"Nice Kid, But..."

To get into the right college, sometimes you have to be better than perfect

The kid calls it luck, says it with a little laugh and a small smile, as if he´s sharing a secret. Says it casually, his dark eyes flitting from side to side before they land in his lap. It´s the same self-effacing manner he adopts whenever the subject of Niket Biswas and his long list of accomplishments come up. Like it´s no big deal. Like it could happen to anyone.

Don't believe it. He may be modest, but he's not ordinary. Niket Biswas is the kind of kid fathers hope their daughters bring home, high school principals single out in assemblies, college admissions officers camp out on front porches for, CEOs give signing bonuses and company Cadillacs to. He'll be your boss one day, and you'll love him.

It's not just because of that gaudy 1600 on his SAT, that dreamed-about perfect score so few kids ever turn into reality. That's only part of it. His high school résumé looks as though it were torn out of a textbook: National Merit Scholar, National Honor Society president, student council representative, Math Club, French Club, varsity tennis.

For $100 an hour, Jan Miranda guides parents and students through the minefield of college admissions. Next year, she'll charge $200.
Mark Graham
For $100 an hour, Jan Miranda guides parents and students through the minefield of college admissions. Next year, she'll charge $200.
At Karen Dillard's Test Prep, David Dillard shows off the restroom walls, which are papered with SAT questions.
Mark Graham
At Karen Dillard's Test Prep, David Dillard shows off the restroom walls, which are papered with SAT questions.

There's more: Niket graduated 27th out of a class of 1,255 at Plano East Senior High School, despite taking the rigorous International Baccalaureate course load. He helped found KRIPA, a volunteer group made up of Indian kids in his community who pitch in at nursing homes and homeless shelters. He even says things like "I wish I knew how to fly like the birds in the sky," which he actually did say to The Dallas Morning News when it profiled him in its Collin County edition.

But the 1600 is what perks up people's ears. According to the College Board, which oversees the SAT, 897 perfect scores were reported in 2003, out of several hundred thousand. Niket may call his perfect SAT score lucky, but rest assured luck had nothing to do with it.

Well, almost nothing.

"He didn't practice anything at all," says his mother, Debjani, laughing. She's perched next to him on the couch in the living room of the family's comfortable Allen home, a silent observer until now.

"I took a lot of practice tests," Niket protests.

"Kids do, but you didn't, really."

"Well, generally."

"Generally, yes, that's what the ideal child does," Debjani finishes, turning back to her visitor. "But he took his SATs once, and he got a lower score, like 14- or 13-something. Then he read for three weeks after that and then got 1600, perfect score. When we were looking at the Web site to see, he said, '800, 800.' And I said, 'I bet that means that's what you can get in all.'" She giggles at the memory. "Then he said, 'No, Mom, it says my name next to it.'"

The most recent batch of college-related correspondence Niket received wasn't as positive as that Web site visit, however. The letters came with the kind of cheery, false civility of a flight attendant. The first came in mid-April from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was the top choice for the prospective engineering major. They rejected him. Oh, well, he wasn't sure he could afford the MIT tuition anyway. At least that was out of the way.

There was always Harvard. They'd figure out the money end of it if he were accepted there. Nope, they put Niket on their wait list. Maybe Rice, then. No. He was put on the wait list there, too. What about Duke? He'd already visited the school in junior high as part of its Talent Identification Program. With his stats and that connection, Niket might as well start scouting dorms, right? Wait list. Within a couple of weeks, it was over.

A month later, Niket still can't make sense of it.

"Schools like MIT are truly elite..." he says.

But you are elite, he's told.

"I know one person who got into MIT from my school," he continues. She was ranked No. 2 in the class and had an eye-popping application. Niket knows some kids who got into Rice, too. But most of his friends didn't get into what he calls "the top of the top"--Harvard and MIT.

Niket and his friends aren't the only ones being shut out: High school seniors across the country are saying the same thing. There are no guarantees anymore. As more kids compete for admission to top-flight colleges, more top-flight candidates are being produced. And colleges are admitting the same number of freshmen they did 10 and 20 years ago.

So wannabe college students and their parents are doing their best to improve the odds. That means applying at dozens of schools, spending thousands on college consultants and test-prep services or turning high school into a four-year audition, working nonstop on everything from extra-credit homework to extracurricular charities until college seems like a relief in comparison. They flock to the message boards on Web sites like College Confidential (www.collegeconfidential.com), looking for tricks of the admissions trade or simply to vent their frustration. Some are even transferring to different high schools so they can stand out for college admissions officers at upper-echelon private universities or safely snuggle into the top 10 percent of their graduating class, guaranteeing acceptance at the University of Texas or Texas A&M.

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