"Nice Kid, But..."

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

When Looney called Vanderbilt to talk to an admissions officer about her application, he found out what she was getting. The woman he talked to knew all about his daughter and told him Sloan was getting into Vanderbilt whether she applied for early decision or regular admission.

"We've got all the Highland Park kids and all the St. Mark's kids we need here," she told Looney. "We need some inner-city kids."

Maybe Sloan Looney would have made it in on her own, whether the school on her transcript said Lutheran or Woodrow Wilson. Maybe not. Her father doesn't want to minimize what she accomplished in high school: the straight-A report cards, athletic achievements, mock-trial kudos. But the facts speak for themselves. And so do the admissions officers.

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.

"Her SAT--it was pretty good--but it wasn't even as high as the freshman class average at Vanderbilt," Looney says. "They said her ACT and the fact that she was from a different background--they were trying to become more versatile in their type of student--was the deciding factor for her admission."

Woodrow Wilson also played an important part in Kate Looney's admission to the University of Texas. Kate, the Looneys' middle daughter, just finished her freshman year at UT. She made it thanks to House Bill 588 (enacted in 1997 and better known as Texas' "top 10 percent" law), whereby if you graduate in the top 10 percent of your class, you're granted automatic acceptance to the state school of your choice.

Again, Kate might have made it in if she had been at a different high school. But her father is skeptical.

"She was at a party last summer with some St. Mark's kids, and a kid told her that he made 1350 on his SAT and 31 on the ACT--that's pretty screaming--and didn't get into UT," Looney says. "Here Kate was, with substantially lower SATs and ACTs--but she wasn't as naturally cerebral as Sloan, and she took care of business. She knew the system going in, and she took advantage of it. She didn't blow the opportunity. She was straight A's, all-district in her sport. But if Kate had been at Lake Highlands or Highland Park, would she have been in the top 10 percent?"

Since the Looneys made the jump, other parents looking for his guidance have approached Mike. And he knows that plenty of them have followed suit. He's not shy in encouraging them to do it, because he knows it works, both in high school and beyond. His kids are the proof.

Of course, no one at a private school would share that sentiment, for obvious reasons. At most, the counselors at those schools will admit only that, yes, parents do broach the subject on occasion. Sure, they say, it's a consideration, especially in light of the top 10 percent law. But they say no one ever does it.

Wells McMurray, the director of college counseling at the Greenhill School, is an exception.

"I know some kids who left in middle school because they took a look at the high school and said, 'I want something different,'" McMurray says. "And they've been good students; there's been no particular reason for them to leave, and they did excellent work wherever they went. But, you know, when I look at those kids--and I know a couple of them because I know their siblings--they would've done very well here, too."

Even if he knows why they left--and he seems to know more than he's letting on--McMurray won't elaborate on the students' reasoning. He does mention that one of them is a sophomore at UT now.

Jan Miranda, however, maintains that the supposed advantage of public schools over private when it comes to landing in the top 10 percent is a myth. Miranda thought there was something to it when she did a sorority recommendation for a girl at Plano East Senior High. She noticed the girl's GPA put her at the top of the second third of her class. She wondered where that would rank her at Trinity Christian. It was the same spot.

"You find your competition level within your community," Miranda says. "You find your own comfort zone. And if your comfort zone is a 3.0, you'll be a 3.0 there or a 3.0 here. If it's a 3.5, you'll be a 3.5 there or here. If it's a 4.0, you'll push yourself to be a 4.0 no matter where you are. That's my theory."

Don't feel too sorry for Niket Biswas, because he doesn't feel sorry for himself. He'll be just fine. Along with the rejection letter from MIT and the wait-list offers from Harvard, Duke and Rice came plenty of offers from state schools all over the country. The University of Arizona, the University of New Mexico and a handful of others were willing to give Niket a full ride to attend their schools, even though he didn't apply to them.

Better than that, Niket got into one school to which he applied. The University of Texas accepted him into its engineering honors program and gave him a pretty nice scholarship deal to go along with it. He's excited about his prospects in Austin, already planning to enroll in the school's business honors program as well, a double major that will help him pursue a career in management information systems. It makes sense: His mother works at Texas Instruments, and his father, Abhi, is an economics professor who teaches at SMU and UT-Dallas.

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