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Early-Decision Programs

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By Tamara Holub


In early-decision programs, high school students apply early to their first-choice college and receive an admissions decision by December of their senior year. These programs are binding, meaning that if a student is accepted to a college through the early-decision process, he/she must rescind all applications to other colleges, and sign a contract to attend the college granting early admission. By signing a binding contract, a student forfeits his/her chance to compare financial aid and enrollment packages from other institutions. Students are allowed to have only one early-decision application pending at any time (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2001)

Early-Decision Versus Early-Action Programs

Early-action is a similar, but non-binding, program. Students who apply through early action receive a response from the college ahead of regular decision applicants, and, in accordance with new guidelines set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), may apply to other colleges without restriction (NACAC, 2001). The number of both early-decision and early-action applicants has been steadily rising for the last decade (Fallows, 2001). About 270 colleges and universities offer early-decision programs (Loftus, 2002). According to a recent study by NACAC, of colleges surveyed that had either an early-decision or early-action program, 50 percent of institutions responding reported an increase in the number of early-decision applicants; 31 percent reported a decrease; and 19 percent reported no change (“NACAC Study,” 2002). Eighty percent of institutions responding to the same survey reported an increase in the number of early-action applicants, and 20 percent reported no change (“NACAC Study,” 2002)

Positive Aspects of Early-Decision Programs

The growing popularity of early decision has spurred debate among college administrators, high school counselors, parents, and students about the consequences of the program. Early decision benefits students who are certain which college they want to attend regardless of what financial aid might be available to them from other schools. Being accepted early also eliminates the stress associated with applying to multiple schools and maximizes the amount of time available for students to plan their new lives at a particular college.

Criticisms of Early Decision-Programs

Much of the current literature on early decision focuses on the negative aspects of the program. A major criticism of early decision is that it seems to favor students from upper middle-class backgrounds, especially those who attend private schools or public schools in affluent suburban districts (Toor, 2001). Rachel Toor, a former admissions counselor at Duke University, says:
“The early program decision works together with other factors that reinforce class lines. The people whose parents can pay for elite private high schools, shell out additional thousands for ‘independent college counselors,’ visit campuses and meet with the ‘right people,’ and, yes, who know that applying early can give them a boost – they are clearly at an advantage” (Toor, 2001, p. B16).

Many college admissions counselors admit that students who apply early have a better chance of being accepted than students who apply through regular decision (See Loftus, 2002, p. 70). The favorable acceptance statistics across the board for early-decision admissions have influenced many high school students to feel that they have to apply early in order to maximize their chances of getting into a good college. A 2000 study of five years of admissions records from 14 selective colleges by Christopher Avery and colleagues at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government shows that this may be true (as cited in Fallows, 2001). Avery’s study found that the competitive value of an early-decision application was equivalent to 100 SAT points more than a regular decision application (as cited in Fallows, 2001). Admission rates for early-decision applicants are higher than for regular-decision applicants. For example, in 2002, Johns Hopkins University admitted 59% of its early-decision applicants compared to 33% of its regular-decision applicants; the University of Pennsylvania admitted 38% of the early pool compared to 16% of the regular pool (Loftus, 2002, p. 70). Thus, students feel pressed to maximize their chances of getting into a school instead of taking the time to research schools and identify one or more offering a good fit. (Gerson, 1998, p.68)

Early-Decision Programs and College Rankings

Another controversial aspect of early decision is that colleges use the program to increase their rankings in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” (See Fallows, 2001; Ehrenberg, 2000). According to James Fallows, a former editor of U.S. News & World Report, a college’s selectivity and yield are two statistics used to determine college rank. Selectivity measures the difficulty of being admitted to a school and yield measures the proportion of students who attend (Fallows, 2001). Every college has a target number of students for acceptance each year. When a college admits a large portion of its entering class through early decision, it can send out fewer offers than it would have to without early decision. Thus, early decision increases a college’s yield and selectivity, potentially moving the college higher in the U.S. News rankings. Many argue that colleges who use early decision mainly to increase their rankings are performing a great disservice to students.

Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg, who has studied the controversy surrounding college rankings, argues that “It is reasonable to suggest that we would be better off as a society if institutions limited the number of students that they enroll through the early-decision process” (Ehrenberg, 2000, p. 90). Many colleges insist on maintaining their early-decision programs, claiming that they would be at a disadvantage if they ended their programs if their rivals did not do the same (See Ehrenberg, 2000, p. 90; Arenson , 2001, p. D1)

Ending Early-Decision Programs

Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discontinued their early-decision program in 2002 because an internal analysis showed that the program worked against minority and low-income students. Their study revealed that 82 percent of the early- decision applicants were white compared to 69 percent of the applicants from later applicant pools (Lucido, 2002, p. 28). Also, applicants from the early-decision pool were less likely to apply for need-based aid than applicants in early-action or regular-decision applications (Lucido, 2002, p. 28).

