A Little League parent gets an early (and alarming) look at the frenzied world of college applications

Call me Worrier-Fretter. That, at least, is how I’d describe myself in college admission-ese, the punchy one-two shorthand that gets tossed around admission offices as a way of distinguishing “Quarterback-Poet” from “Actress-Soccer Player.”

What’s painful to admit is that the two candidates I worry about are 11 and 9 years old. For them, the great reckoning that is college admission is still years away. If I had any sense, I’d allow myself a few more years to fret about things that really are important, like my weight or golf handicap.

Yet in the same way that writers instinctively divide the things they come across into those that would make good stories and those that would not, I find myself dividing my children’s activities into two categories: those that will help them get into college and those that will not. Not that I push them too hard or force them into activities they don’t want to do. But there’s a vague undertow of worry that I ought to be doing more of both. Shouldn’t Miranda be taking piano lessons? Or Chinese? Did we give in too quickly when she wanted to quit gymnastics? Could the funny little movies she’s been making, complete with scripts, costumes, and soundtracks, amount to something more than a cute hobby? And then there’s Sammy: He may not enjoy practicing the piano, but what kid does? He does seem to have a good ear. This is what Little League parents graduate to.

If you think this all sounds crazy, I agree. The world of college admissions is a crazy place these days, as full of anxiety and paranoia as any Graham Greene novel. All around me are adults building résumés for their children. When I ask my friends how their high school-aged kids are preparing, some don’t return my calls; others ask to talk off the record. “Everybody does it, but nobody wants to admit to it,” says an old friend whose daughter is a Princeton student. She is talking not about anything truly sinister, like buying essays from the slew of companies that sell them on the Internet (some promise to deliver essays that are “completely non-plagiarized”). The shameful deed she’s talking about is taking an SAT prep course, which virtually everybody who can afford to does these days. That’s the sunny end of the spectrum. At the other end are people who pay tens of thousands of dollars to admission “coaches” who oversee the whole process, some beginning in a student’s freshman year. Today, increasingly, they are former admission officers working the other side, like spies come in from the cold.

“Parents want to outsource their angst,” explains one such coach, who also asked that I not use his name.

Like his rivals in this rapidly growing industry, he performs a variety of services, some commendable, like educating applicants about the many excellent schools they might otherwise ignore; others dubious, such as suggesting topics for the student’s application essay and then helping to “edit” it, which can mean a whole range of things, from cheerleading or checking grammar to what any fair-minded person would regard as writing the thing. He also puts his charges through mock interviews; steers them to the very best SAT tutors; and tells them which extracurriculars can be grouped into a nicely rounded admission profile. He admits that he frequently counsels kids against working for the student newspaper: “Huge time suck with too little bang for the buck,” he explains.

It was very different when I was applying to colleges in 1973. There was very little pressure: I did not visit a single school, and my dad would have been happy if I’d gone to his alma mater, Rutgers. I applied to just two schools, Princeton and Harvard. I got into both, not because I was so brilliant — I had pretty average SATs and did not take even a single Advanced Placement test — but because I was a recruited athlete (that still helps some).

How, in such a short time, have we managed to inject such ridiculous pressure into the admission process? “What has changed is an extraordinary marketing campaign that’s played upon people’s insecurities,” says Tom Parker, the admission director at Amherst, which, under President Anthony Marx *90, has been working to attract lower-income students who cannot afford private tutoring and coaching. “It’s part of a much larger and more complex phenomenon that I can’t really understand completely, which is: We have now made getting into college the single most important event of a person’s life. It’s really quite loony.”

When I talk to Janet Rapelye, Princeton’s dean of admission for the past four years, she offers me statistical proof of how this mania has changed Princeton admissions. Consulting her records, she tells me that I was one of 8,573 applicants to Princeton’s Class of 1977, and one of 2,091 who got in — an acceptance rate of 24 percent. Compare that to last year, when 18,942 students applied and 1,838 were accepted — a rate of 9.7 percent. To underscore her point about how abruptly this has changed, she notes that as recently as 1993, 13,218 students applied to Princeton, of whom 2,042 were admitted — a rate of 15 percent.

“Even that [acceptance rate] perhaps made a little more sense to the outside world,” says Rapelye. “The reason that it feels so challenging to families now is that the families want guarantees and predictions, and we can’t give them that.”

What she is providing this year on Princeton’s Web site, for the first time ever, are some of Princeton’s admission statistics (go to www.princeton.edu/admission/applyingforadmission/admission_statistics/). This is a way of inoculating her office against the acrimony that often follows rejections. Better to disillusion applicants sooner rather than later. “I thought it was so important that we be more transparent with our numbers and therefore more transparent with

our process,” she says. “[We’re saying,] ‘If your qualifications look like this, here’s the percentage we admitted from that category.’ But even if you have the best grades and scores, there’s no guarantee anybody will be admitted.”

Not anybody?

