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What it takes to get into a top-notch college—today.


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The New Rules Of the College Admissions Game

 

It’s only getting harder for Westchester’s students.

 

By Marisa LaScala

 

 

 

It’s that time—call it the least wonderful time of the year. If you’re suffocating in a pressure-cooker of common applications, standardized test scores, rankings, recommendations, Naviance, and “Why I Want to Attend” essays, you’re probably a high school senior in the midst of college application hysteria. And you’re probably stressed as hell.

 

“Everyone goes crazy,” says Melanie Baevsky, a Rye Country Day School grad who sweat out the admissions game last year and now happily attends Cornell University. (Full disclosure: Baevsky interned at Westchester Magazine last summer.) “I’m at school now, and I just saw an admissions tour going by. I thought, ‘That was me a year ago, and it was so, so stressful.’”

 

The scene wasn’t any different at Madeline Libin’s alma mater, Hastings High School. “Everyone got stressed and worried,” says Libin, now at Barnard. “I wouldn’t say it was the best experience.”

 

The bad news: relief isn’t going to come any time soon. High school students today are up against increasingly stiff competition, even just in terms of sheer volume. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, this year more than 15.7 million students are expected to apply and enroll in college, an increase of more than 1.2 million from just five years ago, and double the number from 1972. Enrollment is expected to continue increasing through the year 2016. If you’re a young woman, the numbers are even worse. Women have, after increasing enrollment more than three times as fast as men, finally surpassed men in terms of college admissions, making acceptances that much more competitive.

 

Ready for some more bad news? Colleges may not be seeking out local high schoolers—or anyone who comes from generally wealthy, well-educated areas such as Westchester. “I just returned from a conference with admissions officers from a highly selective college,” says Carol Gill, founder and director of Carol Gill Associates, an educational consulting company. “Their emphasis is to go after under-represented populations, like first-generation students and students of color. That makes it even harder for students from Westchester and Southern Connecticut.”

 

Let’s face it: figuring out the rules by which admissions offices play is becoming as difficult as acing those SATs. Here, we try to break down recent changes in the college admission process. Warning: you may not like what you read.

 

The Big Test

Like it or not, standardized testing has always played a role in college admissions. Chief among these is that bane of high school students, the hulking monolith known as the SAT. Those three little letters—which, technically, don’t stand for anything—each year raise the anxieties of college-bound juniors and empty the wallets of their parents.

 

Eager eggheads looking for a perfect score, however, must have let out a collective groan in 2005 when the College Board introduced a new, uncharted writing section (upping the top mark from 1600 to 2400). “The major reason for including a writing section was an understanding that too many students required remedial writing courses,” says Brian O’Reilly, executive director of SAT program relations. “Colleges and employers were unhappy with the quality of the writing coming from students. We thought that including a writing portion of the SAT would send the message to students—and teachers and curriculum developers—that writing was important to colleges.”

 

Whether or not changing the SAT sent that message—or accomplished anything at all—is still up for debate. “The only problem the new SAT solved is getting rid of the risk that the College Board would lose the contract with the University of California,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a two-
decades-old advocacy organization fighting to reform assessments in the United States. “The then-president of the UC school system threatened to drop the SATs as a requirement for admissions, and The College Board went scrambling. They just pasted on portions of another test, the so-called SAT II writing test, and they raised the price ten dollars.”

 

Better or not, one thing is clear: the new SAT isn’t doing anyone any favors. After the College Board debuted the new test, colleges saw an across-the-board drop in the average SAT scores of its applicants. Some schools reported average decreases in the double digits. This year marks the second consecutive year of declines. The average scores are now 515 out of 800 for the math section (down three points from last year), 494 out of 800 for writing (also down three points), and 502 out of 800 for the critical reading (down one point). Scores on the critical reading portion of the SAT are now at the lowest they’ve been in 13 years.

 

What gives? “We think we know what caused the reduction,” O’Reilly says. “More students didn’t repeat the tests—which could be because it was too long, or because there was an essay, or because they thought they did fine the first time. We don’t know why.

Typically, when students repeat the tests, the averages go up.” The College Board also points out that Maine now requires that all students take the test, whether they are college-bound or not, which may also account for the declining averages.

 

It seems students are working even harder to get these lower scores. Across the nation and especially in Westchester, the SAT is a culmination of months or even years of astronomically expensive and increasingly necessary SAT prep. Take Baevsky, the Cornell student, for example. She received one-on-one tutoring from September of her junior year through October of her senior year at Advantage Testing, a 20-year-old test-prep institution in Rye. “I couldn’t go out on weekends because I took a practice SAT every Saturday morning and worked with my SAT tutor every Sunday,” she says. “Luckily, all my friends were doing the same thing. SAT prep became my social life.”