In 2002, Mary Washington College in Virginia decided to end its early-decision program “in response to growing complaints that such programs add unnecessary stress to the increasingly intense process of applying to colleges” (“Va. College,” p. A3).

Defying NACAC Guidelines

Both Yale and Stanford Universities announced in November of 2002 that they will drop their early-decision programs in 2003, with applications for the 2004-5 academic year. Both universities plan to adopt a nonbinding early-action program that—in defiance of NACAC policy—forbids early applicants to their schools from applying early to other colleges. NACAC policy stipulates that students are free to apply early to multiple colleges, as long as no more than one application is under a binding early-decision program. Yale University President Richard Levin called the NACAC policy “‘ill-founded'” and said that ”’colleges should be able to set their own policies about admission'” (Young, 2002).


College and university administrators across the country are increasingly being called upon to reexamine their early-admission programs and their negative consequences. Though it is too early to determine the fate of the majority of early-decision programs-whether they will be maintained as they are, replaced by early action programs, modified in some new way, or ultimately discarded-there is clearly a movement afoot that advocates change.

Getting the Inside Edge

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Featured in The magazine Washington live by. Washingtonian Online

Want to Know How to Get In to a Good College?
Go to the Pros in the Admissions Game—School Counselors.

By Alicia Abell

Contributing editor Alicia Abell wrote about private-school admissions in November 2002.

Two schools topped Nell Constantinople’s college wish list: Northwestern, a big university outside Chicago, and Middlebury, a small college in Vermont. But how to get into one of them?

Nina W. Marks, Constantinople’s college counselor at DC’s National Cathedral School, set the strategy. Apply early decision, Marks said—the odds are better. And bet on Northwestern. It accepts a bigger percentage of applicants than Middlebury, and its admissions office would give Constantinople a leg up because her mother is an alum.

The final move in Marks’s game plan: The counselor called Northwestern’s dean of admissions and talked over her student’s application.

In the end, the plan worked: Constantinople got in.

Stories such as these are the stock and trade of NCS. About 80 percent of the school’s graduates are accepted to their first-or second-choice school. At least a quarter enroll at Ivy League schools.

Parents and students say that Marks, a Harvard alum who has directed NCS’s college-counseling office for more than a decade, deserves a lot of credit for this success. She is so plugged in to admissions offices that college reps even call her at home to talk about applicants.

NCS is not the only private school working the phones when it comes to college admissions. Many put a premium on helping their kids get into college. While public-school counselors typically work with 200 or more students, the load for private school counselors is usually a quarter of that. This gives them time to meet with students, get to know them, and identify the best “fit.”

Some counselors, like Marks, oversee virtually every element of the application; others offer advice and information but leave control of the process in the hands of the student. None can promise happy outcomes, but all aim to give kids an edge in the college-admissions game.

The mechanics of most private-school college-counseling programs are similar. An introductory College Night during the junior fall is standard, followed by individual meetings with counselors starting in the spring of the junior year. Some schools—including NCS, DC’s Maret, and Bethesda’s Georgetown Prep—also meet with sophomores and their parents.

Though most parents stand aside after these initial meetings, some join in with gusto. Leonard King, director of college counseling at Maret, says he meets with parents as many as six times and fields their phone calls and e-mails.

Schools vary in how they see their role. Some serve simply as a resource, while others manage each senior’s application.

“A more progressive, student-centered school may give a lot of the responsibility to the students, whereas others may be more top-down and adult-managed,” explains the School Counseling Group’s Peter Sturtevant, a former Maret teacher and college counselor who has been advising kids about colleges for almost 20 years.

At Sidwell Friends in DC, counselors get involved when asked, says 2000 graduate Molly Browne. “They would look over your application or read your essays if you wanted them to, but nothing was forced on you. You could seek out as much or as little help from the school as you wanted.”

NCS is not so laissez faire. Coursework for seniors each fall includes a weekly seminar nicknamed “College 101,” which covers the nitty-gritty of applications. The class even has a syllabus and a text—the school’s legendary college handbook, which includes résumés as well as a tally of where NCS graduates have enrolled.

Students also are urged to attend an essay-writing workshop and prepare rough drafts of their application essays during the summer before senior year. Marks usually reviews the final versions. “Like with everything, the girls are taught to do not an A job but an A-plus-plus job on college applications,” says the parent of a current senior. “Marks is emphatic about perfection.”

Some schools have a lot of influence over where students apply, even creating an initial list of schools to consider—a task usually left to the applicant. Maret’s King does this to get students to look at a broad array of schools. Other counselors create the list to make sure that too many of their kids don’t apply to the same colleges, hurting each other’s chances.

Marks often advises girls where to apply based on NCS’s track record with the school, her relationship with its admissions office, and the number and caliber of the other NCS girls applying. “One thing we do that’s different from other schools is that we really try to have a strategy,” Marks says.

Marks gives students a straightforward assessment of their chances of admission to a school based on grade point averages and SAT scores. This “dealing in facts,” as Marks calls it, is aimed at making appraisals less personal, but it can hurt feelings.

