Admission Impossible

Last August, weeks before the start of the school year, stories forecasting the approaching college-application season made it sound like the academic equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Newsweek devoted its August 21 cover story and a half-dozen articles to the subject, including one entitled “Prestige Panic,” about how parents are pushing their kids to get into elite schools in the hopes of guaranteeing success in life.

The same week, Time magazine slapped “Who Needs Harvard?” across its cover, observing the frenzied competition for the institution while praising recent high school graduates who chose smaller, less-prestigious colleges instead. Around the same time, Accepted, a feature film satirizing elite-college lust, opened in theaters, and Alexandra Robbins published The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.

As if Fairfield County high school seniors and their parents didn’t have enough stress without the media piling on more reading, more statistics, more pressure! Besides, it’s not as if local college coaches haven’t been tracking the college admissions madness for them.

“There are many more applicants, and many more savvy applicants, this year,” says Susan Wexler, a college consultant in Westport. “I’m seeing many kids start prepping in their sophomore year.”

In fact, none of this is really news. For years, as parents have shelled out thousands on SAT prep courses, private tutors and college coaches, the kids have been staggering under the weight of advanced-placement courses, competing in multiple varsity sports, joining (if not actually founding) extracurricular clubs and volunteering for every conceivable charity. In short, they’ve been building power résumés and becoming perfect college-application machines.

That so many high school seniors in hyper-competitive Fairfield County would turn out to be competitive high achievers should surprise no one. What has surprised even veterans of the college admissions war is how under-exaggerated the news reports have been. By the numbers and strengths of the applicants, this fall may have been one of the toughest times in history to be applying to college.

Yet, as thousands of high school seniors are practically camped out at mailboxes around Fairfield County, awaiting the arrival of early decision letters, more hopeful news may also be in the wings — an increasing number of our kids appears not only to be handling these pressures, but also are taking charge of the application process.

Part of the cause for alarm, this year in particular, is the peaking of the “echo generation,” as the youngest children of the Baby Boomers are being called. They’re swelling the ranks of college applicants to new levels.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 16.7 million students enrolled in college last year, up 1.2 million in five years. At the same time, the number of openings at the top-tier schools has remained more or less constant. At Yale, for example, 19,452 high school students applied in 2005, up from 12,887 in 2000. Only 1,880 — 9.7 percent— were admitted to the class of 2009.

Those numbers have not only upped the ante for applicants to the top schools, but also the pace, thanks to early-admissions policies, whereby early applicants hear back in December, rather than March or April, in exchange for making an early, and, in many cases, binding, commitment to attend. Some colleges draw as much as half of their freshman classes from the early-admissions pool.

With so many qualified seniors applying to, and being turned down by, the elites (Princeton reportedly rejected four out of five valedictorians who applied last year), the boom in college applicants has created a league of second- and third-tier with improved intellectual gene pools and rankings. Places like Boston College — one of the so-called “new Ivies” — have drawn so many applicants that they, too, are now extremely competitive and hard to get into.

The fallout doesn’t end there. “What’s becoming most difficult for us is identifying the safety schools for our middle students,” says Robert Pomer, coordinator of guidance at Darien High School and a former admissions director at Fairfield University. “Those schools we’ve come to rely on as safeties and as good matches for those students are becoming more difficult to get into every year because of the numbers.”

If they can be found at all. “There’s no such thing as a ‘safety school’ anymore,” says Lisa Corrigan, a Fairfield mother who has been through the admissions process twice and has one more child to go. “They don’t even call them safeties anymore — the language has changed. There are ‘probables’ and ‘possibles.’ ”
As a result, seniors and their parents are applying scared, a phenomenon Sheila McEnery has witnessed from her position as associate director of undergraduate admission at Fairfield University. “The biggest difference I’ve seen in students over the past five years is in the number of schools they are applying to,” she says. “I think there’s a fear factor involved, with kids probably hedging their bets.”

Margaret Merritt, a senior at Fairfield’s Roger Ludlowe High School who typically spends six hours a night on homework, visited thirty-one colleges by the end of last summer, including eleven over five days during April break. “It was a little excessive,” she admits, “but I think it was good to see the campuses.”

Those schools were selected from a list of 160 that her father, Charlie, had narrowed down from the some 3,500 colleges in the country. “Margaret would say I’ve been a little crazy about it,” he says. “There’s a lot of information out there — in some ways, too much information — on what’s the right thing to do. I think this process is taking a lot more than anyone thought it would.”

Easy for Time to ask, “Who Needs Harvard?” Few kids, if any, need to go there. Want is a different story. Were the dice to roll in their favor, and fat envelopes somehow arrive in their mailboxes, most would no doubt accept in a heartbeat. There simply may be too much pressure, especially in suburbia, for them to say no.