 

She’s not kidding. It seems that such intensive prep becomes more popular every year.

Arun Myer, director of Advantage Testing, reports that the service has grown tremendously just through word-of-mouth. Advantage Testing today employs 15 instructors, and each works with between 20 and 25 students throughout the year. (Hence the ample opportunities for socialization between test sections.) All of the instructors are required to be in the 99th percentile (top one percent) of each test they plan on tutoring. Be warned: this expertise comes with a hefty price tag. Rates, which vary depending on the experience and track record of the tutor, range between $165 to $525—for each 50-minute session. (Ideally, Myer says, Advantage Testing would like to work with students from the spring of their sophomore years to their testing dates the next year.
Ch-ching!) They’re not the only ones squeezing cash out of anxious parents. Kaplan classes start at $399 for an online SAT course and go up to $4,599 for 32 hours of one-on-one sessions with a master tutor (as if 32 hours are enough). Its close competitor, Princeton Review, charges $99 for a quick online primer to $6,000 for 23 hours of one-on-one sessions with a premier tutor.

 

Is it worth the investment? Baevsky believes it was. “My score went up four hundred points,” she says.

 

Some colleges might disagree. Fewer and fewer colleges today are even requiring SAT scores from their applicants. “Since they debuted the new SAT, about three dozen schools dropped their SAT requirements,” Schaeffer reports. FairTest keeps a list of “test optional” colleges on its website, a list which now includes more than 750 schools. Of those, 13 are considered in the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the nation according to US News & World Report, including Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Bates.

 

“We have never put much emphasis on test scores in the admission process,” says Stephen Schierloh, acting dean of admissions at Sarah Lawrence, a testing-optional school that was in that top 50 category until it opted out of the US News & World Report ranking this year. “We focus instead on the rigor of students’ high school courses, their grades and teacher recommendations, and their ability to write. In the years in which we collected scores, we found that they were not helpful in predicting students’ success in our writing-intensive environment.”

 

It turns out Schierloh is on to something: the SATs are not great at determining college success. Take it from William Hiss, who ran the admissions
office at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine for 22 years. Bates has been testing-
optional since 1984 and, after 20 years of this policy, the school published a big study looking at whether the high scorers really ended up being better college students. At the time, about a third of the students didn’t report their scores, and two-thirds did. “The difference in GPA amounted to five one-hundredths of a GPA point,” Hiss reports. “That’s no statistical difference at all. The difference in graduation rates was one tenth of one percent. After we made testing optional, our applicant pool eventually doubled. Do you get a better class out of a bigger pool? Absolutely. Not just in terms of grade-point average, but in terms of diversity, in terms of leadership.”

 

Colin S. Diver, president of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, doubts that the motives for going testing optional are so pure. In an op-ed in the New York Times last year, he accused colleges that don’t require SAT scores of looking out for No. 1—that is, the No. 1 spot in US News & World Report’s annual college rankings. “Predictably, those applicants with low scores or those who know that they score poorly on standardized aptitude tests will not submit,” he wrote. “Those with high scores will submit. When the college computes the mean SAT or ACT score of its enrolled students, voila!, its average will have risen. And so too, it can fondly hope, will its status in the annual US News & World Report college rankings.”

 

So, if your SAT score counts for less and less in the college-admissions game, if at all, perhaps the emphasis is more on students’ rigorous high school transcripts. That means Advanced Placement (AP, or college-level) classes, right? Not quite. Some high schools have done away with Advanced Placement classes, arguing that the demands of teaching to the standardized AP test have stifled teacher creativity. While the national trend has been to expand APs into more schools, the New York metro area seems to be at the forefront of a growing movement to drop them. Twelve private schools have eliminated APs, including nearby Calhoun, Dalton, Fieldston, and Spence (all in New York City). Scarsdale High School, which is in the process of transitioning away from APs, is the first public school to do so.

 

“Our decision in no way reflects negatively on the AP program,” says John Klemme, principal of Scarsdale High. “What we’ve done is refocused our advanced courses to prepare students for a college curriculum.” He notes that this may include more group work and independent research that might otherwise get pushed aside in the rush to cover whatever might possibly pop up in an AP test question.

 

Ginger Curwen, director of communications at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, says dropping AP classes has enhanced the school’s course offerings. “The faculty is now encouraged to enrich the curriculum with more advanced electives,” she says. “Instead of taking AP physics, students can now take the physics of sound. The learning is deep instead of wide.”

