College Bound (and Worried)

What does it take for your kids to get into their top schools these days?
Not always what you’d think.

It all started with an innocent question: “How’s the college hunt going?”

Talk about the floodgates opening. Whoa, did I get an earful—and not just from a few frustrated parents, whose reports put the fear of God in me (which, of course, I’ll pass along to my high school junior). The list of dos/don’ts and shoulds/shouldn’ts is so migraine-inducing that it’s no wonder parents equate helping kids apply to college to a full-time job.

A few interviews in, and I quickly realized that the admissions process isn’t what it used to be—and I’m not even talking cost. It takes planning, strategizing and (if you can get it) inside information. And it requires more than a 4.0 GPA and a starting spot on the varsity team.

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Indeed, Main Line parents and their overachieving kids have been experiencing something aside from sticker shock when shopping for schools: an ample dose of rejection. The past two years have seen record-breaking selectivity at many of the nation’s most elite schools, particularly Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Stanford. U.S. News & World Report recently ranked schools with the lowest acceptance rates. Not surprisingly, the Ivies were all there—but so were numerous other institutions.

Among the factors contributing to this increasingly competitive environment is a higher population of graduating high school seniors, with a greater percentage seeking a college education. Making things even tighter: The number of open freshman seats at most selective colleges and universities hasn’t increased. And a lot more schools now fall under that “elite” moniker. Plus, on average, a student is applying to 20 schools, as opposed to five or six a decade ago.

Today, kids are expected to know things we didn’t learn until grade school. This new generation of college-bound students is more intellectually endowed than we were. Increased travel, work, recreational arts, athletics and community service opportunities have enhanced the overall educational experience far beyond what it was 20 years ago. The result is a generation of multitalented, exceptionally bright students—and that means far tougher competition among college applicants, with athletes in high demand.

“Coaches have slots to fill every year,” says Esther Wachs Book, a two-time Ivy Leaguer, former Forbes reporter and a consultant with College Knowledge 4U, a Wynnewood-based resource for students and their families. “The value extends well beyond the years the student is there. Those who excel in athletics tend to be strong leaders and team players in the business world.”

And alumni love supporting winning teams. “Alumni money can generate more income for schools than having TV involved,” says one source.

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For obvious reasons—fun, school spirit, great road trips, national recognition—applicants are enamored with schools that have winning teams. Just follow the paper trail from one NCAA school to another, and you’ll find that, just like at the Ivies, the competition is fierce. “Everyone has to remember,” says Wachs Book, “student athletes must be at the top and have been there for a while. You can’t be at the low end of a varsity team. You have to be No. 1 or No. 2. You have to compete locally and regionally. You can’t just wake up in high school and start taking lessons.”

It’s a good point. But try explaining that to parents—and kids—who thought they were on the right path, only to discover that it wasn’t even enough to get into their “safety” schools.

“Some reasons do seem unfair,” says Estee Pickens, a Wayne-based college consultant. “[In 2007], athletics won out over grades. But there are all sorts of reasons kids get in—or don’t. We’re in an era of selective admissions. Colleges—the elite schools, especially—are trying to assemble a dynamic class and trying to provide a level of diversity that includes the best of everything.”

Pickens is also quick to point out that while, at some schools, academic requirements may be lower for athletes than other prospective students, the jocks still have to meet them. And those who are able to cash in on athletic ability do so because they’re at the top of their game, literally. Picking up a sport in middle school and playing in other leagues outside of school is a good idea (if that’s what your child wants). But the best advice Pickens offers parents and students is to work on getting across a definitive characterization of “who you are”—so when schools are looking to fill a slot, they’ll know exactly who to choose.

And students should do it with authenticity. “This is a $150,000 decision,” says Wachs Book. “I tell kids all the time not to fall in love with one school. It’s more important to find schools that match your interests and goals, socially and academically. You need to look carefully. For students, the process should be about discovery, not rejection.”

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And it’s not about being great at everything. Just having a talent is important. “Schools want a well-rounded class more than a well-rounded student,” Wachs Book says. “Kids today who are applying need to come with an expertise and a passion.”

The increased acceptance rate of foreign students is another source of angst for parents and students, a trend Pickens finds more worrisome than the athletics-vs.-academics tug of war. With the growing global economy, schools are seeing themselves more as international entities, many giving up about 12 percent of their slots to foreign students. Over the past year, Duke University upped its number of international students from 4 to 8 percent, and it’s common knowledge, Pickens says, that the two most active feeder schools to the Ivies are in Korea.

November 2007 results from the Institute of International Education’s annual “Open Doors” report shows the top 10 countries of origin for foreign students are India, China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand and Germany.

“The world is becoming more competitive, and there’s no question foreign students are getting in with greater frequency,” says Wachs Book. “But they’re coming in with tremendous qualifications. It’s erroneous for parents to conclude that these students are getting their child’s spot.”

Not everyone’s experience is the same, but once a story gets told a few times, it sets off a wave of anxiety. If you’re like me and have a kid about to begin the process, it’s easy to hit the panic button. The trick is to take everything you hear with a grain of salt. If you can help your children unleash and polish their unique talents, you—and your kids—are one step ahead.

If you’re sending your child to private school solely for the purpose of getting into an Ivy League college, but your kid doesn’t love it and you’re stressed over tuition bills, don’t agonize over changing to a public school. A student who is at the top anywhere will stand out—as will star athletes. But that doesn’t mean kids who aren’t considered “the cream” won’t land a spot at a great school. These days, being different and standing out are desirable qualities.

“Kids who follow their hearts and their passion are the ones who succeed,” says Pickens, whose list of dos and don’ts includes encouraging children to develop interests outside of academics and school athletics, and using summer to support those interests.

“Being a long-term camp counselor is out,” says Wachs Book. “The people reading applications are young; they love reading about kids who have jobs. Internships are also important.”

Pickens also urges parents to be open to the idea of going beneath those schools traditionally deemed elite. One of her weightiest pieces of advice is to not focus on a particular number of schools and be narrow about others. “Don’t manipulate your kid into doing things they’re not
interested in just because you think it will look good on a college application,” she says. “This will deny the authenticity and passion colleges are craving.”

Wachs Book agrees. “Do your homework and focus on matching your child to schools that best meet her interests,” she says. “There are a lot of good schools out there where your child can thrive socially and academically—they just might not have that brand-name you’re looking for.”

Wachs Book’s strongest advice for parents: You’re not going to college—they are.

Pickens also suggests starting early—ninth grade—and opening up dialogue about what type of college your kids are thinking about and what their interests are. “By junior year, a lot has already been written in stone. You can’t just decide then that you want to be on the water polo team or editor of the literary magazine,” she says. “Starting early allows you and your child to gauge what turns him or her on. Kids who exhibit interest in—and success with—going out of their comfort zone will do very well in the application process.”

E-mail Estee Pickens at Esther Wachs Book can be reached at (610) 649-0240 or

Pennsylvania’s Most Selective Schools (with acceptance rate)

Curtis Institute of Music (7%)
University of Pennsylvania (18%)
Swarthmore College (19%)
Haverford College (26%)
Bucknell University (33%)
Carnegie Mellon University (34%)
Washington and Jefferson College (36%)
Lafayette College (37%)

Source: U.S. News & World Report

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