“Kids resent when they want to apply to Yale, for example, and Nina tells them no,” says a parent. Knowing Marks’s clout in admissions offices, some families are reluctant to reject her recommendations.“We went to look at colleges,” says another parent, “but in the end, Nina decided which school was right for my daughter.”

Another Marks strategy is to urge her students to apply early, when the odds of getting accepted are better. In recent years, some 75 percent of the NCS senior class has applied early decision or early action. It’s an unwritten NCS rule that those who get accepted will enroll, regardless of whether they applied through a nonbinding early-action process.

This strategy, which gives colleges certainty about NCS applicants, appears to pay off: More than half of NCS students who apply early get in; the national average is a third.

Colleges “know that the girls who apply early from NCS will go,” says Nell Constantinople, a 2001 graduate.

Many counselors take two or three trips a year to scout schools that they’re talking to kids about. “Colleges change, just like high schools change,” explains King. “I want to know if the colleges I’m recommending live up to what they say they do.”

College visits also help counselors match students with specific schools, says King. “I try to jot down notes to myself, such as ‘See so and so when you get back; they would really like it here.’”

Colleges sometimes sponsor campus tours for high school counselors. These often include useful presentations by admissions officers, says Roger Frantz, counselor at O’Connell High School in Arlington. “What the colleges and universities are looking for changes from year to year. So I keep going to these meetings to hear about the newest desired crop of candidates.”

“For example, MIT is interested in ‘underrepresented’ minorities like Native Americans, Central Americans, and Eskimos (but not Asians), while Stanford University wants an applicant’s personal essay to be Pulitzer Prize quality and a piece ‘that only a student can write.’”

Several schools organize college tours for students. Bullis and Sandy Spring Friends School take juniors to visit nearby colleges. Over spring break, teachers at Landon usually take vans of five to ten students—one heading north and one heading south.

The best counselors are talented and versatile. “You need to be organized, personable, hard-working, articulate, a strong writer, good on your feet, willing and able to reassure anxious parents and kids,” Sturtevant says. “You really do have to have it all.”

A key factor is experience. King, one of the most respected college counselors in the area, has been at Maret for 31 years. “Being there for that long, I’ve established some credibility with colleges,” he says.

Counselors with experience in college admissions often have good contacts and inside information on the process. Georgetown Visitation’s Suzanne T. Colligan has worked at several colleges, including Georgetown, George Washington, and Trinity in DC. Holton-Arms’s Tish Peterson is a veteran of Boston University, Georgetown, and George Washington. Bullis’s Eric Monheim worked at Kenyon College in Ohio. Kenya Smith of Edmund Burke has done admissions at Ohio Wesleyan and Kalamazoo College.

Gonzaga’s Jodi Hester, a former admissions officer for Grinnell College in Iowa and Johns Hopkins University, knows that college reps spend much of the fall on the road visiting high schools. They appreciate the smallest courtesies—snacks for the car or directions to the next stop. “When you’re doing that kind of work,” she says, “it really can make a difference.”

Many schools try to establish strong relationships with colleges and admissions officers. They visit schools frequently and invite college officials to their campuses. Maret and NCS each host more than 100 college reps a year.

Such visits help a college understand a school’s curriculum and grading. They also give counselors the familiarity to call a school on behalf of a student.

When Sidwell’s Molly Browne aced the verbal section of the SATs on her second try, her counselor knew exactly whom to contact at her first-choice school. “This is great,” the counselor said. “I’ll fax it right over.”

Some counselors call colleges in February—after applications have been read but before decisions are made. They talk about students’ strengths and weaknesses, respond to questions, and supply additional information that might help a kid’s chances.
These phone calls often give counselors an early read on the college’s decision. In her book Admissions Confidential, former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor writes. “I go down my school group and tell the counselor ‘likely’ for the students whom I know will be admitted, ‘possible’ for those who will be placed on the waiting list, and then ‘unlikely’ for the ones I’ve already auto-denied. Everyone understands this code.”

Maret’s King tells colleges when he thinks they’re misreading an application; in some cases, he fills in relevant personal information, such as a divorce. But if it’s clear an applicant doesn’t meet the school’s expectations, he doesn¹t fight the decision.

Gonzaga’s Hester takes a similar approach. “I will say, ‘Did you see this?’ or ‘Did you miss that?’ But I’m not going to beg anyone to accept a kid,” she says.

Michael J. Ortiz, a counselor at the Heights School in Potomac, says lobbying for students doesn’t help that much. “We think our students’ applications speak for themselves. A kid tends to reach the level he¹s ready for.”

In her book, Toor describes most counselors’ campaigns for students as a nuisance. “I would not trust many of these people to recommend a good restaurant, let alone give me an honest assessment of an applicant’s intellectual abilities,” she writes.

Still, Toor admits that she found a few counselors whom she could rely on to help sort students. “At a handful of schools, I actually used the counselors to help me with the kids I wasn’t sure about.”