Rapelye says that of last year’s nearly 19,000 applicants, some 10,000 had SAT scores of 700 or more in all three categories, and that between 5,000 and 6,000 of them had GPAs of 4.0. “What’s hard for families who remember this process from 20 or 30 years ago is that these candidates [today] are competing against thousands of other great kids, not hundreds of other great kids,” she says. “Around 10 years ago, we stopped being able to say, ‘If the student is at this level of qualifications, it’s likely that they’ll be admitted.’ It’s not likely that anyone [in particular] will be admitted now.” Indeed, last year 74 percent of the students who applied with SAT scores of over 2300 were not admitted.

Where did all those extra applicants come from? Partly they represent a demographic bulge produced by all those baby-boomer children. “There are many, many more kids now, and they are definitely applying to more places,” says Rapelye. Partly it’s the allure of American universities to foreign students and the broadening of the applicant base in this country. Also, the Common Application, which first was used in 1975 and now is used by more than 300 schools, has meant that students typically apply to many more colleges than they used to — often to as many as 10 or 12. And Princeton, with its promise of finding financial aid for every admitted student who needs it and its top ranking by U.S. News & World Report for the past eight years — is hyper-selective. Steve LeMenager, who, after 19 years in the Princeton admission office, recently opened a Princeton branch of a London-based admission-consulting business called Edvice Limited, describes the difference this way: “Just about everybody today would not be admitted to the school they attended because it’s so ratcheted up.”

Rapelye sympathizes with families who are going through the process. (Interestingly, in her conversation it’s always “families” who do the applying, as if little sister and even pets have something at stake here.) But she is loath to talk about details of the application process because there’s a small army of people out there — parents, often, more than applicants — who are sure to parse her every remark for clues to what Princeton is looking for. “It’s like being the head of the Fed,” says John Katzman ’81, who founded the Princeton Review soon after graduating from Princeton. The company, which Katzman founded after tutoring a small group of students for the SAT, now operates in 30 countries, offering a wide range of test-prep services, including tutoring, classes, DVDs, and a range of books, including Cracking the SAT, which was a New York Times best-seller.

With such long odds against them, it’s no wonder students turn to admission consultants and tutors, who, contrary to what my generation was told — that you can’t study for the SATs — all but guarantee they’ll raise scores. “They’ll just teach you how to strategize about which questions to answer and which ones to guess on,” says my anonymous coach, who started as an SAT tutor but left because of the extraordinary pressure. “How many minutes into the exam can we get an 800 in math? Can we do it in 36 minutes? How about 24?” It’s not unusual these days for students to take both Kaplan and Princeton Review prep courses to cover all bases, and some even hire tutors for the PSATs, which don’t count in admission decisions. Obviously, this costs a lot of money. “My friends at [Manhattan law firms] Cravath and Skadden don’t make as much as my top SAT tutor,” says this coach, naming $250/hour as a top fee.

With rates like that, the coaching business is booming. “It used to be the kind of thing you’d do in the summer to pick up a few extra dollars,” says Don Betterton, a former Princeton financial aid director and admission officer who now is the Princeton representative of Howard Greene and Associates, one of the oldest college-consulting firms, having started in 1968. “It’s growing exponentially, in the numbers of people who do it, the number of clients they have, and the prices they charge. Now it’s a full-time occupation for a number of people, and there are two industry organizations,” Betterton says. One of them, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), has 4,500 members.

None of this is cheap. One-on-one SAT tutoring from a Princeton Review specialist starts at $2,500, but can go significantly higher if provided by the company’s highest-level tutors, who have earned “elite” status. Coaching is a bit more expensive. At Howard Greene and Associates, for instance, “ongoing counseling” costs $7,000 if the student is applying this year, but an extra $500 for every additional year — or $8,000 for sophomores, for example. Michele Hernandez, founder of Hernandez College Consulting and a former Dartmouth admission officer, charges as much as $40,000 per student but claims she’s gotten 95 percent of her clients into their first-choice schools.

This looks very much like buying your way into a good school, a situation that makes every admission consultant I spoke to uncomfortable. “There are times when I want to just say I’m going to reject everybody with a Manhattan zip code. That’s the nether world for all of this stuff,” says Parker, with a histrionic groan. “The irony is that the people who need these [services] least are the ones who get it. If you are going to the Dalton School in New York City, the last thing you need on earth is an independent counselor. I’d like to take all that money and invest it in the California public schools,” where there are very few guidance counselors.

Surely, there’s a huge difference between studying for the SATs or ACTs and hiring a coach to massage your résumé. After all, virtually all universities require students to take these tests. “The notion that on the most important test you shouldn’t prepare for it seems utterly counter-intuitive to me,” says Katzman, knowing how self-serving this sounds. “Blaming the kids for the mayhem is blaming the victim.” And why shouldn’t colleges want the kids who are willing to do all this extra work? Surely hard work and perseverance are as reliable predictors of success as “aptitude,” which the SATs once claimed to measure.

