Stephanie Strauss, a senior at Oakton High School in Vienna, has spent the past two years preparing for admission to college.
“I can’t tell you how stressful this is,” says Stephanie, 17. “It’s hard to squeeze in all your other activities, your homework, SATs and eat dinner. You have to make a schedule.”
Stephanie attended two college fairs as a freshman and visited the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In her sophomore year, she attended another college fair, took the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test) for practice and arranged her course work to include many AP (Advanced Placement) classes.
As a junior “That’s when the fun begins,” Stephanie says she took the PSAT, SAT and two SAT II exams, in creative writing and history. The SAT IIs are subject tests required by some colleges in addition to the SAT. Some colleges require three of these tests one in math, one in English and one of the student’s choice.)
Four weeks of prep classes helped prepare her for the SATs. Using the Internet, she researched the schools to get a sense of campus life. Visits to college campuses had to be squeezed in among schoolwork and test dates. Senior year also means more tests and applications to colleges, including writing essays and getting letters of recommendation.
Seniors also, of course, need to stay on top of schoolwork to maintain a good grade-point average (GPA). Like Stephanie, many students take many AP courses, which colleges encourage and which are weighted to add .5 (on a four-point system) to the course grade after the student takes a national standardized exam in the spring.
Today’s high school students are facing more competition to get into college than ever before, according to guidance counselors and the National Association for College Admission Counseling. As a result, many students are embarking on lengthy preparations and starting earlier.
In addition to paying for prep courses designed to help students score better on SATs, some parents are shelling out big bucks to hire educational consultants to walk their children through the process. Thanks to the Internet, students also have a lot of valuable information to help them in their search for the right college.
“Ever since colleges have been so competitive, all sorts of test prep places have popped up. It really shows what lengths people are willing to go to to get good scores,” says Sandra Strauss, Stephanie’s mother.
“I think [the prep course] was helpful because it gives you samples of questions,” Stephanie says.
But don’t count on good test scores alone to get you into college.
“High boards won’t get a student in with a lousy high school record,” says Jack Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Mr. Blackburn says the university looks for top-level classes and very high grades throughout high school. “This year, we had 83 percent of our students at the top 10 percent of their graduating class,” he says.
OK, so every student isn’t going to get admitted to UVa. it can afford to be selective, with 17,000 applications for 2,500 slots. But what can a high school student do to ensure a chance of getting into a good school?
“Start early with the process,” says Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria. “We see too many students and parents wait until the senior year.”
Ms. Smith says students should start planning in the sophomore year.
“I really do encourage them to sit and talk with their counselor to make sure they are taking the right courses,” she says. Also, students should register and prepare for the required tests, PSAT, SAT and ACT (the American College Test, accepted by most colleges but used in other parts of the country more than on the East Coast).
Ms. Smith recommends starting college visits between sophomore and junior year. She suggests keeping a journal of each school visited with comments about what students liked and didn’t like.
In junior year, students should register to take the college admission tests SAT and ACT. Both of the tests have questionnaires, which are voluntary, that students complete when they register.
“If they fill them out, they will start receiving information from colleges,” Ms. Smith says. “Do not throw [that information] away. Put it in a folder and sort through it and compare schools. The whole point of the direct mail is to let the student know, by virtue of how they filled out the questionnaire, the college is interested.”
Also recommended by Ms. Smith is to “read, read, read.” Compare what colleges offer in majors and housing so students can understand what is important to them, she advises. “Make sure they pick a campus that offers options and [that they keep] their grades up.”
How about ‘early decision’?
“Coming out of the gate in senior year, they need to consider if they have any schools that offer early decision or early action,” Ms. Smith says. “That means if they apply, based on their transcript from junior year and a set of test scores, they might be eligible. Early decision means you have to make a commitment. Early action means you are notified early.”
What is the benefit for a student? “The benefit for students of early admission is you know that you have been admitted. [It] eliminates the stress and angst. Students can feel comfortable and enjoy their senior year,” Ms. Smith says. Students shouldn’t think they can coast through senior year, however. They have to keep their grades up because early decision is conditional.
One real benefit of early decision appears to be that the early birds get in. At Harvard, 19 percent of early-admission applicants were accepted as compared to 7 percent of regular-admission applicants, and 69 percent of Harvard students were admitted early, according to “The Best College for You,” by Time and the Princeton Review.
“An unfortunate aspect of the early plan is it pushes the family to make a decision in the fall as opposed to another couple of months to have more time to think about their choices. It may be applying more pressure on kids. The messages aren’t clear,” Ms. Smith says.