Good counselors, she wrote, offer “helpful and insightful things about each student who’s applying and what sets them apart from the others.”

At NCS, parents are convinced that Marks is a counselor colleges listen to. She calls every school that each of her students has applied to, although she says she won’t oversell her kids. With NCS, colleges “get what they think they’re getting,” she says.

“I think the admissions people trust her,” says a former NCS parent. “It makes their job easier if someone else can weed through the applicants and say, ‘This is the kid for you.’”

“She’s in a class by herself,“ says Abigail K. Wenner, whose daughter Becca is a senior. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the DC area—or probably the country—who does as good a job as she does.”

Colleges Bend Rules to Admit Rich Applicants

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Featured in College Journal from The Wall Street Journal

By Daniel Golden, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal From The Wall Street Journal Online

Despite her boarding-school education and a personal tutor, Maude Bunn’s SAT scores weren’t high enough for a typical student to earn admission to Duke University.

But Ms. Bunn had something else going for her — coffeemakers. Her Bunn forebears built a fortune on them and, with Duke hoping to woo her wealthy parents as donors, she was admitted.

Afterward, her parents promptly became co-chairmen of a Duke fund-raising effort aimed at other Duke parents. “My child was given a gift, she got in, and now I’m giving back,” says Maude’s mother, Cissy Bunn, who declines to say how much the family has contributed to the university.

Most universities acknowledge favoring children of alumni who support their alma mater. But to attract prospective donors, colleges are also bending admissions standards to make space for children from rich or influential families that lack longstanding ties to the institutions. Through referrals and word-of-mouth, schools identify applicants from well-to-do families. Then, as soon as these students enroll, universities start soliciting gifts from their parents.

Duke says it has never traded an admission for a donation. “There’s no quid pro quo, no bargains have been struck,” says Peter Vaughn, director of development communications. While it won’t comment on individual cases, the university notes that financial gifts from parents are used to update facilities and provide financial aid, among other things. Duke says it has never traded an admission for a donation. “There’s no quid pro quo, no bargains have been struck,” says Peter Vaughn, director of development communications. While it won’t comment on individual cases, the university notes that financial gifts from parents are used to update facilities and provide financial aid, among other things.

The formal practice of giving preference to students whose parents are wealthy — sometimes called “development admits” — has implications for the legal challenge to affirmative action, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear April 1. Special admissions treatment for the affluent has racial overtones, at least indirectly. Reflecting the distribution of wealth in America, the vast majority of major donors to higher education are white. Defenders of minority preference say such advantages for white applicants are precisely why affirmative action is still needed.
Top schools ranging from Stanford University to Emory University say they occasionally consider parental wealth in admission decisions. Other elite schools, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say parental means don’t influence them. “I understand why universities leverage parent contacts to enrich themselves,” says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT. “If somebody’s offering them a check, why not take it? But I honestly think it’s out of control.”

While children of the wealthy have long had advantages getting into colleges, a look at how “development” admissions works at Duke shows how institutionalized the process has become at some major universities.

Under-endowed compared with rivals such as Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, Duke has been particularly aggressive in snaring donors through admissions breaks. Widely considered one of the nation’s top ten universities, Duke accepts 23% of its applicants and turns down more than 600 high-school valedictorians a year. Three-fourths of its students score above 1320 out of a perfect 1600 on the SATs.

Yet in recent years, Duke says it has relaxed these standards to admit 100 to 125 students annually as a result of family wealth or connections, up from about 20 a decade ago. These students aren’t alumni children and were tentatively rejected, or wait-listed, in the regular admissions review. More than half of them enroll, constituting an estimated 3% to 5% of Duke’s student body of 6,200.

The strategy appears to be paying off. For the last six years, Duke says it has led all universities nationwide in unrestricted gifts to its annual fund from nonalumni parents: about $3.1 million in 2001-2002. A university fund-raising campaign recently met its $2 billion goal. While 35% of alumni donate to Duke, 52% of parents of last year’s freshman class contributed to the university — besides paying $35,000 in tuition and room and board.

Students admitted for development reasons graduate at a higher rate than the overall student body, Duke says, although their grades are slightly lower. These applicants are held to the same lesser standard as some top athletes; not whether they can excel, but whether they can graduate. “There’s never been a case where I think the student can’t be successful at Duke, and the student is admitted,” says admissions director Christoph Guttentag. Students admitted for development reasons graduate at a higher rate than the overall student body, Duke says, although their grades are slightly lower. These applicants are held to the same lesser standard as some top athletes; not whether they can excel, but whether they can graduate. “There’s never been a case where I think the student can’t be successful at Duke, and the student is admitted,” says admissions director Christoph Guttentag.

Caroline Diemar, a Duke senior, says she favors maintaining minority preference for college admissions because she knows from experience that well-connected white students get a boost too. The daughter of an investment banker, she applied early to Duke despite an 1190 SAT score. Her candidacy was deferred to the spring.