 

It may seem like a risky move to take, considering that most elite colleges desire rigorous high school academics. In reality, dropping APs doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. “We would not have even considered this if it would in any way jeopardize college admissions,” Klemme says. “We surveyed about one hundred schools, and we universally got a green light from them.” Fieldston reports that, the year it eliminated its APs, the school had the most successful college acceptance record it had seen in years.

 

Not everybody is happy to see the APs go. Jay Mathews, a writer for the Washington Post who uses the AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests to compile his annual “Challenge Index” (a ranking of all the U.S. high schools based on the availability and percentage of students who take advantage of AP and IB classes), believes AP courses are invaluable in a high school education. “AP and IB are the greatest force for improving the quality of high school education in the last twenty years,” he says. “Those schools that have thought about getting rid of APs argue that the courses put their teachers in a straitjacket and don’t let them teach creatively. They are just wrong, not having seen how creative teachers have made AP work.”

 

Valuable or not, colleges don’t seem to miss them. “Whether or not a school has an AP program does not matter to us nearly as much as whether a student has fully engaged a challenging curriculum within the context of that particular school,” says Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale.

 

The Early Bird Catches The Fat Envelope

So even if you got a great SAT score (though your favorite college might not care about it), and even if you managed to maintain a stellar GPA (which may or may not include AP classes), is that enough to get in? Maybe; maybe not.

 

Then again, there’s always early decision to up your odds a little. After all, most colleges have a higher acceptance rate in the early round. Yale, for example, had a 6.4 percent acceptance rate in its regular decision round for its most recent incoming class. The acceptance rate for the early action round was more than three times that amount: 19.7 percent. Students have used early-decision statistics like Yale’s as a security blanket, hoping that applying early means a better shot at getting in. “Everyone I know applied early,” says Baevsky, the Cornell student. “I can’t think of one person who didn’t.”

“Every year the number of students who have applied for early admission has gone up,” Scarsdale’s Klemme reports. He notes that, last year, 80 percent of the approximately 340 Scarsdale High students applied early, and 143 got some good news, meaning almost half the class had their colleges shored up by December.

 

While you might think it’s wise to apply early, it’s probably a better bet to just do well in high school. In truth, early decision isn’t the boost that students might desire. Though acceptance rates may be higher, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the chances of getting in are better. “We take a higher percentage of our early applicants, but this is in part because year after year we see a high proportion of our very strongest applicants in the early pool,” says Yale’s Brenzel. “We only take students in the early process whom we are certain we would be offering admission in the spring.”

 

That is if the college offers early admissions in the fall. Don’t get too used to it. Like requiring SAT scores, some schools—including Ivies Princeton and Harvard (which only had a non-binding early action program)—are doing away with early admission. Their reasons: it’s unfair to less advantaged students since they can’t compare financial-aid packages, and it increases the pressure on seniors to hurry up and choose a favorite school already.

 

“Applying early has become a way for applicants to ‘game’ the system,” says Cass Cliatt, a spokesperson for Princeton. “Students are applying early, not necessarily because they love Princeton or even have a real desire to come to Princeton, but because they learn they have a better chance statistically of being admitted if they apply early. We simply didn’t think it was fair.” Cass reports that less than 10 percent of students applying for financial aid were in the early-decision pool. Princeton had similar findings for students of color.

 

With fewer colleges offering early decision, Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, director of college counseling at Rye Country Day School, predicts more competition among the regular decision pool. “Certain students are going to be applying to a lot more colleges,” she says. “High-powered students who could have gotten into Harvard or Princeton early and been done with it are now going to be in the regular pool.” Make that regular pools, plural, where their superstar application will be sitting next to yours, ready to eat up acceptances that could have gone your way if they were taken off the market in the early round.

 

So students waiting to see if they got into Harvard or Princeton—or the University of Virginia, or anywhere else that follows their lead—are going to have to work a little harder, and wait a little longer. And now, everyone else will, too.

 

To Rank and File?

 

In the future, there may be no more valedictorians in Westchester County. Compiling a class rank and naming an official No. 1 student may soon be seen as barbaric and unenlightened a practice as eugenics or bloodletting.

 

After all, in a high-achieving place like Westchester, ranking is really splitting hairs.

There’s not much point in announcing that one student is one one-hundred-thousandth of a GPA point smarter than another. Seniors have enough on their plates to stress about and competing with their peers just adds more unnecessary tension into the mix.

Some schools just choose not to rank their students. “The idea was to eliminate class rank at Scarsdale to minimize the competition, which can get to be quite intense,” Klemme says. “It makes little sense to say a student was ranked number thirty-one when all the students in the top two hundred were excellent students.” Rye Country Day goes one step further. “We don’t even compute a grade-point average,” Fernandez-Rojo says.

