"Nice Kid, But..."

For $100 an hour, Jan Miranda guides parents and students through the minefield of college admissions. Next year, she'll charge $200.
Mark Graham

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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."

Pam Mathai didn't get into her top choice either. But the recent Hockaday School graduate had so many potential alternatives by the time she finished applying, she had a hard time remembering which one was her favorite. When it was over, she had applied to 11 schools.

"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."

The more ambitious students look for a place that will help them every step of the way. That's why many of them end up at Karen Dillard's, which tries to give them a solid base to build on. For the SAT, sure, but also for everything else.

"We're showing them how to prepare properly for any major event they're ever going to encounter, whether we're talking about SATs or whether we're talking about master's orals or whether we're talking about job interviews or presentations to clients," Dillard explains. "I can even draw the analogy to courting your future spouse."

Mathai thought her work at Karen Dillard's prepared her for her next major event: a second try at the PSAT during her junior year at Hockaday. She took the classes, hit the workshops consistently. She did well on all her practice exams. But when the real thing came along, she scored a 209. Again, well above average, but well below her expectations.

"So I was like, 'Oh, crap. I have to study a lot, because I have to do well on the SAT,'" Mathai says.

She had five Advanced Placement exams scheduled at the end of the school year, so she waited as long as she could to take the SAT, until the very end of June. Meaning: She had only one try at it.

"Thinking back, it was a huge risk," Mathai says. "I basically lived at Karen Dillard's for three weeks straight. When I actually took it, I ended up doing the best that I had ever gotten."

Her 1550 finally took the pressure off, and Karen Dillard's had another success story for its files. The money Mathai's parents dropped on her courses and study materials paid off. It wasn't as much as they might've laid out somewhere else: Seniors pay $799; a student who attended Karen Dillard's from ninth grade on would pay a $1,499 flat fee. That's about average. Generally, fees for college consultants and test-prep services range from $100 per session to a few thousand dollars for one school year.

Marsha Meyers of Cohen's College Connection won't say how much her company's services cost. Which means it's probably enough to scare away parents who might see the number in black-and-white before they're sitting across from her in an office, already committed to doing whatever it takes to get their kid in. She will say that students around here get off a little bit easier than those in other parts of the country.

"The Dallas market won't bear what New York and California will," she says.

But it all adds up. Jan Miranda has been the college placement counselor at Trinity Christian Academy for two decades. She also advises students from other schools on the side, charging $100 per hour. She had about 20 private students this year. Next year, she plans to do that exclusively, upping her rate to $200.

"I don't want to package the student," Miranda explains. "I want the student to look genuine. But I can show them things on their résumé, their high school résumé--see, we never had a high school résumé. Come on!" She laughs. "You know, but these kids have had internships, and they have all this community service work. But you have to show them how to market themselves. Just giving them pointers on how to fill out their application, you know. By moving things around on the application, you can make the application look more complete. You're still giving them the same information; you're just putting it in different boxes."  

So what do you get for $100 an hour? A translator, basically, someone who knows how to speak the admissions language, no matter which dialect they're using. Someone who knows that a strong batch of recommendation letters can bulk up a weaker transcript and that a follow-up thank-you note might seem old-fashioned but isn't out-dated.

Most counselors at private schools won't admit it, and Dallas ISD doesn't track it, but it's happening. Parents are taking their kids out of private schools and returning them to the public school system. It's no big deal when it happens the other way around. It's more significant when parents reverse the procedure.

Tuition for private schools can be justified because not only do they prepare students for college, they supposedly give them better access to the ones they want to attend. But some parents are finding out that's not necessarily true. In fact, some students are better off coming out of a public high school.

That's what Mike Looney learned when his oldest daughter, Sloan, applied to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Dallas Observer spoke to Looney in 2000 ("Public Defenders," August 3), not long after Sloan switched from private (Lutheran High School) to public (Woodrow Wilson High School). This was before he knew the added benefits of public school. He was just trying to make his daughter happy.

Sloan was the one who wanted to make the change, and it wasn't because she wanted to improve her class rank or GPA, to excel in a less competitive environment. "She wanted people, a football team, drama, musicals, drill team," her father, a Woodrow Wilson graduate himself, explains today. "Even though she had never gone to public school, she seemed to know what she was missing."

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.

"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.

The Biswas family isn't angry at what happened to Niket. Amused might be a better word. Debjani Biswas has a story she likes to tell involving Niket's appearance at a banquet honoring the late Jerry Junkins (Texas Instruments' former CEO); at the banquet, scholarships are awarded to the sons and daughters of current or former TI employees. Because he is a National Merit Scholar, Niket received $4,000.

Twenty kids came to the podium that night, and the first four or five said the same thing: I'm going to UT-Austin, and I'm wait-listed at Harvard and Duke. Or Harvard and Rice. Or Duke and Rice.

"So Mrs. Junkins' daughter said, 'So, who actually got into Harvard, Duke and Rice?'" Debjani says with a laugh.

It's a good question, one that doesn't seem to be getting a good answer anytime soon. But Niket and his mother are tired of asking. Niket's just plain tired. With the IB program, KRIPA, tennis, the clubs, the awards banquets, the applications and just being a regular kid, his senior year has been booked up from first light to good night. "I mean, I don't sleep much," he says.

Maybe he'll get a chance this fall.

"A lot of my friends who had the IB program," he says, laughing, "say college is like a breather."

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