She then buttressed her application with recommendations from two family friends who were Duke donors, and she was accepted. “I needed something to make me stand out,” says Ms. Diemar, a sociology major with a 3.2 grade point average, below the 3.4 average of the senior class. “Everybody at Duke has something that got them in.” The lesson she learned: “Networking is how you go about everything.

After she enrolled, Duke recruited Ms. Diemar’s parents to serve as co-chairmen of a fund-raising effort. Her father, Robert Diemar, declined to say how much he has given to Duke. “We support all of our five children’s schools,” said Mr. Diemar, a Princeton alumnus. He said Duke accepted his daughter on merit.

The practice of giving preference to the children of potential donors has caused fissures on Duke’s campus, with some worrying that it dilutes the student body’s intellectual vitality and undermines racial and economic diversity. In November 2000, a report to the trustees by a university committee on admissions called for a one-third cut in applicants accepted for development reasons. Mr. Guttentag says he plans to reduce such admissions to about 65 this year to achieve “greater flexibility” in shaping next fall’s freshman class.

Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane thinks the Supreme Court should uphold affirmative action because preferences for children of potential donors is “disproportionately favorable to white students…. The two are definitely linked, and it seems odd to me to allow one sort of preference, but not the other.”

The University of Michigan, defendant in the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court, wants to continue to allow preferential treatment for minorities. It also gives preferential admissions treatment to children of potential donors — but only if they’re white or Asian.

Discretionary Points
Under the 150-point “Selection Index” Michigan uses for undergraduate admissions, a review committee may award 20 “discretionary” points to children of donors, legislators, faculty members and other key supporters. Minorities underrepresented in higher education — Hispanics, African-Americans and Native
Americans — qualify for an automatic 20 points, but they are ineligible for the discretionary points. The university says less than 1% of admitted students receive this edge.

The late Terry Sanford, Duke president from 1969 to 1985, practiced donor preference on a large scale. Mr. Sanford, a gregarious former North Carolina governor, used his wide circle of contacts in business, politics and the media to elevate Duke from a regional to a national university. According to Keith Brodie, Duke’s president emeritus, Mr. Sanford would personally meet each year with the admissions and development directors to ensure special attention for 200 of these friends’ children applying to Duke. More than 100 would ultimately enroll.

As president from 1985 to 1993, Dr. Brodie says, he removed himself from the admissions process, resisted lobbying by some trustees, and trimmed the number of underqualified students admitted due to donor preference to 20 a year. “A Duke education is too valuable an asset to squander,” says Dr. Brodie, a professor of psychiatry, who was criticized as president for a lack of fund-raising zeal. “University presidents are under greater pressure than ever to raise money,” he adds. “I suspect many of them have turned to admissions to help that process.

Harold Wingood, who was senior associate director of admissions under Dr. Brodie, recalls that 30 to 40 students per year were upgraded from “rejected” to “wait-list,” or from “wait-list” to “admit” due to their family ties. “We’d take students in some cases with SAT scores 100 points below the mean, or just outside the top 15% of their class,” says Mr. Wingood, now dean of admissions at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “They weren’t slugs, but they weren’t strong enough to get in on their own.”

The numbers have increased under Ms. Keohane, Duke’s current president. Duke says it admitted about 125 nonalumni children in 1998, and again in 1999, who had been tentatively rejected or wait-listed prior to considering family connections. It accepted 99 such students in 2000. Similar data aren’t available for 2001 or 2002, the school says.

Ms. Keohane says she didn’t intentionally increase the number of wealthy applicants given a leg up. She says “it is possible that the numbers drifted upward” during the recent $2 billion-fundraising campaign because “more people in development expressed interest in candidates. But this was certainly not a policy directive, or even a conscious choice.”

The system at Duke works this way: Through its own network and names supplied by trustees, alumni, donors and others, the development office identifies about 500 likely applicants with rich or powerful parents who are not alumni. (Children of major alumni donors are given similar preference in a separate process.) It cultivates them with campus tours and basic admissions advice; for instance, applying early increases their chances. It also relays the names to the admissions office, which returns word if any of the students forget to apply — so development can remind them.

The development office then winnows the initial 500 into at least 160 high-priority applicants. Although these names are flagged in the admissions-office computer, admissions readers evaluate them on merit, without regard to family means. About 30 to 40 are accepted, the others tentatively rejected or wait-listed. During an all-day meeting in March, Mr. Guttentag and John Piva Jr., senior vice president for development, debate these 120 cases, weighing their family’s likely contribution against their academic shortcomings.
In her 2001 book, “Admissions Confidential,” former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor recalled that most admissions officers “hated to see these kids get in” because they were “the weakest part of our applicant pool.” Nevertheless, most of the 120 students are admitted.

Once these children of privilege enroll, the development office enlists their parents as donors and fund raisers. According to Dr. Brodie, Duke’s parent program originated as a forum for parent concerns about safety issues, but it has evolved into a fund-raising vehicle.