 

The college administrators we spoke to say that they make do when there is no reported ranking. They have no choice, really. “Harvard has no singular preference for class rank, nor are admission candidates disabled by its absence,” says Roger Banks, senior admissions officer. “Given the fact that we deal with more than three thousand high schools around the world with varying measures of individual and group performance, it is very hard to take a rigid stance on the issue.”

 

With or without rank, colleges still need to make a decision on each of their  applicants. Sometimes, this means they resort to coming up with an imprecise, on-the-fly ranking of their own. “A lot of the times, colleges calculate their own GPAs from transcripts,” says Fernandez-Rojo. “A ranking is just a shorthand for them.”

 

“With schools that don’t rank, we try to do our best to put people in a relative place,” says Jim Miller, dean of admissions at Brown University. “It’s hard, and we tear apart transcripts and grades.”

 

Even high schools that don’t rank feed hints to the colleges about a student’s relative place. Says Yale’s Brenzel, “Schools that do not supply traditional ordinal rankings will still often provide us with useful information about which students fall within the top ten percent, or they may provide a graph showing the numbers of particular grades that have been earned in various core courses.”

 

And, in the end, there’s no real reason to think that not ranking students really cuts down on competition. Students, after all, are still trying to best their peers when it comes to putting together the most impressive transcript to send to schools. Whether that comes in the form of a rigorous course load, or high placement on an anonymous grade distribution, or a cold, hard number, makes little difference. “Some people in my school thought it was better not to rank because, with no valedictorian, there’s no outright competition,” Baevsky says. “But some thought it was worse because it becomes a quieter kind of competition. People still know who’s a little bit smarter and who’s not because of what classes they take and what test grades they get.”

 

In that way, class rank becomes sort of an open secret among students. “Hastings does class rankings only for valedictorian and salutatorian,” Libin says. “There’s a lot of speculation, and people always find out before it’s officially announced.”

 

Even some administrators say there’s nothing you can do to cut down on competition. “Not ranking is supposed to cut down on competition, but I don’t think it really does,” admits Jim Rooney, principal of Rye High School. “We just have competitive students. Most are blissfully ignorant of their rank in class, but I’m sure we have a few that know their GPA to a hundredth of a point.”

 

What’s Well-Rounded: The Student or the Class?

 

So even if you’re lucky enough to have a class rank in the top 10 percent, and even luckier enough to have a school that’s willing to admit it to a college, so what? There are lots of bright students out there, and you need to distinguish yourself beyond grades. No doubt, you’ve joined the newspaper, yearbook, three sports teams (for fall, winter, and spring), recycling club, French Society, Key Club, Habitat for Humanity, and student government, right? Wait, do colleges even want students who are members of the newspaper, yearbook, three sports teams, recycling club, French Society, Key Club, Habitat for Humanity, and student government?

 

The prevailing wisdom is that colleges aren’t looking for those who spread themselves thin, but for standouts in specific subjects of interest. “In the past, colleges were looking for well-rounded students,” Gill says. “Now, they’re looking for a well-rounded class. They absolutely want to see the quarterback, the musician, the theater person,  the scientist.”

 

Serial joiners can relax, though, as there’s still no hard-and-fast rule. “The talk is now how they want a well-rounded class, so they’ll take people from certain niches,” Fernandez-Rojo says. “But they’ll still take well-rounded students. That’s not going away, it’s just not as much of a formula as it once was.”

 

At least Harvard thinks there’s room for all kinds of students. “Schools like Harvard are looking for the well-rounded student as well as the specialist,” Banks says. “Our goal is to assemble a rich mixture of diverse talents within a unified community of teachers and students.”

 

Of course, some colleges will tell you that they want it all. “Because Yale’s
applicant pool is very strong, this is just not a trade-off that we often find we have to make,” Brenzel says. “That is, most of the students we admit are well-rounded individuals who have often pursued one or two particular interests to an
advanced level.”

 

And if you’re neither? If you don’t have an outstanding extra-curricular résumé with a laundry list of activities, and you’re not a standout superstar in one particular field? Well, then you better start joining some clubs.

 

Even if you’re not the kind of first-generation student colleges are courting, admissions should be a snap, right? All you have to do to gain acceptance to your first-choice school is get outstanding grades in advanced-level courses (which your high school may or may not report), work your way to the top of your class (though no one, except other students, may know your exact rank), spend time and money to get exceptional marks on national standardized tests (which colleges might not care about anyway), then take your leftover free time exploring one or two pursuits passionately—with a few others on the side, just in case.

 

Good luck.

 

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