“The pressure is definitely there, but it’s not coming from any one source,” observes Suniya Luthar, a professor of clinical and developmental psychology at Columbia University, who has tracked members of the Staples High School class of 2005 since middle school for a study on parental pressure and stress on affluent adolescents. “It’s coming from the parents and the schools and their peers and from themselves, because they’ve internalized certain beliefs.

“And it’s not just in Westport but in the broader community,” she adds, “where money and success are believed to equal happiness; for many, the roots of the those things are the Ivy League.”

Zac Renner, a senior at New Canaan High School, has a 3.4 grade point average and a combined 1,300 SATs. He’s also an All-Conference cornerback on the varsity football team. What he would most like to do next fall is play Division 1 football for a college like Lehigh, Clemson or Villanova. The problem, in his view, is that others have loftier places in mind for him — “reach” schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.

“The New Canaan educational system is pretty prestigious, so you want to live up to not only your own standards but also to the standards of your classmates,” Zac says. “You know you’ve got to get into someplace good. Parents make it seem like they want you to go more than you do. My mom is really intense about me getting into a really good school, like Harvard, and she’s on my butt about it. A couple of my buddies are the same way.”

So, after working on applications to the “really good” schools, Zac spends an equal amount of time on his choices by writing athletic résumés and sending out game tapes. But, at the end of the day, the decision he makes won’t be easy.

“I listen to my parents because I know they’re doing this in my best interest, and I try to do what they say,” he says. “They really wouldn’t be happy if I chose Lehigh over Harvard. When it comes down to it, it’ll be my call, because it’s my four years I’ll be spending. I know they’d support my decision, but they’d do what they could to convince me.”

No matter where Zac and the majority of his classmates apply to college, however, they’ll be up against formidable odds. The surge of high school seniors chasing a fixed number of freshman slots at the elite colleges has made obsolete the traditional benchmarks for getting into the Harvards, Princetons and Yales — HPY, in college guidance parlance — to the point where no one is certain anymore who will be admitted.

“Ten years ago, you could predict pretty well who could get in where,” says Jan Rooker, an admissions counselor in New Canaan who consults as The College Coach. “Now, kids who are looking at the top schools see that they’re up against other kids with the same academics, and the same SATs, and they’re finding that getting in is a crapshoot.”

Margaret Merritt, who has high SATs and a 4.4 GPA, has checked the stats of high school graduates who were accepted at top schools. “It doesn’t always match up,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be a recipe for getting in.”

It doesn’t help, of course, to be applying from schools in Fairfield County, where 95 percent of seniors typically apply to college, and often to the same schools. Debby Dwyer, a guidance counselor and director of the College and Career Center at Ludlowe High School, hopes to better the odds for her seniors.

“I try to get kids to think out of the box and out of the same handful of schools everyone applies to,” she says. “Colleges want diversity — they don’t want fifty kids from the same high school.” Besides, she notes, “There are so many wonderful colleges out there that offer programs just as good as that handful of schools.”

Elaine Schwartz, director of guidance at Staples High School in Westport, makes another point. “There are only so many things we have control over, that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, no matter what your scores are,” she says. “The Ivy Leagues are turning down valedictorians, kids with perfect scores.”

Even parents of children who are accepted at an upper-echelon school can be puzzled by the process. Three years ago, Gaelin Rowen’s daughter Harriet was grinding her way through junior year at Staples, taking advanced-placement classes and every SAT and ACT exam offered. “I said, ‘Don’t kill yourself, you’ll go to a college,’ ” Gaelin remembers, “and she said, ‘No, I want to go to a good school.’ My husband doesn’t agree, but I honestly didn’t care where she went to school — I just cared what she did when she got there.”

After Harriet was accepted at the Ivy League college of her choice, Gaelin was happy for her but clear-eyed. “I think my daughter, with her grades and boards, was lucky to get in,” she says. “She’s doing well there, but I think she would have done well wherever she went.”

That Harriet Rowen got into her target Ivy isn’t as surprising as the fact that it was her decision and purely the result of her efforts.

“I’d say our top students are driving the application process themselves,” says Darien’s Robert Pomer. “There are parents who feel they need to take control of the process, but in reality the students have taken charge of their educations from the start — that’s how they’ve become top students. They’ve taken the time to consider what they want.”

Some, like Zac Renner, are aware of others’ expectations. But most say that the drive to get into college is theirs and for more reasons than a school’s name and the prestige of getting in.

The same story is told at New Canaan High School. “We have our academic studs,” Zac says, “but, surprisingly, a lot of those kids are striving to get into the schools they want to go to,” as opposed to name schools picked by parents.