A committee of more than 200 nonalumni parents provides its volunteer army for the four classes currently at Duke. Committee members usually give at least $1,000 to Duke, and the eight co-chairmen and the national chairman much more — including at least two seven-figure gifts endowing faculty chairs.

Membership in the parents’ committee is by invitation only and is overwhelmingly white. Lately, one affluent Chicago suburb — Lake Forest — has dominated its higher echelons. Lake Forest luminaries on the committee have included department-store heir Marshall Field V, who has given at least $100,000 to Duke; Paul Clark, chief executive of Icos Corp., a biotech firm; Robert DePree, chairman of corn-meal maker House-Autry Mills Inc.; and investment banker Willard Bunn III, Maude’s father.

The Lake Forest couples are social friends, serve on many of the same Chicago-area boards and several sent their children to the same private elementary school, Lake Forest Country Day. They write recommendations to Duke for each other’s children.

‘Pretty Intimate Group’

Susan DePree, Robert’s wife, describes the Duke parents committee as a “pretty intimate group” but not “clubby.” She declined to say how much she and her husband have contributed to Duke, but says they solicited at least one six-figure gift from a parent-committee member.

Maude Bunn, whose family lives in Lake Forest, attended an elite boarding school in Lawrenceville, N.J., where the Bunn Library opened in 1996. She says other Lake Forest parents recommended her to Duke.

Cissy Bunn acknowledges her daughter didn’t fit the academic profile of a Duke student. “She’s bright, she had good grades, but she doesn’t meet the superstar status,” Mrs. Bunn says. “Did my normal child take the place of somebody who could really make a difference in the world? Sure, yes, to an extent. But there are so many things you can lose sleep over. I’m happy for me and my child.

Maude Bunn says she initially felt very awkward at Duke because her admission “wasn’t necessarily on my own merits.” But these days, the sophomore says she is thriving. “The more time I’ve spent here, I feel more and more confident — they didn’t have to take me if they didn’t think I was equal to all the other students they are admitting,” she says. “I’m doing just as well as everybody I know if not better.” She is studying art history and wants a career in fashion.

Now her younger sister Meg, a high-school senior, is applying to Duke. Maude says the family likes Meg’s chances. “The people my mother works with for fund raising told her, ‘It’s really hard to get the first child in,’ ” she says. “After that, sisters and brothers are easier.” Duke says it, like many universities, gives some preference to siblings.

Mrs. Bunn says she’s not twisting anyone’s arm. “I told them, ‘If she’s qualified at all, that would be lovely,’ ” she says. “If she gets in, I’d be happy to stay on the parents’ committee.”

As college admission becomes increasingly competitive, parents try to help their children’s chances in any way they can. Duke accepted Jane Hetherington in 2000, despite SAT scores in the mid-1200s and what she calls “average” grades in high school. She attributes her acceptance to a “wonderful recommendation” by Norman Christensen Jr., then dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, a graduate program. She got the recommendation after one meeting with him.

At the time, her father, John Hetherington, was vice president of Westvaco Corp., a paper-products firm that had donated to the school, sponsored research there and hired some of its graduates. Mr. Hetherington asked a family friend on the school’s advisory board to have the dean interview Ms. Hetherington.

Mr. Christensen, a Duke professor, says he was impressed by Ms. Hetherington’s devotion to environmental studies. The student’s father later reciprocated by arranging a meeting between the school’s new dean and Westvaco’s chief executive officer, hoping the company would increase support for the school. Nothing came of it, says Mr. Hetherington. (Westvaco merged with Mead Corp. last year.)

“I don’t feel we benefited from anything you would describe as the traditional white power structure network,” says Mr. Hetherington, who is now a Republican state representative in Connecticut and favors a “sunset law” for affirmative action. He doesn’t think his position affected his daughter’s acceptance into college. “It worked out for some reason,” he says. “In all candor, we got lucky.”

College Admissions Officers Look for More Square Pegs

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Featured in TIME in Partnership with CNN

Forget about raising those perfectly-rounded Renaissance kids. Colleges now are looking for more angular students

Last week the office of public affairs at Middlebury College dispatched a press release to education reporters cheering the soon-to-arrive class of 2005. There’s the young man who’s appeared in “Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda,” the recent Russian émigré who launched a successful magazine and the Kenyan-born, India-raised student who founded a nationwide human rights coalition. And finally the professional clown who toured the U.S. performing in Circus Smirkus.

Like colleges everywhere, Middlebury was deluged with a record number of applications — 5,400 — for the 515 seats in its freshman class. Which means that, as every parent, teacher, student and guidance counselor well knows, the competition for admission has grown exponentially fiercer in recent years. The not unsubtle subtext of Middlebury’s communiqué is that unless you’re a world-renowned peace crusader — or Alan Alda sidekick! or circus performer! or something else truly eccentric! — the odds of getting into an elite school have lately shrunk to Powerball-like improbability.

