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New College Try Dictates a Head Start : Education: With competition stiff for admission to top schools, applicants' preparation may begin in kindergarten. It's also led to private counselors, secrecy, deceit, back-stabbing and stress.

March 19, 1991|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a Radcliffe graduate stopped by the college a few years ago to open an early file for her child, admissions officials took it in stride. Like others before her, the woman said she was eager to put her offspring on an early track to her alma mater.

But when the officials asked for the age of the future applicant, the answer left them stunned. The child hadn't been born yet--but the woman was pregnant and wanted to plan ahead.

For parents and students weathering the college application season--acceptance letters arrive next month--such foresight reflects a desperate effort to gain an edge in the increasingly hardball admissions process.

The pool of post-baby-boomer applicants is shrinking annually, making college admittance statistically easier than in previous years. Even so, many parents who succeeded during the 1980s in a high-achiever lifestyle are determined to fight for their young to have an elite education.

"It's a sign of the times," observes Maurice Salter, former head of the UC Irvine grants program, who works as a private counselor for college-bound students .

Business people understand that they don't develop the qualities connected to success when they enter the workplace. "There's a building process that launches you into that success-oriented scenario. That's the big change in this generation of parents."

Sue Guy, a counselor at Mission Viejo High School, has noticed an increasing number of students applying to prestige universities in recent years.

"I'd say there is some pressure from parents to go for the big-name schools but also the kids put pressure on themselves," she said. "But I'm sure they pick that up from the parents."

Granted, not all parents push their children to excel at all costs. But for many ultra-achiever parents who are urging their offspring into upper-echelon institutions, the choice is largely a matter of prestige.

"They'd give their right arms to get their children into one of a dozen of the big-name schools," Fred Hargadon, Princeton University's admissions dean, says of the top competitive crust.

Adds Salter: "I've seen friends betray friends. The deal is the deal, and everybody wants to make a better deal than the next person made."

Hargadon, who headed Stanford University's undergraduate admissions for 15 years, says parents sometimes have appeared in his office with tattered copies of U.S. News & World Report, which annually ranks the country's colleges and universities. They follow the ratings, he says, "for the same reason that they buy BMWs and live at a particular address."

"We're talking about the cocktail-party circuit," says Katherine Kendall, a private student counselor in Beverly Hills. "A lot of parents are concerned that their children apply to schools that are prestigious enough for them to talk about."

Moreover, "lots of people are bound and determined to buy their way into these big-name institutions," Kendall says, adding that some of her power-playing clients offer large sums of money to school scholarship funds and donations of university facilities.

Aided by their elders, some ambitious students have caught on to the trick of distinguishing themselves from the pack. At times, they've dreamed up wildly unorthodox ploys:

* Leaving no stone unturned in his application proceedings, one aspiring Harvard man sent in a load of cardboard cartons filled with all of his corrected papers from kindergarten through high school.

* In an attempt to woo Stanford's admissions committee, an artistic applicant sent committee members a 6-by-8-foot group portrait painted in oils.

* Printers' offspring have submitted mock-ups of Time magazine, featuring their pictures on the cover and articles reporting on their accomplishments.

* And would-be freshmen from California's Napa and Sonoma valleys have regaled admissions officers with cases of wine, and youths from the Midwest have made earnest petitions with ears of corn.

"I've heard of that," said Mission Viejo High School's Guy with a laugh. "Our kids, I think, are pretty sensible. They try to shine academically, and as far as contributions to the school and commmunity."

Guy said she has heard of some universities that like to see something "unusual" after reading 4,000 essays. "On the other hand," she said, "you're taking a risk that they won't take it in the way you intended it."

Bob Werley, head counselor at Corona del Mar High School, hasn't noticed such creative tactics from students applying to prestige colleges.

"I don't think many schools would be too impressed with that," he said. "They're looking at GPA and test scores and course content and curriculum."

Werley recommends a more straight-forward approach.

"If they're writing an essay that would be one way to impress them," he said. "The other way--and I'd certainly encourage it--is if they can talk to the admissions officer. If they can sell themselves that way, that's to their credit."

Like Werley, Guy also prefers the straight-forward approach.

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