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The Old College Try

Good grades? Not enough. An upscale school goes to bat to give its students an Ivy League edge.

April 21, 2002|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Marlborough School brought 51 girls to Yale and got them an hour with a dean. He enticed them with the university's world-class drama program. He boasted about its expert professors. He even talked up the sailing team.

Then associate admissions dean Rob Jackson hit the California girls with this: Yale receives 15,000 applications each year, and "we only have so much space here."

As the high school sophomores and juniors filed out into the rain, undaunted, for a private tour, their chaperons ducked upstairs with Jackson to try to secure some of Yale's "space" for Marlborough's seniors.

Yale was just days away from mailing its acceptance letters to members of the current senior class. Steve Burnett, a college counselor at Marlborough, and Jim Skrumbis, the high school's principal, knew Jackson had three hours to shrink the "admit" pile by 22 applicants. They wanted to persuade him to keep Marlborough's files in the stack. After all, there's not much value in a prep school that prepares students for elite colleges but can't get them in.

The meeting last month in Jackson's office lasted 45 minutes. Burnett and Skrumbis walked out knowing, mostly, which Marlborough applicants Yale would admit. They were pleased. "We made a pretty good case," Burnett said.

Not every high school gets that access, and not every college allows it. But for college preparatory schools like Marlborough, such meetings are part of an admissions strategy that is sophisticated, successful and far more personal than at just about any public school.

These private schools hire counselors away from college admissions offices. They take packs of students across the country to visit campuses. And they parlay any advantage, any connection, to get their graduates admitted to the nation's most coveted universities.

"Ninety percent of it is about the girl--who she is and what she does," Skrumbis said. "We pride ourselves on working the margins."

At Yale, striding through a Gothic building that looked more suited for a church than the university's athletic department, Skrumbis got a head start on promoting next year's seniors.

"Should we go put in a pitch for Cameron?" he asked Burnett.

Cameron Washington, a junior at Marlborough, ran 400 meters in 55.6 seconds at a meet in California last year. Skrumbis and Burnett figure that talent, on top of good grades, will be Cameron's hook when she applies next year to super-selective colleges. If the track coaches want her, the admissions deans probably will too.

"She's the real deal, so keep your eye on her," Skrumbis told one of Yale's coaches, who seemed a little surprised to see the prep-school pitchmen all the way from California. "She's an outstanding student. We're an outstanding school."

Some decry that sort of advocacy by private schools as unfair lobbying.

Marlborough sophomore Danielle Koffler, an ice-skater who wants to attend a college with a rink, sees it differently. "You could kind of say we have an advantage," she said. "But that's also what we're paying for."

Indeed, Marlborough focuses so intensely on its students' higher education because the school's reputation depends on it. Tuition and fees for next year total $20,100, and getting students into college goes a long way toward justifying that. Not community college. Not even certain state universities. But a "name college," one that ranks highly in guidebooks and looks smart on a sweatshirt or a sticker on the family SUV.

Like the universities where it sends its graduates, Marlborough is selective. Surrounded by mansions in Los Angeles' Hancock Park, the 113-year-old school starts in seventh grade. Four hundred girls applied this year for that grade's 85 spots.

Marlborough's 530 students get small classes, highly qualified teachers, a variety of extracurricular activities and courses that range in the upper school from contemporary poetry to multivariable calculus.

The package also includes a college counseling staff dedicated to placing the school's graduates. Two counselors work at this full-time, year-round, and an assistant works with them to track the paperwork and hold students to deadlines. A third counselor, the school's admissions director, is committed part-time. All three counselors have experience on the other side--evaluating applications in college admissions offices.

Marlborough gets students thinking seriously about college by 10th grade, a full two years before they apply. In the fall, the girls take a preliminary entrance exam--the PSAT. To identify the type of college they want, many sophomores, plus a few juniors, pay $1,600 for the school's spring-break tour of Eastern campuses. (Students are close enough to California campuses to visit them on their own, the counselors figure.)

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