Much of this is a simple matter of math — more and more kids are applying for a set number of spots. But as Rachel Toor, a former admissions office at Duke University, explains in her newly published tell-all, “Admissions Confidential,” colleges like Duke are now casting about for a different breed of student. For years, the conventional wisdom has held that admissions committees rewarded all-around applicants (hence the whole generation of parents who’ve nourished their children on a steady diet of piano lessons, soccer games and pottery classes from birth). Today, writes Toor, “most of the students I meet on my travels are BWRKs. That’s admissionsese for bright well-rounded kids. You know, the ones who do everything right. They take honors classes, study hard enough to be in the top 10 percent of their class, get solid 1350s on their SATs, play sports, participate in student government, do community service (sometimes even when it’s not required). They’re earnest, they’re hardworking, they’re determined. They do everything right and most of them don’t have a chance of getting in. . .unless they discover a protein or publish a novel, they are going to look a lot like all of the other qualified applicants.” Instead, Toor says, admissions officers are drawn to “angular kids, those with a much more focused interest or talent.”

There are some upsides to this new approach. Who, for example, wants to sit in a seminar brimming only with trombone playing, letter wearing football players who chaired their student governments? What’s more, looking beyond renaissance students, who tend to be children of privilege, has allowed admissions officers at elite schools to inject a measure of meritocracy into a process that, at an earlier point in history, largely consisted of the guidance counselor at Andover telling Harvard University which students it should admit. The downside, in Toor’s view, is that with no agreed upon standard of admission, the individual whims of committee members hold much greater sway.

Toor and her colleagues go to bat for students they dub “mini-mes.” Toor herself is a leftist marathoner who falls for socially conscious students who write their essays about running. She also champions a young woman whose answer to the Why Duke? essay begins “because it isn’t Yale.” (Toor, a Yale alum, writes of her own college years: “While I was there I never used the words ‘Yale’ and ‘happy’ in the same sentence.”) “I was personally most turned off,” she confides of her first year on the job, “by the Junior Statesmen of America and by kids who started investment clubs at their schools.” Nor did she look kindly on applications that seemed too polished, sensing the handiwork of a pricey college consultant.

I witnessed the “angular” approach for myself two years ago when Cornell University permitted me to observe its admissions meetings. In Cornell’s distinct parlance, renaissance students were dubbed “spread too thin.” The admission officers also had a highly refined ability to detect whether kids were undertaking activity after activity to pad their resumes — or out of genuine enthusiasm. Sometimes this was just a hunch, other times committee members added up the time students claimed to spend on various extracurriculars only to realize the total exceeded the number of hours in a school week. In the final decision-making process, idiosyncrasy trumped well-roundedness nearly every time.

Which, in the end, is actually a good thing. As scary as it seems to conceive of admission decisions hinging on an officer’s personal politics or mood, there is something comforting about the randomness of it all. It makes signing up one’s third grader for violin, judo and Boy Scouts suddenly seem senseless. Or hiring a $20,000 college consultant to help package your child. Or doing anything other than relaxing and letting your child pursue what he or she actually wants to do — even if that means going off to join the circus.

Collegebound juniors: Listen up!

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Article featured in U.S. News & World Report

Alex Kingsbury is an education writer for U.S. News & World Report. He is a graduate of the George Washington University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, though neither school taught him to be a better fisherman. A native of Maine, Kingsbury has a passion for Cold War history, the Boston Red Sox, and fried mozzarella sticks.

Rachel Toor, author of Admissions Confidential, has spent nearly a decade in the college admissions business. A former admissions officer at Duke University who now works as a private college counselor, Toor has some college knowledge to share with collegebound juniors.

What should juniors do right now if they are thinking about college?
Start talking to grown-ups who are not your parents or teachers. Find someone you can trust who is not directly involved in the process.

So Mom and Dad aren’t good enough?
Your parents will go insane. Junior year it’s not so bad. But as it gets closer and closer to application time, they lose their minds. Even the best parents lose their minds. It’s brutalizing what the college admissions process can do to the kids, and no one wants to watch someone get beat up.

So where do you find these adults—craigslist?
Friends of parents are good; employers are good also. There’s nothing better than being the “cool grown-up” in someone’s life. For a lot of adults, it’s really fun to be involved with somebody at that stage in their life, because it’s really interesting all the stuff that they go through. Start off by asking them what books they are reading and what books they recommend students read. For one thing, it starts students reading more widely, which will be very helpful.

Will parents feel left out?
In fact, parents also need to find someone to talk with. They need to be reassured that their kids are great candidates, but they also need someone to say, “Listen, Johnny is a great kid, but getting into some of these schools is very competitive and Johnny may not go to Harvard. But look at all the other schools that Johnny could go to and succeed.”

Any examples of kids and parents overlooking something?
One of my counseling clients, an awesome girl, was a junior in high school last year and was worried that she would not get into her top-choice school. I asked her what activities she did. “Nothing special,” she said. “I do all the typical things: cheerleading, trying to help develop alternative energies, and prom committee.” I love that quote: “I do all the typical things.” Many students do amazing things, and neither the parent nor the student realizes that what they see as typical or boring is really unique. The admissions process is about emphasizing how you are different from the other applicants, and having unique activities can really help.

