is the strengthening trend toward larger, urban schools like Vanderbilt, Emory, Carnegie-Mellon, Northwestern, Syracuse, the University of Southern California, and Duke. Students are making forays into the south, midwest and far west in much greater numbers.
CCHS counselor Brad McGrath says that at CCHS, which has a "private school profile" defining its success rate in college acceptance, students have always "gone national." Now, he says, they are seeking the advantages of urban internships, study-abroad programs, and more varied off-campus design-it-yourself programs that the larger schools can offer, in order to get out of the ivory tower and get what they call a "real world" feel in their educations.
Independent high school students here in New England are beginning to do the same. Concord Academy college counselor Peter Jennings feels that this "loss of regionalism" may be a reaction to the "burnout of our environment." New England students work hard and live in an area so chockfull of competitive colleges of the same ilk, that they are looking for quality experiences in a different setting and of a different type. People are feeling more comfortable with urban settings, perhaps because of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's well-publicized clean-up of New York, and are finding the reality-based attractions of large city schools a healthy change from the environment in which they have grown up. It is more difficult to get into the "first tier" or "top 100" schools because of national competition, but as a result, there has been a distinct "rise in quality" in what used to be thought of as the "second tier" schools south and west of the northeastern corridor as good students branch out. Now, says Jennings, those "second tier" schools have risen to "first tier quality," and students are encouraged to "think geographically."
The pressure to apply early
Competition is a fact of life, but it isn't insurmountable. Without exception, counselors in public and independent high schools alike say that the anxiety about college admission is worst in New England, whereas the realities of competition are different from the local perception. Outside of New England, fewer students apply "strategically" as Early Decision candidates, and fewer pack their applications with superlatives. It seems that our particular, highly-educated, "ivory tower" environment has much to do with fostering students' hysteria about college applications.
Newton North High School guidance counselor Brad McGowan worries that Early Decision "used to be an option; now it really drives the whole process." In a perfect world, says Tom Curtin, "there would be no rush." However, Early Decision is a reality. Rachel Toor says, "the admit rate for many schools is much higher if you apply early. At Duke, for example, we take a third of the class through Early Decision. That means the admit rate is about forty percent. For regular decision, the admit rate is more like twenty percent. Is it easier to get in early? You do the math." That argument alone has spawned a furious rush in the northeast to apply early as a strategy, and Early Decision applications are up in the rest of the country too. At CCHS, as at Concord Academy, fifty percent of the senior class applied early this year, and the counselors say that about eighty percent of application materials were ready to go by Thanksgiving. At Middlesex School, the percentage is higher. Nationally, the percentage is much lower, but it is rising.
The Strategy of Early Decision
Lately, the Early Decision program has come under strong attack by parents, students, college counselors, and even college presidents. Yale president Richard Levin said in an edition of NPR's "The Connection" on January 3
James Fallows, author of an article entitled "The Early Decision Racket" which appeared in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly, says that another problem with binding Early Decision is that it gives an unfair advantage to the privileged student. Students who are bound to commit to one school in the fall cannot compare financial aid packages from other colleges. Also, students whose high schools give them little guidance in the process often do not begin their college search early enough, or are not informed of any advantage to applying early.
The Process at CCHS
The latter problem does not really apply to Concord and Carlisle students, as they are "privileged": they have a wealth of information at hand, both at CCHS and at the local independent schools. Here, college and guidance offices are filled with print materials, links to computer-generated information, and personal guidance by skilled professionals. Students can attend college mini-fairs and information sessions. The "process" begins about halfway through the junior year, with meetings with students and their parents where questions are answered and schedules for the procedure of application are distributed. The rise of technology has provided students and their families with more information about more colleges than ever before, so today's applicants can be better educated about their options and have more options to consider. Americans, always mobile, are traveling more and including college campus visits in their vacations. Technology has also provided us with the common application, which allows students to send the same application to several colleges online, expanding the ease of application and throwing more applications on the tables of admissions offices. It's a lot of data to digest, and the counselors at CCHS agree that a big part of their job is to help families navigate their way through what is relevant and what is not: to individualize the process for every student.
The problem of financial aid is trickier for nearly everyone, as more and more families are staring down the barrel of a $32,000+ annual tuition bill. Here, it really is necessary to have some insight into the college position on Early Decision. Many colleges with binding Early Decision programs can assure themselves of greater yield (yield is the percentage of accepted students who actually attend the college), by accepting a larger percentage of their entering classes early. This makes them look better in the ratings of "best" colleges in publications like U.S. News and World Report, provides the college with a leg up on crafting the profile of its entering class, and assures that a
certain amount of tuition money will be coming in up front. There is no question that college development offices will encourage the acceptance of at least some students who can not only afford to pay, but can perhaps finance a new library as well. However, if a student is accepted in a binding Early Decision program and cannot afford the tuition, he still has several options not well publicized by colleges who would rather take his money than provide meaningful financial aid. If he has provided the college with straightforward financial statements, he can call their financial aid office and negotiate for a better package. Duke University's Toor says that her college really wants the Early Decision "admits" to attend, and so there is flexibility and negotiating room in the offered package. Most colleges will accommodate their Early Decision students if they can. If the package still doesn't meet the student's needs, he can reject it and ask for a release form, which legally breaks the contract and enables him to apply to other colleges.
