According to conventional wisdom, Amy Scheinerman did everything a parent could to not get her eldest daughter into an Ivy League college.
She didn’t make Rachel participate in a bunch of extracurricular activities to pad her resume. She didn’t pressure her to consider only Ivies. She didn’t work her alumni connections (both she and her husband attended Brown). She didn’t even help Rachel write her college applications or essay.
“This was actually something of a sore point between me and Rachel—my not helping her with her essay, when some of her friends’ parents were doing that,” says Scheinerman, a rabbi and mother of four in Columbia. “But the object was not that she go to Yale; it was that any success she had would be entirely her own.”
Conventional wisdom says Amy Scheinerman did everything wrong.
And now Rachel’s a junior at Yale.
Could it be that conventional wisdom isn’t so wise, after all?
The Ivy League: Perhaps no other term in American nomenclature more connotes power, prestige, and exclusivity. And lately, that exclusivity has been getting, well, more exclusive. In 1932, Yale’s acceptance rate was 72 percent; last year, it was 13 percent. As a whole, the Ivy schools—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale—rejected some 80 percent of their applicants.
Several forces are at work here. For one thing, there are simply more kids trying to go to college these days. To go back to the previous example, in 1932, the entire pool of Yale applicants numbered 1,330; last year, there were 15,466. A college degree is no longer the purview of the few; today, two-thirds of all high school graduates go on to college, up from half just 20 years ago. More women are pursuing degrees than in years past. Furthermore, air travel makes it more convenient for students from far-flung regions of the country—and the world—to spend four years ensconced in New England.
And the news is not about to get brighter: The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the population of 18-to-24-year-olds will increase by 15 percent between 2000 and 2012. All of which means that parents who want to get their kids into the country’s most exclusive colleges and universities are going up against more competition than ever before—and had better start planning ahead.
That’s exactly what a lot of parents have been doing, much to the consternation of many education professionals.
Dave Berry has made a career out of helping parents and kids get into the colleges of their choice, and even he’s appalled by what he’s seeing.
“I get e-mails—I can’t believe that I get these—from parents who have kids in elementary school, saying, ‘What can I do now to help my kid get into Harvard?’” says Berry, the co-founder and director of counseling at CollegeConfidential.com, a web-based college counseling business. “That bothers me. They shouldn’t be thinking about Harvard. They should be thinking about helping their kid live a satisfying life.”
Amy Scheinerman agrees. Her voice takes on an edge when she discusses the Ivy-or-nothing attitude that some parents push on their kids. “All you will have accomplished is to let them know that you are someone whose agenda is more important than theirs,” she says.
But some young people put the Ivies on the agenda themselves. Take Noah Schwartz, currently a senior at Baltimore City College: While both his parents attended Brown, Schwartz says they have never pressured him about his choice of schools. He takes care of that himself.
“Chicago, Harvard, and Columbia are at the top of my list,” he says. “I like them all equally, and Penn is excellent as well. As long as I get into one, I’ll be happy.”
Schwartz has a good chance. His grades put him at the top of his class, and his extracurricular activities are impressive. Still, he says, “I hear the stats and I know lots of people who are very qualified don’t get in.”
That’s the nerve-wracking element. Everyone’s heard horror stories, and so everyone is looking even harder for a surefire formula that will get their child into those top schools. But unfortunately, even college admissions officers don’t have one to offer.
“Parents think there is a formula,” says Dwight Miller, senior admissions officer at Harvard College. “They think it’s by the numbers: best grades, best scores, and maybe a particular kind of extracurricular. It’s much more unscientific than most parents probably assume.”
Perfect grades and test scores are not necessary. “If we feel they can do the work comfortably, they’re viable, if they have something else going for them,” Miller says. That “if” is what’s so important.
“We’re trying to build communities that are interesting,” he says.
The top schools “want the diversity,” agrees Dave Gibson, college advisor at City College. “That can be economic diversity, geographic diversity, diversity of experience, ethnic diversity.” That’s why City College, with its inner-city student population and high academic standards, is popular with Ivy admissions officers, he says.
A few years ago, Gibson urged a student to apply to Harvard, even though the youngster was not at the top of his class.