On the other hand, certain services seem to be clearly unethical. The IECA’s “Principles of Good Practice” warn against offering too much help: “Members shall not write application essays or any portion of an essay for students.” Both the Common Application and Prince-ton’s own application require students to sign a sort of honor-code pledge asserting that they haven’t gotten help in writing their essay. Duke experimented with asking directly, “Is this writing your own?” but dropped the question a few years ago. Leonard Satterwhite, Duke’s acting dean for undergraduate admissions, tells me, “We didn’t feel it gleaned any additional information. ... Many [applicants] said, “‘We got some help from a teacher or parent.’ What it really reinforced for us was that most of the folks ask for some advice.” LeMenager says of Duke’s approach, “What are they going to do if 70 percent said they had help?” And he also wonders why a college assumed the question would be answered honestly. Princeton’s application threatens “disciplinary action, including admission revocation or expulsion, should the information I’ve certified be false.” But as Rapelye acknowledges, “It’s always been hard to police the essays” — especially when her office receives an avalanche of them.

It’s hard to imagine how the limits of acceptable assistance could be defined and how they ever could be enforced. Rapelye says: “We’re looking for consistency in what students say about themselves and what a teacher says about them, and are they able to express themselves well in writing. Do some students abuse that? Yes. We hope that kids are showing us their best side, not the side they think we want to see. There are times when we can just tell a file is too polished. The voice in the writing clearly couldn’t be a student’s voice. It’s an adult’s voice, whether it’s a parent or another adult.”

In fact, long before I knew I’d be writing on this topic, a friend whose son was applying to Michigan and Wisconsin asked me to review his two essays. They weren’t Melville but, fortunately for me, they were pretty good, and I was able to hand them back truthfully with a couple of minor suggestions.

Most admission officers stress that the essay is only part of the picture, and claim to be pretty good at spotting frauds. “We’ve got some very careful readers,” says Rapelye. “On occasion we’ve received the exact same essay from two students at the same high school. If we find that a student has cheated, that they’ve either plagiarized or copied an essay from somewhere else, I will absolutely withdraw my offer of admission, and I have done that in the past. And my colleagues at other schools will do that, too.”

That’s one advantage of having an essay section in the new SAT. It offers a glimpse of a student’s writing that was done when he or she cannot have been coached. “We have plans to use it more this year and to go in and actually look at some writing samples [on the SAT],” Rapleye says. “This is a new process for us. But that’s a tool we intend to use more of.”

Admission people would love to see this coaching toned down or made to disappear. They say they work hard to minimize the advantages rich kids already have. To that end, after years of study that showed that the early-applicant pool tended to be more affluent than the general pool, Princeton decided last fall to join Harvard in doing away with early admissions.

“We had been acutely aware that students who needed financial aid were not well represented in the early pool,” explains Rapelye. “It wasn’t how we chose students, because we tried to be as fair as we could. But how the applicant pool was sorting itself out was a real concern.” After the change was announced, Rapelye was stopped numerous times on campus and thanked by students who told her it had been simply too big a risk to enter the early-applicant pool before they knew what sort of aid package they could expect.

But that probably won’t make all that much difference to most applicants. Indeed, it’s hard to see anything changing the situation. Rapelye points proudly to the expansion of Princeton’s undergraduate student body, which began with the planning of Whitman College. Princeton’s incoming class will have roughly 1,300 students when the new Butler College dorms open, for an increase of about 11 percent.

But she allows that the larger classes won’t do much to ease the pressures.

“Will it lessen the anxiety out there?” says Rapelye. “I don’t think so. This is still going to be an incredibly selective process.” 

Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.

Ethics coach

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values and a frequent commentator on a variety of ethical issues. PAW asked him about the ethics of aspects of admission coaching.

At what point does coaching a candidate for admission become ethically dubious?

I don’t see any clear line, and that’s the problem. It’s obviously wrong for a counselor to write a student’s application, and it’s obviously fine for a counselor to point out that an application is poorly laid out or full of spelling errors. But when it comes to advising students how to plan their lives so as to have the best chance of getting into the college of their choice — that seems much more dubious.

Does Princeton do itself a disservice if it admits students who get help?

It’s a little bit like athletes and drugs: If you asked athletes whether they would be better off if nobody took drugs, everybody would agree. But some of them, being honest, would say, yes, but since other athletes do take drugs, I have to take them as well. Otherwise I’m not competitive.

Everybody would agree that it would be better if no students hired [coaches and tutors] or thought about college admissions when choosing what activities to do in high school. But they would also say that since other students hire coaches and pad their CVs, I’ve got to do it as well. So while I think both the colleges and the students would be better off if you didn’t have this, how you get to that point is a more difficult issue.

Isn’t it possible that the existing system rewards hard work?

You could even argue that if it improves your chances of getting into Princeton to have spent time in Africa helping in some development project, it’s a good thing if people are encouraged to do that sort of thing. If people are encouraged to do good things because they know that putting them on their CV is going to help them get into an elite college, that’s not a bad consequence — even though in a way you’d rather people did that because they can see it’s a worthwhile thing to do. It might be bad, but the consequences will be good. I’ll settle for the consequences.