Parents are spending tens of thousands on advisers to shape their kids’ game plans.

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Even valedictorians are finding it hard to land spots at the nation’s most-selective colleges, so “Ben” wasn’t about to take chances. Over the past four years, the New Jersey father of two has spent about $30,000 for guidance from Michele Hernandez, a Lake Oswego, Ore. college counselor who charges up to $36,000 per student for advice on everything from what courses to take to how to spend summers.

“We have regular kids who are pretty bright and nice and do a lot of activities,” says Ben, who, like many interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. “We were looking to give our kids whatever advantages we could.” Both sons were accepted by their first-choice schools: small, private colleges that admit about 25% of applicants.

Despite the soaring cost of college, a growing number of families are paying as much as a year’s tuition, room, and board on independent consultants such as Hernandez. They seek advice not just on completing applications but also on the raw material that goes into them — courses and extracurricular activities. That means bringing these advisers on board as early as eighth or ninth grade.

Although college admissions officers take a dim view of these unregulated advisers, the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., a nonprofit in Fairfax, Va., estimates that some 22% of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges this year have used them.

Some advisers say they’re turning away potential clients. Hernandez began offering four-day “application boot camps” for about $8,000 last summer to accommodate overflow from her practice, which currently numbers 60 clients. “We’re very selective about the students we work with,” says Victoria Hsiao, a partner at IvySuccess in Garden City, N.Y., which charges up to $28,500. The firm has about 100 clients right now and has served about 1,000 since opening nine years ago.

The guides say their goal is simply to find a good match for each student. But with the nation’s most-selective colleges receiving record numbers of applications, they say they must also help their clients stand out. High school students “often don’t know what’s typical and what’s interesting about themselves,” says Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University who charges up to $200 an hour. “I try to figure out what it is about them that’s going to get an admissions officer to fall in love.”


What you get depends on how close your child is to attending college. When a client signs on just before senior year, the focus is generally on the application process. Most counselors do not make calls to admissions officers on clients’ behalf. But they urge students to express a strong interest themselves by, for example, contacting professors whose research is of interest and attending lectures. To prepare her 200-odd clients for interviews, Katherine Cohen, founder of New York’s IvyWise, which charges up to $30,000, videotapes practice sessions for those who need it. Advisers help students compile activity resumés and athletic videos to send to coaches. They also help brainstorm essay ideas and edit drafts. The goal: to get students to write in a compelling way about a revealing experience or aspect of their personalities. A Princeton University student from a Western state says Hernandez urged him to explore “what home means to me and how heading east will never change the Western part of me.” Students whose parents hire consultants earlier receive guidance on much more. Some counselors say they steer students to unusual activities. IvySuccess encouraged a girl intent on Massachusetts Institute of Technology to enroll in beauty pageants, an activity that’s not typical of the school’s applicant pool. She was accepted. Counselors also help students think of ways to demonstrate a serious commitment to their interests. Cohen, whose agency advises on admissions from preschool through grad school, suggests submitting history papers to The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school authors. She has introduced clients interested in internships to contacts in film, art, publishing, and on Wall Street. “To get into a top school, you have to show that you’re different and that you’ve done some amazing things,” Hernandez says, repeating a theory that most counselors espouse. Advisers say they are also seeing demand from students with learning disabilities. “Anna” relied on Cohen in her final three years at a private school in California to help her choose a challenging mix of courses that left time for theater: Anna’s credits include an off-Broadway play. Working partly at Cohen’s offices the summer before senior year, she polished off her applications ahead of deadline. “I don’t work well under pressure,” says Anna, who plans to major in theater and music at Brown University. Are the services worth it? Most advisers claim a high success rate in getting students into first-choice schools, but it’s impossible to verify their data. Anyone can set up shop —such counselors’ ranks have doubled, to about 3,000, in the past five years — because the field is unregulated, and practitioners aren’t required to have experience in college admissions or high school counseling. College admissions officers say such advice makes sense only for students at high schools that lack adequate guidance counseling. Some applicants “end up with a whiff of packaging that undercuts their candidacy,” says Bruce Poch, Pomona College’s dean of admissions. Many officials also worry that students are learning to put success above everything else. They point to Cohen client and Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan, who admitted plagiarizing portions of her novel about a high school student’s obsessive pursuit of Harvard. Cohen had introduced Viswanathan to a literary agent. “I have a fear that this [sort of counseling] is undermining people’s sincerity,” says Tom Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College. Parents claim they get their money’s worth. Sometimes, they say, a third party can motivate kids in ways a parent cannot. For example, Hernandez nixed one of Ben’s son’s summer camp plans. “She said: ‘You’ve got to broaden your horizons,”‘ Ben recalls. The teen enrolled in a physics program at a university instead. “You never know whether you really need a counselor,” he says. “All you know is you gave it your best shot.