“The situation with that particular student was that he had lots of activities, lots of places where he was demonstrating both involvement and leadership that I knew would be very attractive to Harvard,” Gibson says. The student, who worked with civic organizations in the city, had never even thought of applying to an Ivy League school. But right now, he’s dodging falling leaves in Harvard Yard.
Intelligence and diversity are qualities that are pretty much impossible to control. But there are other things parents can do to help their children get into the Ivies—or any other competitive school, for that matter.
First off, don’t bother grooming them for Princeton while they’re still in their Oshkoshes. After all, who knows what the admission requirements will be by the time your 8-year-old is ready to apply? And admissions officers only look at high school grades anyway, so use the early years to develop good study habits and basic skills. Encourage your children to pursue their interests, and teach them the values that are important to you.
“I think what parents can do is love and nurture their children when they are younger and give them all the support they can and whatever they think are the best practices in parenting,” says Janet Lavin Rapelye, who recently took over as dean of admissions at Princeton.
At the elementary stage, you are building the foundations. But in middle school, it’s time to up the ante with challenging courses, including foreign languages. Top schools now like to see a student take the same language for many years, counselors say.
This is also the time to encourage your children to find what interests them most. “They [top schools] want kids who are passionate about something. It doesn’t even matter so much anymore what that something is,” says Jon McGill, headmaster of the Gilman School.
Schwartz says he signed on for all his extracurricular activities—from classes in Jewish history at a Pikesville temple to a trip to Mexico—because he was interested. But it hasn’t escaped his notice that all these programs are creating a unified picture of a student interested in relationships between different ethnicities. Even his decision to attend City College, which is 95 percent African-American, instead of Gilman, where he was also accepted, was based partly on a calculation that his choice would highlight this interest. And, in fact, he notes that his colleges of choice are all on his list because of their strong Middle Eastern studies departments—though, he admits, the “prestige factor” doesn’t hurt, either.
So if your youngster has an aptitude for cello, encourage it. A desire to read to senior citizens? Great. Better yet, maybe they could create a program that would bring more student-readers to senior citizens.
Schools want to see “they have demonstrated strong leadership, that they have taken some initiatives and made it their own,” says Kevin Whatley, director of guidance at Pikesville High School, which sends many students to Ivy League colleges each year.
He recalls a student, now at Harvard, who is an accomplished violinist. That talent probably pushed her over the edge with admissions officers, he says. And Rachel Scheinerman, the junior at Yale, was captain of the math team at Wilde Lake High School.
This isn’t limited to just academics. If your kids have athletic ability, by all means, get out the pom-poms and cheer them on.
Though the Ivy League schools at least claim to hold their athletes to the same standards as other students, a good athlete definitely has an edge. “Recruiting of student athletes is very, very aggressive, and it’s pollyanna-ish to think that it’s not,” Miller says.
Student athletes can gain an advantage simply by contacting the coach of the sport they wish to play, Gibson says. “If the coach is interested in the student, the coach is going to walk to the admissions office and say, ‘I’d really like to see if I can help this student.’ What they are doing is winning an inside advocate.”
Send your child to a private school if that’s important to you, but don’t expect the tuition cost to buy a ticket to the Ivies, since students at private schools are often held to higher standards.
“I think what’s important is that students take advantage of what’s offered to them,” explains Rapelye, of Princeton. “We don’t try to prejudge where they are coming from, but we say, ‘Have they taken advantage of everything in their setting?’ If a student has been given a lot of advantages but hasn’t used them, then that can be frustrating.”
Even in high school, when grades count, encourage your children to take challenging courses. Admissions officers don’t just want a high GPA, says McGill. “They want to see that you took a really strenuous math class or AP physics and didn’t go for the so-called easy A.”
And then there’s the application process itself. Letters of recommendation should, of course, be glowing, and ideally include a person outside the school, maybe from the leader of an organization where the student has volunteered. If your child is an aspiring writer, and a well-known wordsmith is willing to pen the reference, go for it. Likewise, a future political science major might seek a recommendation from a local lawmaker.
But the real deal-breaker is the essay, says Berry. “Getting these kids to talk about themselves in a positive, promotional way is like pulling teeth.” Of course, he’s paid to do just that: His company charges anywhere from $150 an hour to $8,500 for “unlimited counseling” to help students get into the school of their choice.
