College Admissions Angst: When Ivy League Dreams Face a Less Lofty Reality

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Harvard Square courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It’s the private school version of a horror story, no chainsaws or severed hands necessary:  the student, in the top five of the graduating class at one of Baltimore’s best private schools, was well-liked by all, spent afternoons practicing music and summers building schools in Latin America. Basically, the student did everything right. The student applied to ten colleges, a reasonable mix of safeties and reaches. And (cue the screeching soundtrack), come May, the student was rejected by every single one of them.

Call it “the curse of the well-rounded white girl” or a plain old demographic shift; in any case, Baltimore parents are saying it’s real, and they aren’t sure how to react.  Do schools need to be doing more? Should parents start caring less? When parents start marching into headmasters’ offices to protest what they see as an alarming trend – Baltimore private school students losing ground in the race for slots at elite colleges – is their concern warranted?

In the emotionally-fraught world of college admissions, it can be hard to get straight answers.  One thing is clear enough, though:  Even in this day and age, it seems as though it all comes back to the Ivies – for some parents, at least. To stymie this fixation, guidance offices spout rhetoric about finding the “best fit,” encouraging students to take off their Ivy-colored blinders and explore schools with less recognizable brand names. Nearly every parent claims to want what’s best for his or her child – and, when pressed, most will admit that a good education can be obtained from any number of schools. But the siren song of the Ivies persists, to increasingly dire ends:  Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell each posted their lowest-ever acceptance rates this year, and Yale received a record high number of applicants. More than 3,800 valedictorians applied to Harvard last year; the vast majority of them were rejected. “We simply don’t have enough space [for all the strong applicants],” says Valerie Beilenson, an admissions officer at Harvard (and a 2003 Bryn Mawr graduate). “So we have to make some really hard choices.”

Since the 1970s, top colleges have enacted a slow shift in the kind of students they accept. Not so long ago, nearly any bright private school kid with blue blooded parents and a healthy bank account could be reasonably certain of a decent shot at the Ivy League (ahem, George W. Bush); these days, though, those schools aren’t a shoo-in for anyone. (Which is not to say that Harvard neglects the rich and powerful  – far from it!; it’s just that these days, it seems, you’ve got to be uber-rich and uber-powerful.)  Recently, I spoke with several local parents who expressed concern that students from our city’s most exclusive high schools are finding themselves lost in an awkward middle ground. The most exclusive New England prep schools are still sending kids to the Ivies by the boatload (New York City’s Trinity School, an elite private school with roughly the same enrollment as Gilman, sent 188 of its 2007-2011 graduates to Ivy League schools; during the same period, Gilman sent 70), at the same time as universities tout the growing number of acceptees who are the first in their families to attend to college. These Baltimore parents are worried that their bright, driven children – neither Vanderbilts nor refugees fleeing war-torn countries – are getting lost in the shuffle.

Maybe you read those paragraphs above and had the same reaction I did initially:  What, You want me to feel sorry for these kids, most of whom have had every advantage, because they’ll end up at UVA instead of Yale? (Or maybe you’re naturally a less grouchy/more sympathetic kind of person.) In any case – yes, it’s true that the vast majority of these kids will end up at great colleges, have their minds blown by brilliant professors, get drunk at frat parties, panic over finding summer internships, and ultimately end up fine. Any initial admissions angst will fade as soon as college life kicks in. But it’s also true that college choices matter, perhaps more than many of us would like to admit. (See, for example, recent findings about how elite schools result in higher paychecks for alums.)

It’s also important to remember that many of these students have been trained – by their families, their peers, and the culture at large – to see their college acceptances as, as one parent puts it, “the ultimate grade.” Going to Bucknell is akin to getting a B+ – and for some of these students (especially, it must be said, the girls) – that’s not considered good enough.

So, what’s to be done? One parent points out that when ten or fifteen students from one school apply early decision to a particular Ivy, they could be hurting one another’s chances.  Although schools won’t ever admit to having quotas, the odds that Harvard, say, will happily welcome fifteen students – even fifteen bright, accomplished students – from one Baltimore private school are very small. “Schools are in a bind [in such a situation],” this parent says. “They can recommend all their students, and the recommendations become meaningless. Or they can pick and choose winners among their students – it’s a tough one. Do you throw some of them under the bus? Do you play the colleges’ game? It’s a dilemma.”

But if colleges aren’t going to get less exclusive, perhaps the only real response is for parents to modulate their expectations, and hope that their children will follow suit. (Stories of parents crying over the thin envelopes their children receive in the mail make this seem unlikely.) In any case, the underlying question remains:  Why does it still matter so much?  One local parent recalls a fellow mother touting her daughter’s acceptance to the Ivy League as more satisfying than a vice-presidentship at a bank, and wonders whether women who gave up high-powered careers to raise their children are looking at their children’s college acceptances as a kind of performance review. And then there are those parents who see a private school education as an investment, and an admission to an elite college as the return on that investment.

But the parents who are intent on name-brand schools, who won’t be satisfied until they can slap that YALE sticker on the back of their Lexus, are more a caricature than a reality. Most echo the sentiments of the private school mother who points out that her daughter “has gotten a great education that will serve her well for the rest of her life,” no matter how the college situation resolves. “I know many, many, many more happy parents,” she says, than disgruntled ones.

And even more important than happy parents, of course, are happy children. The good news is, even after initial disappointment, most students will find themselves at a school that suits them. One student spent this past fall and winter dreaming of Dartmouth and Princeton. She’ll be attending another school next year, and she is genuinely thrilled at the prospect.  “I am always proud and amazed, year after year, at the depth of personal reflection, research, and conscious thoughtful choice that goes into the final decisions our girls make,” says Patti Whalen, head of college counseling at Bryn Mawr. And so maybe, in the end, perhaps the best thing that parents can do is listen to their children. “Sometimes,” one parent says, “it just takes a while for a kid to realize where she belongs.”

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