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and Yale are overloaded with them already. She notices our
daughter has taken some Latin, so she tells her to downplay
the math and science, and announce her intention of
majoring in classics. That should impress them!”
Evidently, it didn’t. Marshall and I found out much later
that the big guns turned the daughter down. So did most of
the medium-sized guns. We didn’t hear it from the father, but
friends of friends told us that the girl was
fine with the outcome and eventually
loved where she ended up. The father
was said to still be recovering.
I found his story vaguely amusing
and a little tawdry, but also mildly
troubling. If the competition had become
that fierce, perhaps my husband and I
should reexamine our serene attitude
about which college to attend and how to
get in. Sure, neither of our two daughters
was in high school yet, but maybe it was
time to do something.
When I broached the subject with
Marshall, he became enraged. The only way I could calm him
down was to promise never to reinvent our children as classics
majors, not even if they begged us.
Our stack of college guides
Once the family roomwas reasonably well organized,
I settled down with our stack of college guides. There were
insider’s guides and outsider’s guides; compilations of the
best colleges and compendiums of even better colleges;
testimonials on colleges that made a difference in lives, and
exposes of colleges that had no impact.
The more I read them, the more I began to think our
boorish friend in Hawaii hadn’t been as alarmist as he seemed.
Colleges I’d never heard of, some more obscure than my own
alma mater, were turning down 40, 50, 60 percent of their
applicants. Competition at the brand-name schools had gone
beyond the ridiculous.
Then I recalled hearing an administrator at Harvard trying
to explain to a group of alumni why so many of their brilliant
little legacies were being turned away by the university. In
one year alone, he said, the undergraduate admissions office
rejects enough valedictorians to fill the freshman class four
times over. Or was it the entire undergraduate college? I
couldn’t remember, although with that kind of competition, I
wasn’t sure it made any difference.
Stanford administrators were telling their alumni virtually
the same thing. Not only were they turning away students
who had been first in their classes, they were turning away
valedictorians who had perfect 1600 scores on their SATs.
There just wasn’t room for all of them.
I began to feel uneasy. I should have had a better fix
on the situation. After all, I had written extensively about
colleges and universities as a journalist inWashington and
Los Angeles some years earlier, and had even done a stint as a
college admissions officer. Clearly, I had been away from it too
long. I needed to knowmore.
That is how I found myself packing to attend the annual
meeting of the National Association for College Admission
Counseling in Long Beach, California. I had covered the
organization from time to time in the mid-1970s. Maybe,
I thought, I can get some inside tips, or at least some
“You’re not going to talk to any of the colleges I’m
interested in, are you?” my daughter asked with alarm.
“No, this is purely professional,” I said, trying to be the
cool, inquisitive reporter rather than the frantic mother. “I’m
just going to poke around and see if there are any trends
worth writing about.
“There are some sessions about problem parents that look
interesting,” I told my husband. “If I pick up any tips, I’ll let
you know.”
“You’ll fit right in,” he assured me.
In search of answers
The Long Beach Convention Center is a large, glassy
structure overlooking the city’s harbor. Despite the warm and
sunny Southern California day, people were milling about
in tweed jackets and sweater vests, looking very east coast. I
didn’t know when I had seen so many men in bow ties—or,
for that matter, any kind of ties. It was similarly odd to see so
many women walking around with fully covered midriffs.
I went in search of someone who could answer my
questions, and managed to snag the director of college
counseling at a high-powered New York prep school. “There’s
been a sea change,” he said as we sat outside on some steps.
When he started in the business in 1985, he talked to students
about “good choices, colleges that matched their interests,
were the right size, in the right location. Now it’s all about
strategy. They want to know, ‘What’s the best place I can get in,
and how do I go about doing it?’”
There are plenty of colleges and universities in the country,
he said, about 2,000 in all. The problem is with the 75 that are
really competitive, meaning fewer than half of the applicants
get in. There are more and more 18-year-olds applying to
those 75 colleges today than ever before. Moreover, there is a
higher percentage of smart 18-year-olds applying.
“Let me give you the history behind this,” my New York
expert said.
In the 1960s, as the post-war Baby Boom generation
crowded into the system, colleges and universities built new
facilities and enlarged their faculties. By the mid-1970s,
the boom had collapsed, brought down by a deepening
population trough. Private colleges and universities struggled
to attract students. Top colleges hired publicists and mounted
recruiting and advertising campaigns. Prestigious universities
in the northeast began reaching into public schools in the
south and midwest and plucking out the best graduates. Soon,
the smartest student in a high school in Arizona no longer
settled for an honors program in a state university. That same
kid was now applying to Yale.
Colleges and universities that had long had excellent
reputations in their own regions but were largely unknown
elsewhere also began national recruiting campaigns.
Institutions no one had heard of one year became hot tickets
the next; their applications doubled and tripled. Small
colleges and medium-sized universities that had once been
open to strong students suddenly found themselves wait-
I swore never to
be one of those
hysterical parents who
are convinced their
children’s fates are
determined by where
they go to college.