His counselors won’t write the essays, he says, but they will work with students through draft after draft to create the best possible sales pitch.
“Every single young person, from elementary years on up, has a special element in him or her that needs to be identified and fed,” he says. “And that’s what we do. We find out what these passion areas are and we help them develop that.”
An application package includes test scores. In addition to SATs, top students need to take SAT II tests, which are one-hour exams in particular subjects. Most colleges are asking for one in writing skills and two in any other subjects, says Gibson. Preferably, you should take them right after you take a course in that level.
Encourage your child to apply to a range of schools. Gibson, for one, encourages students to apply to two “safeties,” two “stretches,” and at least one Maryland school.
Whatley works to give parents and students “a sense of reality,” if their only choices are the top schools. “We don’t want to flat-out tell a student they can’t apply there, but we like to make sure the parents are well aware of the chances.”
The student’s personality and interests must be taken into consideration too, says Amy Scheinerman.
“Rachel all her life was pegged as the math and science brain, but I know that deep down she has a great passion for the humanities,” she says. “I was quite sure that someday and in the right environment, that would come out. I didn’t think a place like MIT would necessarily be the best place for her to explore that side of yourself.”
Rachel only decided to apply to Yale after she learned the school offered a single major in math and philosophy. “I saw that major in the brochure and thought that was cool,” she said.
If you are truly interested in a school, call the admissions office and arrange a tour of the campus. Students can be rejected simply because they don’t visit, Gibson says, especially if they live nearby.
These days, your file will include every telephone call and visit, Gibson says.
Once the application package has been sent in, do not call the college. You will only annoy the admissions people. A good high school guidance counselor will know when and if to call an admissions office, Miller says, so nagging that guidance counselor won’t help. Your job at this point is to support your child as he or she waits for the verdict—and to remind them that even the best students can get turned down. In fact, you can tell them, that might even be for the best.
Even someone like Liz Hempel, who got straight A’s in her advanced placement classes at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City and was involved in tons of extracurricular activities, was turned down by Harvard. She had applied to both that school and MIT (not exactly a slouch school, but not one of the eight official Ivies) early action—a new variation on the early-decision program that is less restrictive for applicants.
“I got my reply from Harvard first, and it was very dispiriting,” she says now. “I almost didn’t want to see my response from MIT.”
But when MIT got back to her, it sent her the thick packet. Now she’s a sophomore there—and thankful for how things worked out.
“It’s actually very funny,” she says. “I look at Harvard now, and after seeing and talking with people who go there, I’m very glad I wound up at MIT.”
That’s the $145,000 question (to roughly estimate the cost of four years at an Ivy League): Are the Ivy Leagues worth the anguish?
It’s hard to tell. One 1999 study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found no economic advantage in attending an elite college. But those findings were quickly contradicted by research from a Harvard economist, whose own research found that a student who gave up a full scholarship at a Rank Three private college to pay full price at a Rank One elite college earned back the difference in cost 3.4 times over the course of his or her lifetime. And a 1990 survey by Fortune magazine found that the majority of top CEOs did not attend elite colleges—but a disproportionate number did.
If you’re looking for exclusivity, you need not confine yourself to the Ivies. According to the Princeton Review, some of the most competitive colleges in the country aren’t Ivy at all, including Cal Tech, Stanford, MIT, and Duke.
What educators say over and over again, however, is that far more important than which institution provides a student with an education is what that student does with it.
As Amy Scheinerman puts it, “We don’t harbor any illusion that going to an Ivy League is a ticket to personal success.”
True, Scheinerman is not entirely without pride in her daughter’s choice—the family’s car does sport a Yale decal in the back, though Scheinerman insists “you can barely see it” and that it was put there mostly to support Rachel, who worried that people would assume she was some sort of elitist snob after hearing where she went to school. But far more important than what she calls “the wow factor,” she says, is that her daughter is finally getting a chance to enjoy the humanities.
As for Rachel herself, she says she loves Yale. But then she adds something that may not be conventional, but sure sounds like wisdom: “I’m not at all convinced, though, that I wouldn’t have been just as happy elsewhere.”