The New College Game

On a brisk afternoon in late march, I follow several dozen nervous parents and teenagers into a lecture room in the basement of Byerly Hall at Harvard University. We are engaged in a uniquely American ritual: the college tour. I am just an observer, the only adult without a prospective student in tow. But as the mother of a high-school junior, I understand the anxiety as we await the start of an "information session." On the floor above us, in a room with photographs of Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill receiving honorary Harvard degrees, admissions officers are deciding who will be offered a place in the class of 2006. Around 19,500 seniors have applied; only about 2,110 will make the cut. A little more than half of them, the early applicants, got the good news in December. The rest will hear this week, when Harvard and other Ivy League schools mail their thick and thin letters.

Who will get in? With a record number of well-qualified seniors, the outcome at Harvard and other selective schools has become increasingly unpredictable. Even the strongest student is advised not to buy the sweatshirt until the envelope is actually in hand. I've been covering higher education for more than a decade, but as a parent, I am just as bewildered as anyone else. The whole process has begun to seem like some kind of mysterious game. And, "as a game," says former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor, "college admissions is kind of like Americans watching a cricket match. You think you can sort of follow it, but basically you have no idea, really, what is going on."

A generation ago, fewer than a third of high-school seniors were college-bound; now more than twice as many say they're shooting for a bachelor's degree. Although most will attend public universities, students from a much wider range of social and economic backgrounds now aim for elite schools. The problem is that they are competing for basically the same number of places as students did 30 years ago when Harvard, for example, had just 7,885 applicants, all male, and accepted 19 percent.

Even universities at the top of the food chain, alarmed about the spectacle of seventh graders cramming for their SATs, are looking for ways to make the admissions process seem less daunting--although without actually letting more people in. University of California president Richard Atkinson made headlines when he called for abandoning the SAT I, which is supposed to test reasoning skills, because he thinks students spend too much time studying for it instead of actually learning math or history. Yale University President Richard Levin is trying to get schools to stop admitting so many students through early-decision plans, which require accepted applicants to attend. Early decision has become increasingly popular with colleges because it boosts a school's yield--the percentage of accepted students who enroll--a factor in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings. And, at the same time, it has seduced students who believe, correctly, that schools often favor early applicants.

But these efforts haven't done much to alleviate parents' and students' concerns --especially in upper-middle-class communities in the Northeast and California, where decal envy is the most intense. "There are an increasing number of people who think that if their child does not go to a certain level of school, they won't make it in life," says Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College, which had a 14 percent increase in applications this year. "We even have parents of sixth graders calling us and asking us what courses their child should take." The result is a burgeoning industry of private college counselors, test prep courses and books (including Toor's recent account of her three years at Duke, called "Admissions Confidential"). Private counselors can cost as much as $25,000 for four years of advice, but there are plenty of parents willing to shell out. Of the 90 seniors currently in the top 10 percent of the class at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., which regularly sends many students to elite schools, more than a quarter sought advice from an outside consultant, says Jim Conroy, who runs the school's college counseling department.

Even if you get into one of these schools, there's no evidence that a name-brand degree guarantees anything except a steady stream of requests for alumni donations. "In today's world, there's no one college that's the only place to go," says independent counselor Howard Greene, author of a popular series of college guides including "The Public Ivies" and "The Hidden Ivies." What really matters, Greene says, is finding a college that's a good fit for a particular student--either because of the courses it offers, the location, or the size.

That's a hard message to sell to a generation of parents who have put so much energy into providing the "best" of everything for their kids. Although the most obsessive start worrying in preschool, the game really begins in earnest just about now, during spring vacation of junior year. That's when parents start to drag their offspring from campus to campus. At Harvard, the holy grail for many top students, admissions officer Jenny Rifken tries to put a friendly spin on her spiel. "Good afternoon," she says. Silence. She smiles encouragingly. "You can respond. I won't bite." Tentative laughter. Then she asks for names, schools and hometowns. Most of the students are juniors although there are a couple of seniors. They're from all over the country: Massachusetts, Indiana, California, New York, Texas, Maryland.

About the only thing these students have in common is that they probably won't get into Harvard--except perhaps for the slender young woman seated with her mother in the very last row. Her name is Theresa Berens and she's a senior from Scottsdale, Ariz. I first notice her when her mother's cell phone goes off as Rifken is explaining Harvard's core curriculum. Theresa sinks down in her seat and hides her face in her hands. A short while later, she has recovered enough to ask a question about the ease of registering for the most popular classes. The more Rifken talks about the glories of Harvard, the more Theresa looks entranced. She nods knowingly when Rifken tells the group that 85 to 90 percent of applicants can do Harvard-level work, probably at the honors level (although considering the university's recent flap over grade inflation, this may not be saying too much). "Most of the time," Rifken says, "we're splitting hairs on the extracurricular activities and the personal qualities that people present. Are you a person that we're going to like having around?"

