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Rite of Passage : Even for the Best and Brightest, Choosing a College Takes Its Toll

December 25, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

"I'm going the safe route," 16-year-old Hemant Keny said. "I'm expecting to get rejected."

Keny, a senior at Whitney High School in Cerritos, is girding himself for rejection, not by a heartless girl, but by Princeton University.

Like 22,000 other seniors in Los Angeles County, Keny is in the final throes of the college application process, as grueling a high-school rite of passage as the first heavy date. As Danny Smith, a senior at the Harvard School in North Hollywood, put it, "It's hell."

The process is particularly purgatorial for students like Keny who are applying to the country's most selective campuses.

Keny has a near-perfect 3.9 grade-point average, which he modestly describes as pretty good. His combined score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which measures verbal and mathematical skill, is 1470 out of a possible 1600, which puts Keny in the top 1% of SAT-takers nationwide. But Keny knows that he is no shoo-in at Princeton, which accepts only one in six applicants and often turns down student body presidents whose records are unmarred by a single B.

Many Participants

For Keny and the others, applying to college is a collaborative process that involves the students, their families and, to widely varying degrees, their schools. November and December are months of angst -ridden activity, as students flagellate themselves for academic and extracurricular sins and omissions, nervously chat up their teachers with an eye to glowing letters of recommendation and stay up all night filling out the complicated applications typical of first-rate colleges.

Juniors, even sophomores, can enjoy their winter break, but for seniors there are essays to write and interviews to sweat through, as well as nails to be bitten and sleep to be lost. By Jan. 1, the deadline for the Ivy League schools, it will be all over but the worst part--waiting for April 15, when most colleges send out their letters of acceptance and rejection.

"There's a lot of tension at the school right now," said Vanna R. Cairns, director of college counseling at private, all-boys Harvard School, which draws many of its students from the Westside. Counselors urged the current seniors and their parents to start thinking about college three years ago, when they were sophomores. But the big push began this fall when Cairns advised the incoming seniors that they were all taking a course that did not appear on their class schedules, College 101, a course that is no less real for being fictive.

According to Cairns, 100% of Harvard's senior class typically goes on to college. Last year, 25% of the senior class members were accepted at Ivy League schools. Thirty-one members of that class of 121 applied to Harvard University. Seven hit the academic jackpot and were accepted. (As Cairns noted, the school has no affiliation with Harvard University, except to share its name. The current president of Harvard University, Derek C. Bok, also happens to be an alumnus of the Harvard School, Class of '47).

The first assignment in College 101, wherever seniors take it, is to determine where to apply.

"We want them to look as critically at the colleges as the colleges are looking at them," Cairns said. "They are in a position to do that," she said of her 134 seniors, more than half of whom received National Merit Scholarship recognition (half are semifinalists, half recipients of letters of commendation).

At Harvard School, students are required during their junior year to do research on eight campuses that interest them, making use of the school's library of catalogues and other application aids, including a computerized college-search program.

As seniors they are expected to refine that interest and determine which schools best fit theirabilities, interests and learning styles. Recruiters from about 100 colleges and universities

visit the school each year to pitch their campuses to a student body they know to be high powered academically and largely able to afford the staggering cost of a private college education (currently more than $18,000 a year at such schools as Stanford and the Ivies). Recruiters also visit the other distinguished private and public high schools in metropolitan Los Angeles.

For students who can afford it, visiting a campus is often the crucial event in determining the college or colleges of choice, counselors and students say. Local counselors sometimes advise students to make these trips in winter, when the climate and isolation of many out-of-state campuses can come as a shock to young Southern Californians.

Whitney's Hemant Keny flew east last summer with his parents and three siblings to compare campuses. During that trip, Princeton impressed the Kenys more than Harvard, Brown or Georgetown, which they also toured.

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