For some students, though, early decision may be the right choice. Since his freshman year, Alex Stratoudakis, a junior at Woodson High School in Fairfax, has been researching colleges that he likes. With a cumulative GPA of 4.0, Alex says, “I am obviously looking at the top-tier schools.” Alex, 16, has toured at least 12 campuses.
“I think it’s important to walk on campus and see how the students are. I think it’s important to narrow it down … get one or two of the reach schools, and get four to five that you think you could get into, then you have two to three safety schools. A “reach school” is one whose admissions criteria make acceptance a challenge but not impossible, while a “safety school” is one the student knows will not present a problem with admission.
“Right now, I would do early decision to [the University of Pennsylvania],” he says. “I love the Philadelphia city campus. I have also met informally with their baseball program, and that interests me.”
Alex credits his guidance counselor, Laura Geitner, as being a great help in planning his program of studies.
While Alex has narrowed his choice of schools to two, Stephanie is applying to five Virginia schools and likes them all.
“I have all my applications and everything I need. Everything is in place,” she says proudly. Stephanie took the SAT for the second time on Oct. 14, and after she takes the SAT II in math on Nov. 4, she will be finished with all the college application tests. Though the process has been stressful, Stephanie says she has learned from it.
“For one thing, I’ve learned how to keep in line with deadlines and keep on top of things,” she says. “I’ve become much more organized. This whole thing teaches you a lot of responsibility. It’s the first time that I have taken over from my parents. I have taken the lead on this and done all the research myself.”
She also credits her guidance counselor, Sandy Wolin-Bromley, as being very helpful throughout the process.
“There is angst and anxiety out there,” Ms. Bromley says. “Something’s changed, and I think it’s that it’s more competitive.”
The population of students is increasing, Ms. Smith says, and “with greater numbers comes more competitiveness.”
Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) in Fairfax, concurs.
“This can be explained by demographics. More kids are graduating high school than ever in history [and this] will continue for the next seven to eight years. The highest percentage are going on to college, which creates a more competitive marketplace,” he says.
Michael Walsh, director of admissions at James Madison University, says that for the current academic year, the school received 13,900 applications for a freshman class of 3,227. Mr. Walsh says 50 percent of the student body had a high school GPA of 3.31 to 3.7.
The University of Maryland in College Park received 20,400 applications for a freshman class of 3,976, says Ronne Patrick, associate director of undergraduate admissions there.
“Basically, the premise is that we look at the students who apply and admit the most qualified out of the applicant pool. A lot of public institutions are finding that more and more talented students are choosing to apply because of the quality of programs,” Ms. Patrick says.
This competition also explains the increase in IECA membership, which has doubled to 300 in the past five years, Mr. Sklarow says.
“School guidance counselors are traditionally overworked,” Mr. Sklarow says. He hired a consultant to help his 17-year-old daughter, Michele, a senior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. “First, we identified about 22 possible schools. Everything from state to small liberal arts to art schools. Of the four to five schools, I had only heard of one before, but they really do seem to fit her personality.”
Some consultants work on an hourly basis, and fees may range from $75 to $150 per hour, he says, adding that most consultants prefer a retainer paid over several years, and those fees can range from $750 to $2,500. The IECA can provide names of qualified consultants on a regional basis.
Mr. Sklarow admits that not every student needs to hire a consultant.
“More and more people are looking to consultants because of the tremendous escalation of these early-decision deadlines that colleges are urging students to consider,” says Shirley Levin, an educational consultant in Rockville. “More and more colleges are making it clear that the student has a significant edge or advantage by applying to a school that has a binding early-decision agreement.”
Ms. Levin, a former clinical psychologist, has been in the field for 20 years and consults annually with an average of more than 60 seniors, 20 juniors and a few sophomores.
“I think the consultant can play a valuable role as an adviser, as someone who can help the student and the student’s family understand the process that works best as far as choosing appropriate colleges. ‘Appropriate’ is the important word,” she says. “Students need to become familiar with more than the 20 schools that everyone’s heard of and try to appreciate how invalid and inaccurate those ratings guides are and how these rankings are derived.
“I think one of the roles of a counselor is to try to broaden the horizons of these students and their families and share with them information about some of these schools that may not be familiar to them, but which offers them at least as good or perhaps far better educational opportunity,” Ms. Levin says.
She also agrees that not every student needs an educational consultant.
“Certainly students who are interested in applying to their state universities, who have done well academically, have good test scores don’t need anybody like me. If you have a student who is motivated and parents that are supportive, they will do fine,” Ms. Levin says.