I can just imagine what some of the overachievers in the audience are thinking: after knocking themselves out working at a homeless shelter, taking German and Latin and going to Boys' State, they now have to be nice, too? As our group walks around Harvard Yard, I ask Theresa why she applied. "It's Harvard," she answers--which says it all, I guess--but then she goes on to explain how this is her first trip East and she's just come from competing in the prestigious Intel science competition in Washington. Theresa was one of 40 finalists selected from thousands who participated in regional and local science fairs around the country. This alone would give her a strong hand, but it turns out that Theresa is holding a royal flush: perfect 800 scores on both the math and verbal sections of the SAT I, a straight-A average and a passion for flamenco dancing. She did her Intel research at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, where she regularly works 25 hours a week. She's about as close to an ideal applicant as you can get. And yet, even Theresa isn't counting on a thick letter from Harvard. She has applied to 11 other schools, including Stanford, Yale, Princeton, several University of California campuses and Arizona State (the alma mater of her mother, Eileen).

Although Theresa is exceptional, many of today's applicants boast accomplishments that were rare a generation ago. And that makes it even harder for the colleges to distinguish between them. At high schools all over the country, students take Advanced Placement courses and compete for awards in a wide range of national contests to encourage future engineers, artists, scientists and writers. The prosperous '90s meant many parents had money to nurture their youngsters' talents in everything soccer or Shakespeare. It's not unusual these days for 16-year-olds to have multiple-page resumes, which (their parents hope, at least) should make them perfect candidates for top schools.

On a recent tour of Northwestern University, Christine Maddalena and Kyle Rafferty, both juniors at The Woodlands High School outside of Houston, recounted years of college anxiety as their mothers walked several paces ahead. "My parents have been getting me ready for this since like seventh grade," says Christine, who has a 3.94 average out of a perfect 4.0 but is "only" in the top 8 percent of her class. (Kyle, who has a 3.62, is merely in the top third.) Christine says she's been going to "college nights" since she was a freshman. Now with senior year looming, she feels overwhelmed by the competition. "A lot of my friends are really, really smart and sometimes I feel like the stupid one," says Christine. Having her application judged by an anonymous admissions committee is scary. "They don't know you," she says. "They're going to decide whether you're good enough based on a piece of paper." Students feel they need something that really sets them apart, a "hook," like being an Intel finalist or winning a national honor in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Summers have become particularly critical. The most affluent students look for community service, preferably in the Third World, like digging ditches in a remote village in South America. (Admissions officers say helping the poor is a favorite topic for college essays these days.) While genuine accomplishments and a passion for something definitely boost an applicant's chances, "packaging" just to look good doesn't really work on the savviest admissions officers. Karl Furstenburg, Dartmouth's dean of admissions, says his staff of 14 can easily pick out a packaged kid. What Dartmouth is looking for, he says, is a consistent image of a student from the transcript, test scores, essays, recommendations (two from teachers, one from a counselor and one from a peer), and interviews. "When you read all this material, you see patterns," Furstenburg says. "You get a holistic view of the student. It's not a system that lends itself to being gamed." A great essay from a student with C's in English would be a red flag, for example, as would lukewarm teacher recommendations.

Furstenburg and other admissions officers say they're looking for students who will add something to the incoming class: a talent, an interesting life story. Because there's no way for students to know who'll be in the applicant pool, there's no way to predict whether they're right for the mix in a particular year. "The best tactic is for a student to be him or herself in the application process," says John Anderson, dean of admissions at Kenyon College. "Don't try to guess what we may be looking for."

Of course, there are some students who do generally have an edge: underrepresented minorities, children of alumni (called legacies), recruited athletes and applicants whose families have given substantial sums to a school. The boost these students get--especially the legacies--depends on the school. But the special categories make it even harder for what Toor calls BWRKs (bright, well-rounded kids) to stand out. Some schools want BWRKs. Others look for "angular" kids who've made a mark in a particular area, like art or science. Unfortunately, colleges don't usually post this information on their Web sites, so unless you have a well-connected guidance counselor, you may not know which is which.

With all the conflicting advice, the only thing applicants can be certain of is that there's no direct path to victory. "No matter what you do, it's still a crapshoot," says Toor, the former Duke admissions officer. At this time of year, it's important to consider alternatives. That's what Theresa Berens is doing. After her visit to Cambridge, she loved Harvard. I asked how she would feel if she didn't get in. "I'll be sad," she said. "And then I'll go to Stanford." Sounds like a plan.