At Roger Ludlowe, Margaret Merritt read all of the material the colleges sent, scheduled the thirty-one campus visits herself and filled out applications to eight of those schools herself. Although reach schools like Brown and Dartmouth are on her list, she’s more interested in Colby and Bowdoin, smaller colleges in Maine.

“To me, the name doesn’t matter,” she says. “I think it might to my dad, but if
I didn’t get into the top schools, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. My teachers wanted me to take APs in every class this year but I said, ‘That’s crazy.’ I love math — I’m really passionate about it — and I just want to be at a place where I can do what I love and have a balance between school and life.”

When there are the students who have been so self-directed, so focused on a particular school and goal, and for so long, as to appear to be on a tier of their own. Halfway through freshman year at Staples, Sam Goodgame caught a glimpse of his destiny. “I remember the exact moment it hit me where I wanted to go,” he says. Coming home from school, he was flipping through his older brother’s college reference guide when he came across the blurb for West Point. “It occurred to me this is something I could do,” he says, “and the more I read about it, the more I wanted to go.”

Although he has applied to other colleges, including Williams, Yale, Davidson and the Naval Academy, Sam has reason to believe he belongs at West Point. A wide receiver on the Staples football team, and a long-stick middie on the lacrosse team, he scored a 680 in English and a 650 in math on the SATs, had a 4.2 GPA junior year and this year is carrying four APs. He volunteers through an Episcopal church in Westport and was once asked to deliver a sermon on youth. There is another, deeper reason.

“I look at my grandfather and my father and they had these lives that were so demanding and seemed at times devoid of the opportunities I have, and I see my life and so many things I have that I don’t deserve. West Point seems to me a way to deserve those things.”

Beyond the campus and football games, and the academic program and paid tuition, something else about the school appealed to him. “The best thing I saw was the people I would be around,” he says. “They seemed to have a sense of community and a brotherhood. They’re not only great scholars and athletes but great people you’ll be friends with for the rest of your life. And I didn’t see that at any other college I visited.”

Marcia Goodgame, whose older son attends Kenyon College, is rolling with the plan.

“Sam’s in a difference place — it’s almost like he’s out of the rat race,” she says. “He’s fortunate in that he really knows what he wants and is determined to do it in his way. Sometimes we scratch our heads, but both his grandfathers were military men and he mentions that as a factor. As his mother, I have mixed feelings about the military, but I support him in what he wants to do.”

That guidance counselors and coaches have been promoting for several years, and what high school juniors and seniors have begun to pursue, are fewer reach schools and more that match their aptitude, interests and personalities.

At the same time, some colleges have taken steps to slow the application race and level the playing field. Last September, Harvard announced that it will end its early-admissions policy, thereby reducing the frenzy and opening the freshman class to students who lack the resources to apply early in the fall. One week later, Princeton followed suit.

For Harriet Rowen, the best match and fit happened to be the Ivy League school at the top of her list. “This is the right place for me — it’s just what I thought it would be,” she said in a telephone interview from campus. “I love it here.”

But Cynthia Rivera, a guidance counselor at New Canaan High School, has observed a new openness on the part of students facing daunting realities. “A couple of years ago students and parents assumed they were going to get in to the top schools and were shocked when they didn’t. Now they’re saying, ‘We’re going to try, but we’re not going to be devastated if doesn’t happen.’ ”

Brett Corrigan graduated from Roger Ludlowe three years ago with a 4.2 GPA, 1450 SATs, and was a three-year varsity baseball player and captain of the basketball team. His guidance counselor told him he had as good a chance as any at getting into the four top-tier schools on his list. Two of those — Dartmouth and the University of Virgina — wait-listed him. The other two turned him down.

“This was a real reality check,” says his mother, Lisa Corrigan. “He had never heard, ‘I’m sorry, Brett, but you can’t be on this team.’ Now it was, ‘There are a lot of kids out there like you.’ ”

Brett wound up going to Boston College, now a top-tier school on many high school seniors’ lists. “At the time, BC was toward the bottom of my list,” he says. “Now that I look back, I can’t think of myself being anywhere else.”

His parents agree. “In retrospect,” says his father, Bruce Corrigan, “he couldn’t have done any more. If he had gotten into Harvard, he probably wouldn’t go. He’s where he belongs, he has great friends and he’s doing really well.” Last year, Brett ranked twenty-eighth in his sophomore class.

“These kids have never had a time in their lives where they didn’t know where they were going to be,” says Staples’ Elaine Schwartz. “It can be scary. When they call home from college, you want them to be happy, not in tears.”

At the end of the school day, the best college may well be the ones with the best phone calls home.

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