"Nice Kid, But..."

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

It's what you have to do these days to avoid becoming another NBK--admissions jargon for "nice kid, but..." As in, "but we're going to pass." As in, "but he's going on the wait list."

"You know, 20 years ago it seemed like there would be a couple of kids who were on the football team and in the debate club and on the chess team and were National Merit Scholars," says Josh Hepola, who works for Kaplan Test Prep tutoring kids for the SAT. "Just a handful of kids. And everyone else was just run-of-the-mill, just Joe Average high school guy. It definitely seems nowadays that a much larger percentage of kids try and do all these different activities. There are more superstars, so to speak."

Back then, Niket's only problem would have been deciding which school he wanted to attend. It's a little more complicated in 2004.

Pam Mathai got into Rice, but says that she really would have been happy getting into almost any school.
Mark Graham
Pam Mathai got into Rice, but says that she really would have been happy getting into almost any school.
Switching from private to public school helped the Looney family get their daughters into Vanderbilt and UT. Wells McMurray, below, director of college counseling at the Greenhill School, believes that gambit is rarely used.
Photos by Mark Graham
Switching from private to public school helped the Looney family get their daughters into Vanderbilt and UT. Wells McMurray, below, director of college counseling at the Greenhill School, believes that gambit is rarely used.


No one can agree when applying to college turned into a casino game where, more often than not, the house wins. Some high school counselors and private college consultants say eight years ago. Others settle on five; a few say two. But everyone agrees on one thing: It's become more competitive because, quite simply, more people are competing.

"The colleges aren't accepting more students," says Veronica Pulido, director of college counseling at St. Mark's. "They're still accepting the exact same number, but they have to say no to more people."

Here's a snapshot of the playing field, according to The State of College Admission 2003-2004, a report commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC): In 2003, 2.9 million students graduated from high school in the United States, and more than 60 percent of them applied to and enrolled in college. Both numbers are expected to grow until 2010. The same year, 76 percent of the colleges NACAC surveyed said they received more applications than they had in 2002. Same goes for the previous four years.

In laymen's terms, getting into the college of your choice can be a crapshoot.

"That's exactly the terminology that my brother uses, and both of his children graduated from Princeton," says Jan Miranda, the college placement counselor at Trinity Christian Academy. "He said for every student at Princeton, there are five who look just like them on paper. So, it is a crapshoot as to who gets in and who doesn't."

Indeed, to college admissions officers these days, the vast majority of applicants differ only by name. High test scores? Check. Strong high school curriculum? Yep. Stellar transcript? Uh-huh. Great recommendations? Boom. Played varsity sports, volunteered at a soup kitchen, presided over the National Honor Society? Done, done and done. As Rachel Toor, who was an admissions officer at Duke from 1997 to 2000, says in her book Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process, "You'd be surprised at how similar many of our 14,000 applicants look."

So which students get in? Toor says the applications aren't fed into a computer that automatically decides whether to admit or deny. Instead, she says, it's an intensely personal process. Yes, there are standard guidelines that the officers follow, and yes, there are some automatic admissions. Ultimately, however, it comes down to whether the officer assigned to the case can sell the rest of the admissions department on a particular student. Someone who majored in art history may champion an aspiring artist with lower scores over a better-performing kid who's looking for a business degree. People tend to connect with those more like themselves. It's a human process, open to interpretation and capable of mistakes. That's why Toor got out.

"I am troubled by the arbitrariness of the decision-making process," she writes, "and by the qualifications and intellectual merits of those who are sitting in judgment of the applicants."

But with an applicant pool increasingly monochromatic, someone has to separate the wheat from the chaff, even when it's mostly wheat. Qualified applicants will be rejected. It's a shame, but not a surprise, then, when someone like Niket Biswas falls through the cracks. The same has happened before and will happen again. Brenda Prine, a counselor at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, tells the story of Tanya Gustafson, Pearce's valedictorian in 1998. She had everything academically, including a near-perfect SAT. Still, she didn't get into her top choice, Stanford. Prine called the school on Gustafson's behalf, looking for answers.

"And they said, 'Well, she doesn't have a passion,'" Prine recalls. "'We're looking for somebody with a passion in life, whether it's chess or gymnastics or horseback riding--any kind of passion.' She was really one-dimensional with her academics and being number one. That's all she had, and she didn't get in."

As Prine and other college counselors have discovered, a varied lifestyle is the order of the day. Admissions officers are looking for BWRKs, shorthand for "bright, well-rounded kids." High numbers don't always mean higher chances of acceptance: In 1998, Harvard rejected one out of every four kids with a perfect 1600 on their applications. But then again, they also denied admission to plenty of kids with 1500s and a passion for, say, model trains.

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