Many colleges, among them Harvard, have Early Action programs: non-binding early decision programs which allow students to find out early whether or not they are accepted, deferred, or rejected from a college, but do not require them to attend if they are accepted. Harvard's dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, argues that this type of program provides the advantages of "knowing early" for both the college and the student, but does "the least harm" financially because the student can compare financial aid packages from other schools. Those schools with binding programs argue that Harvard can well afford an Early Action program, as only fifteen percent of their "admits" decide not to attend.
The argument that most students are not developmentally ready to choose a college in the fall of their senior year is one that colleges, counselors, and families are wrestling with all over the media these days. Anyone who has ever been the parent of a teenager knows that emotional, social, and psychological development occurs in fits and starts during adolescence, and that a great deal can happen between September of a senior year and graduation. As Concord Academy's Peter Jennings says, "We expect students to do their best work during their senior year." Colleges now examine all the grades available to them by the time of application, and note the patterns of development indicated by the rise and fall of those marks over the entire high school experience. Counselors and college admissions officers know they are looking at potential as well as achievement: that seventeen-year-olds are unfinished masterpieces. If the colleges must make their decisions with only the first quarter senior grades available to them, how well are they able to judge how that same fast-developing applicant might look in March or April?
Early Decision and Early Action are facts. Author James Fallows and college president Richard Levin have both predicted that the programs will soon be altered to better fit the needs of colleges and families, but it hasn't happened yet. Until it does, applicants will have to decide what is best for them.
Spreading the Fear Factor
Counselors and college officials are universal in their condemnation of the press and what it has done to ratchet up anxiety about the college process. College rating, in publications like U.S. News Report, has perhaps helped to put some colleges on the map who otherwise would have less name-recognition, but it has also served to intensify the competition to get into the "best" schools. The measures of those "best" schools in such publications, counselors and college officials argue, has little to do with the quality of education at those colleges or of any other in the nation. However, they have had an undeniable influence over families approaching the process for the first time, especially those "privileged," educated families who buy their copies of U.S. News right along with the Barron's Guide to U.S. Colleges. In response, colleges have tweaked their admissions policies to improve their ratings. Median SAT scores to competitive colleges have risen, and admissions officers rush out to sell their schools to students nationwide in order to increase the number of applications (and therefore rejections) to improve the "selectivity" rating. Between colleges scratching for better ratings and families panicking at the rating results, anxiety levels have risen geometrically in the last few years. One college counselor, James Fallows tells us, has left the "counseling business to enter a more relaxed fieldnuclear weapons control."
In addition, all the college counselors in our area are condemning what CCHS's Curtin calls the "aggressive" marketing techniques of testing services who promise to increase kids' SAT scores by 100 points, consulting companies who prey on students' fears for their "profiles" by promising easier admission if students take some time off, take advantage of trips abroad or "experiences" in the U.S., and those who promise to increase a student's chances by pumping up an application essay. All of these companies can offer valuable services, but they market themselves in a manner that suggests that students can only get into the school of their choice if they actually use these services.
In her Atlantic Monthly article, "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," Caitlin Flanagan, a counselor at an elite independent school in Los Angeles, cites the "powerful emotions [that] get mixed up in the college-admissions process" as a major contributor to the fear factor about "getting in." She speaks specifically to the idea that parents, with all the best intentions, make the road to college more difficult for their children because they push them to perform, respond to the press statistics, and try to micro-manage the process. Their tension invariably transmits to their children, along with whatever pressure they may be putting on a child to try for what they think is the "best" school. Parents are struggling with more than the genuine belief that they want the best for their children; they are struggling with fears about whether they have been good parents, and about whether they can let go of an unfinished masterpiece.
Fighting the Fear Factor and Winning
Is getting into college really a hundred-headed monster? Is the competition too fierce? Is it really necessary to be president of three school clubs, a varsity athlete in three sports, the possessor of a 3.8 grade-point average and stratospheric SAT scores, a volunteer at a halfway house for battered women and have a part-time job as a veterinary assistant at a local animal shelter?
Nice, but this is Superteen: a composite picture of a lot of high school seniors, not just one. Yes, colleges would like to stack their entering classes with committed, smart, and talented students. However, they are all saying they want a balance of experience, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and abilities. They also say that most seventeen-year-olds look pretty much alike on paper, so they are looking for whatever distinguishes one from another.
CCHS advisors say: work hard, be involved, do things for the right reasons, but most importantly, reveal yourself on the application. Tell these colleges who you are and how you feel. Figure out what your needs are, and find the colleges that will best match them. Every candidate is unique, but it is the student's responsibility to think hard about himself and present his uniqueness to the schools to which he applies. As Rachel Toor puts it, applicants need to "think more deeply about themselves. It could actually be a revealing and interesting and useful process, trying to figure out who you are so that you can present yourself to an admissions committee."
How much time and effort should this process take? Concord Academy's Peter Jennings puts things in perspective: the college admission process should fit into the student's school life as a "minor class" that meets just a few times a week. All counselors advise students to take the process seriously, and to trust that they will "step the kids" through the process in a manageable way, so that the senior year can be a "capstone of their high school experience."
Students must remember also that there is much that they control about this process. They choose the schools to which they will apply. They choose the teachers who will write recommendations for them. They choose their extra-curricular activities, the courses they wish to take, even some of the tests they will take. They control the content of their application essays. As CCHS's Curtin says, "This should be an affirming process for a studentfamilies need to trust us. Try us first. We deliver."
The process of applying to college is a commencement. In Globe Magazine of February 3, Linda Matcham's article entitled "Admissions Frenzy" puts the sanity back in it: "As anyone out of college quickly discovers, college is not the Holy Grail; it's just the beginning of the journey."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito