By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Take Chris Bryant. I met Bryant while he was lurking on the College Confidential site, sharing war stories with fellow students. His has more bullet holes than most. He graduated from Klein Forest High School in Houston two years ago. Despite scoring 1510 on his SAT and graduating in the top 2 percent of his class (at a 5A high school) as an Advanced Placement Scholar with Distinction, he was rejected by every school to which he applied. Except for Texas Tech.
Fast-forward two years later, when he applies to transfer to several schools. He says nothing has changed about his numbers, but this time he was accepted to Rice and three Ivy League schools and wait-listed at Harvard. "Which is interesting," Bryant says, "because supposedly transfer admissions are tougher than regular admissions."
Bryant is now deciding whether to attend Dartmouth College or the University of Pennsylvania this fall, though he still hasn't counted out being admitted to Harvard. He has no idea why he was rejected the first go-around or accepted this time.
People prey on this confusion. There are books, Web sites and highly paid consultants that all promise they know the secret to "getting in." It's a cottage industry that has sprouted several other cottage industries. But none of them has the golden ticket that guarantees admission. Except for the well-heeled sons and daughters of rich alumni who donate buildings, no one does.
"I think that's one of those things that escapes parents," says Jon Mamula, who's been a counselor at Highland Park High School for six years. "They think, 'We've got to get up in that ranking. We've got to...whatever.' I truly believe the system works in that they're looking for a good fit for their class, and they're looking for diversity. So schools will take people who, for whatever reason, stand out. It could be their essay. It could be that they've done thousands of hours or hundreds of hours of community service for a good cause. It could be because they have leadership in the school, or it could be class rank, GPA and/or test scores."
This leads to kids chasing their collective tails: Prospective students don't know which colleges will be the right fit for them, so they apply to a few more schools. Flooded with more applications, the schools' decisions to admit or deny become all the more arbitrary. Leading the next graduating class to apply to even more schools. And so on.
"Here's an example," says Marsha Meyers, a consultant at Cohen's College Connection. "Last year, Washington University had, oh, I think 26,000 or 28,000 applications for 1,200 spots. OK? So that kind of says it."
"Just because people were really paranoid," Mathai says. "And for good reason. So I went ahead and applied to tons of places. But I probably should have narrowed down that list a little bit." She laughs.
"I just felt like I was doing something that I had to do and that everyone was telling me that I had to do," she says. "And I was applying to schools that people were telling me I should apply to. In terms of where I wanted to go, I was pretty much happy if I got in anywhere, and I would figure out what I wanted from there on. There was no school that I really, really, really wanted to go to. Which is, I guess, why my list was so freakishly long."
Mathai ended up being accepted at Rice, which is where she'll be in the fall. She's happy with the end result, happier still that it's all over, that the decision has finally been made. But Mathai wasn't as stressed about getting into a good school as some of her friends and family. She knew she'd be fine.
OK, scratch that: She knew she'd be fine after her SAT score came back. Not so much when she took her first pass at the PSAT in her sophomore year. She did well, scoring a 185--the average score, according to the College Board, is around 147--but it put her "in a scared mode, a panicky kind of feeling." (The PSAT compiles three separate numbers--verbal, math and writing, scored on a 20-to-80 scale--into an overall total.)
To alleviate the panic, Mathai's parents enrolled her at Karen Dillard's Test Prep in Plano, one of the best-known and most respected programs in the area.
"There are people that do test preparation that think it is a game," says David Dillard, who's run the business for 12 years with his wife, Karen. "Approach it as all you have to do is know the tricks, and it's a demeaning test, so just learn the tricks and go do it. If it were that simple, all you would need is a list of the tricks and a little bit of time to work on it. Life is not that simple."