Some Students Strikeout Everywhere

Some Students Strike Out Everywhere; Others Find ‘Safety’ Starts Looking Pretty Good


Erica A. Seldin finished in the top 5 percent of her class at Cherry Creek High School in suburban Denver, while taking a demanding curriculum that included 10 Advanced Placement courses. She received the highest score possible — five — on most of her AP tests. Ms. Seldin was also president of the school’s Thespian Society, acting in and directing a number of plays. So when it came to applying to college two years ago, she aimed high.

Ms. Seldin compiled a college list that she says included “one reach school, two good matches, and two safeties.” Her reach was Columbia University, to which she applied early decision. Her good matches were Amherst College and Washington University in St. Louis, and her safeties were Brandeis University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. “My counselors and teachers indicated my list was fine,” she recalls.

But Ms. Seldin was rejected by four of the five institutions. Only Colorado accepted her. “I never imagined that would happen,” she says. “I was shocked.”

Like Ms. Seldin, Jesse G. Hurdus applied to college with high hopes and a strong academic record — nearly perfect SAT scores, and an almost-straight-A average at a demanding science magnet high school in Fairfax County, Va. But he was rejected by Cornell and Rice Universities, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only his safety school, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, admitted him.

Ms. Seldin’s and Mr. Hurdus’s college searches are hardly the norm. But they reflect the fact that elite institutions are becoming increasingly selective and, as a result, creating growing uncertainty and frustration among students and their families. In this environment, it is easy to forget that 90 percent of college freshmen polled in an annual survey reported they were attending their first-choice or second-choice college. The survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, was based on responses from 271,441 first-year students at 393 four-year institutions.

Still, every year a number of students find themselves trapped in an admissions nightmare. They end up rejected by the colleges they most want to attend or, worse yet, strike out entirely and don’t get in anywhere they applied.

“Sometimes it is a student who didn’t research his or her options well enough in advance because they are unsophisticated about the process,” says Monica C. Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College. “Sometimes it is a student who is sophisticated about the process, yet, in spite of good efforts from college-counseling folks, chooses to overshoot. And sometimes it is a candidate who is great in every way, yet doesn’t have the ‘edges’ to rise to the top of anyone’s pool.”

During the three years he served as vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University, Charles S. Nolan routinely received calls in the spring from counselors, parents, and students asking whether it was too late to apply. He says many of the calls involved students who had simply reached too high and found themselves rejected by every institution to which they had applied. During Mr. Nolan’s tenure, he says, Santa Clara accepted about four such students a year who met its academic criteria.

While it is not widely known outside admissions circles, some colleges leave slots open for late applicants with strong academic records. Scott W. Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment at Allegheny College, says that all four institutions he has worked at saved spots for a handful of outstanding students who applied in the spring or summer. “The kind of kid who applies only to the Ivies and doesn’t get in any of them is the kind of kid we love to see,” Mr. Friedhoff says.

Allysen P. Arbelaez of Medina, Ohio, is one student who managed to find a college that would accept her at the 11th hour. After she learned in November of her senior year that she was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy, she did not apply anywhere else. But her acceptance to the academy was contingent on passing a medical exam. Much to her astonishment, she failed because of an eye condition. When Ms. Arbelaez received the bad news last spring, “I thought my life was over,” she says. “I felt I had worked hard all my life, and now my dream school was being taken away from me.”

She was too stunned to pursue other options. Fortunately her mother was not. She insisted that her daughter come up with a list of 10 schools she wanted to attend. Ms. Arbelaez’s mother called them all. Some admissions officers told her it was too late. But after asking about her academic credentials, three institutions said they would consider her application. One of them was Case Western Reserve University, where she is now a freshman.

Liz Woyczynski, director of undergraduate admission at Case Western, says Ms. Arbelaez happened to come along in the right year. The previous year, Case Western had closed off enrollment in early May because it had surpassed its target for the freshman class. But in the spring of 2006, Case Western still had some openings. The fact that Ms. Arbelaez was a first-generation Hispanic student with a solid academic record, had strong leadership skills, and was interested in the humanities and social sciences made her an attractive applicant at a university where a large proportion of students major in the sciences and in business. Moreover, Case Western, unlike most colleges, enrolls substantially more men than women, so Ms. Arbelaez’s gender worked in her favor.

“I feel that I kind of snuck in here,” she says. “I didn’t know how highly ranked Case was until I came here.”

Instead of desperately looking for a college at the last minute, some students who get shut out opt to do a postgraduate year. In 2005 about 1 percent of 1.3 million full-time freshmen reported a year’s gap between when they graduated from high school and when they began college, according to UCLA’s survey of freshmen. Educators say they believe the majority of this group of students took a year off, while a minority pursued a postgraduate year.

Alan J. Himes chose to study at Bridgton Academy in Maine, which describes itself as the only prep school in the country that offers only a postgraduate year. Lisa M. Antell, who headed admissions at Bridgton for 15 years before recently becoming the school’s director of marketing and communications, says that like Mr. Himes, 20 percent to 25 percent of the 185 students at the all-male school “either didn’t get in where they wanted to go to college, or got in nowhere.”

Mr. Himes, whose home is in Arnold, Md., was so determined to attend Loyola College in Maryland that it was the only place where he applied last year. “I was close-minded,” he says. Even though he acknowledges that he was a mediocre student in high school, “I never considered that I wouldn’t get in,” he says. A talented lacrosse player, he was placed on the waiting list and then rejected by Loyola last June.

By then he had decided he probably wasn’t ready for college. He was planning to enroll in his local community college for a year or two and then transfer to a four-year institution. But when he learned about Bridgton, the idea of a postgraduate year that would help prepare him for college appealed to him. He has done what he calls “a 180-degree turnaround” at the prep school. His grade-point average is 3.6 compared to 2.1 in high school. Last fall he applied under an early-action program to Washington College, in Maryland, and was accepted. He is leaning toward enrolling there this fall.

Those students who are despondent about the way their college search has turned out can take heart from the fact that there are second chances, even in a process as seemingly final as applying to college.

Mr. Hurdus, the student with nearly perfect SAT scores and an impressive transcript at a science magnet school, decided to approach his safety, Virginia Tech, with an open mind. He was offered an academic scholarship and a spot in the university’s honors community. He recently graduated and is now enrolled in a master’s program in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “I ended up loving it,” he says.

(Mr. Hurdus was interviewed for this article before last week’s mass shootings at Virginia Tech. When contacted afterward, he said his feelings about the university had not changed. “The community is so strong, I think this will only make it strong-er,” he said.)

Ms. Seldin, the suburban Denver student who was accepted only by Colorado at Boulder, now believes her SAT score “was really low for most of these schools.” (It was 1300.) “My counselor indicated the score would not be a problem because of my strong grades and AP’s. But I should have applied to more schools. I was misadvised.”

Her counselor, Amy E. Belstra, believes Ms. Seldin “got caught in the unpredictability of the application process. I felt she was a shoo-in for Brandeis. I called Brandeis, and they told me their applications were up 15 to 20 percent. Schools overnight can become highly competitive. In retrospect, I would have encouraged her to find another foundation [safety] school.”

Ms. Seldin was unhappy at the prospect of attending a big public institution like Boulder. But she decided to enroll anyway, with the intention of transferring. It turned out to be a winning strategy. She received straight A’s at Colorado and last year transferred to Columbia, her top choice all along. “At first, I thought everything I had worked for was lost,” Ms. Seldin says. “But I emerged from the experience more confident. I learned that I can make anything happen.”

April, 2007

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