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UC San Diego -- or prostitute college

March 26, 2006|Catherine Seipp | CATHERINE SEIPP writes a weekly column for National Review Online and blogs at www.cathyseipp.net.

THERE WERE a lot of tears around here last week when my 16-year-old daughter, Maia, got rejected first from UCLA and then from UC Santa Barbara. We knew UCLA was a longshot -- it's far more selective than when I was there, back in the days when teenagers could still innocently apply (as I did) to just one college and get in. Still, she thought it an ominous sign that the first place she heard from turned her down.

I was in the tub, where I usually am in the early evening, when she burst in and threw herself down on the bathmat, wailing yet again that she'd be lucky to get into prostitute college. I told her that I don't think prostitutes need to go to college.

That second rejection hurt. As a friend who went there said in disbelief: "Rejected from Santa Barbara?" I mean, it's a fine school and all that, but more than half those who apply get in. UC Santa Barbara was far from her first choice, but still.

Maia has good grades and test scores, but not great. Her grade point average ranges from about 3.25 to 3.8, depending on how you figure it, and the official high school transcript figured it on the lower end. We hoped that her tendency to get much better grades in after-school college classes -- she's now up to Russian IV at L.A. City College -- would count in her favor, as well as her initiative in seeking them out in the first place. But maybe not.

Her old private school informed us at the end of 10th grade that it wouldn't let her graduate at the end of 11th grade, even though she had more than enough credits. The private school counselor had warned grimly, "Maia's not exactly setting the world on fire with her grades." It wasn't just that the school wanted that extra year of tuition money, oh no -- she really needed to raise her college admission chances with another year of Advance Placement classes. Instead of listening to that advice, we moved her to our big, urban neighborhood public school for senior year.

Maia's ACT score was an unimpressive 23. Her best SAT I scores were 600 out of 800 for reading, 500 for math and 610 for writing. She only took the test twice; I know many kids try it three or four times, but we take a dim view of that around here. I also don't like the idea of those $2,000-plus private tutoring sessions for the SAT, but she did take a six-week SAT prep class last year at the private school, which was useful and only cost about $150.

I was pleased that she got an 11 out of 12 both times on the test's new writing portion. Her SAT II scores were 700 for U.S. history and 630 for world history (not bad, considering she never took a world history class) but a ridiculously low 580 for literature, in light of how much she reads. So she took that one a second time and raised it to 680.

She did do well on the two AP tests she took last year, getting a 4 on AP U.S. history and AP European history. (The highest possible score is 5.) That was pretty good, especially considering that the school scheduled those tests back to back on the same day. That meant six hours of solid test-taking, with no stopping for lunch and only a 10-minute bathroom break. (Of course, colleges don't know, or care, about all that.)

I think Maia has a solid school record, but I also realize it's not dazzling in this weird new world of 4.5 GPAs and seniors who graduate with a dozen AP classes under their belts, not to mention intense tutoring and hired help for the application process. Once teachers get to know her, though.... Her big strong point was that she had many enthusiastic letters of recommendation, but the UC system doesn't accept those because they get too many applicants to be able to read them.

I guess we should have been prepared for bad news after we had dinner with a few USC professors last month. After hearing her GPA and test scores, they began extolling the virtues of the city college system, where students often have better luck transferring to a top university after a couple of years getting their grades up.

By the time Maia had been turned down by UC Santa Barbara, her boyfriend had been accepted to eight colleges. (Maia didn't even apply to that many.) "Jeremy's a 30-year-old man!" a friend snapped when he heard about this. "Of course he got in." That's an exaggeration, but Jeremy will be 19 when he graduates 12th grade in June because the trend among baby-boomer parents is to delay enrolling their kids in kindergarten until they're at least 6.

I'm not a fan of that trend, nor of the notion that a student who has more than enough credits to graduate high school at the end of 11th grade should be kept there another year anyway. When it comes to high school, my basic philosophy is: Enough already.

Most people thought I was wrong about that. And after the Santa Barbara rejection, I had to consider the possibility -- fantastic though it seemed -- that maybe they had a point. This is not something that happens very often with me, especially when it comes to school officials who insist that they know best.

Maia's first UC choice was San Diego, which was also the last to let applicants know about admissions. I felt terrible seeing her sitting tearfully over the computer, trying to access UC San Diego's busy server the day the school sent out its yeas or nays. The record so far wasn't promising, even though I know she's a good and enthusiastic student who'd do well anywhere. And UC San Diego, where she applied as a Russian/Soviet Studies major, is more selective than UC Santa Barbara.

But she got in. Go figure. And the one good thing about the pit of teenage despair is that it has a flip side: utter teenage jubilation.

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