Beating the Ivy League Odds

Elite colleges say you can’t game the admissions process. But Rochelle Sharpe crunches the numbers — and finds some extracurriculars matter a whole lot more than others. So what’ll it be, Suzy: clarinet or crew?

The Wall Street Journal

Nicholas Fash was already an accomplished soccer and lacrosse player when he reached his freshman year at Greens Farms Academy in Connecticut. But that wasn’t enough for his father, Michael.

Determined to get his son into a top-ranked college, he taught Nicholas to play squash, figuring it was not only a fun game but “a very snooty sort of sport” that would impress prestigious schools. The plan worked: “Almost within a year, I had him ranked,” says the senior Mr. Fash, a film director. Nicholas is now a junior at Cornell University, one of the eight Ivy League colleges.

So much for letting kids find themselves. As if there weren’t already enough stress to the college-admissions game, the rules have changed. After decades of looking for well-rounded “Renaissance kids,” competitive colleges are clamoring for something different: passion for a single pursuit. That means no more loading up on bogus activities during senior year. And it means big consequences flow from what your kids do after school, sometimes even before they are teenagers.

The change comes as extracurricular activities are already playing a growing role in both the admissions process and the awarding of scholarships. In an era of rampant grade inflation and standardized-test tutoring, colleges say it’s getting harder to pinpoint superstars based on grades and scores alone. So as acceptance letters get delivered this month, extracurricular activities are a bigger factor than ever in deciding who gets the celebrated thick envelope and who gets the disappointing thin one. Indeed, Harvard University last year turned down more than half its applicants with perfect Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and 80% who were valedictorians.

“We realized one of the better predicators of success is the ability to dedicate oneself to a task and do it well,” says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. (Colleges have a term for these students: They’re “angular” rather than “well-rounded.”)

So what should your kid do if you dream of an Ivy League decal on the minivan? While admissions committees are notoriously secretive about such matters, Weekend Journal set out to crack the code. Three top schools — Georgetown University, Penn and Swarthmore College — made up to ten years of background data on applicants available to us. We also interviewed dozens of guidance counselors and college admissions officers, and looked at where the scholarship money is going. (Don’t worry. In crunching the numbers, we assumed your child is brilliant — a reasonable conjecture, since more than one-third of students who took the S.A.T. last year had at least an A- minus average.)

It turns out that not all extracurricular activities are created equal, and there are still ways to game the system. All of which is giving new life to the old “Father Knows Best” school of child-rearing. The most zealous parents are resorting to outlandish tactics, from buying homes in less-competitive locales to trying to get the kids adopted by Indian tribes. (Both the Cherokee and Navajo nations say they have received such requests.) And the college counseling program at University of California in Los Angeles last year included three stay-at-home moms who enrolled to figure out how to help their own kids.

But, of course, even ordinary type-A parents fret about their kids’ activities. After all, if a child likes both gymnastics and crew, why not pick whatever Stanford University prefers? If she’s wavering between musical instruments, shouldn’t she try the one in demand at Harvard?
Indeed, our data revealed some eye-opening patterns. Across the board, being a student leader, a team captain or a publication editor is a huge plus. While that’s always been true to some extent, leadership is even more important these days because it clearly signifies commitment. For example, our analysis showed that, a decade ago, being a debate-team captain was only moderately helpful at Penn. But last year it improved an applicant’s chances by more than 60% compared with the rest of the pool.

Similarly, athletic-team captains received above-average results at Penn, and editors had among the highest success rates at Georgetown, even higher than student-government leaders. (Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University in Washington, says the admissions committee may have “a slight resistance” to student government because the Washington school attracts so many “politicos.”)

Kids with musical backgrounds consistently beat the numbers at all three schools, though some instruments did much better than others. While less than one-fifth of the general-applicant pool got into Swarthmore, the rate jumped to 33% for trumpeters and 24% for clarinetists.

By contrast, applicants who played more common instruments such as guitar and piano did only slightly above average. Swarthmore says any variations are simply coincidence. What counts, says Dean of Admissions Robin Mamlet, is how committed students are to an activity.

Clearly, acceptance rates in the arts vary by level of ability. Many colleges now ask applicants to submit tapes or portfolios of their work and have them evaluated by faculty members. Take Penn, where kids with talent in the fine arts had more success than any other group of applicants: Nearly three out of five students with a national or state award for their work got in — more than twice the normal rate. Yet, for kids with only a local award, the odds dropped considerably.

One big surprise came from three mainstays of high-school athletics: soccer, basketball and baseball. Those sports did absolutely nothing for applicants to Georgetown. Yet, three less common sports — squash, cross-country and crew — sharply boosted the odds. In fact, squash players had more success than any other group at Georgetown last year.

Does that mean kids should go for uncommon activities, where they have a better shot at being standouts? Perhaps, but only to a point. “Clearly, we take notice if students play instruments we don’t see very often,” says Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “We’re always looking for oboes.”

But some such activities, like horseback riding and volleyball, seem to help little unless the applicant has won major awards. Kristin Connor, a junior at Scarsdale High School in New York, says her parents hired a private college counselor who wants to list horseback-riding ribbons she won in grade school. But Kristin has her doubts. “Obviously, I’m not going to the Olympics,” she says. In fact, listing truly obscure pursuits may be a detriment: At Swarthmore, for instance, only 8% of badminton players got into the Class of 2002, compared with 19% of all applicants.

“I’ll tell my daughter to follow her passions as long as they’re not skating or horseback riding,” says Anne Ferguson, director of college counseling at the Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

To be sure, the variation in admissions rates isn’t just a function of colleges’ attitudes toward the activities themselves. Applicants who excel in certain activities often have other traits that colleges like, such as personal discipline or even wealth.

For example, Georgetown’s Mr. Deacon thinks runners do well there because they “tend to have more tenacity, which can correlate with more success in the classroom.”

Similarly, squash players are often prep school kids who have been given a lot of advantages. “Squash players are low-risk kids,” says Doron Morford, college counselor at Greens Farms Academy, the school Mr. Fash attended. “They don’t drop out and they pay their own freight.”

Certainly, our sampling is based on applicants to only three colleges, and the odds vary from school to school and from year to year. For instance, kids who participated in crew performed well above average at Georgetown, where there is a crew team — but worse than average at Swarthmore, where there isn’t.

Many colleges beg parents not to play this game, insisting that it’s impossible to manipulate the system because there is no system. But colleges clearly have their biases. Most will take a second look at football players, and they acknowledge that they are sometimes on the lookout for students who can fill other particular needs on campus.

“Those things will make a difference,” says Michael Goldberger, director of admissions at Brown University. He notes that the heads of various campus groups, such as the orchestra and the tennis team, regularly submit lists of “people they’d like to see admitted,” although he warns that those lists are tiny and not to count on getting in that way. (Colleges also warn that playing great squash or a mean trombone won’t go far if you don’t exhibit intellectual depth and curiosity.)

Still, the data reveal some fairly consistent trends. Although Swarthmore didn’t provide figures on drama or debate, both Penn and Georgetown showed higher-than-normal acceptance rates for students who listed those activities. Indeed, debaters beat the odds in each of the three applicant pools for which Georgetown provided statistics: the Classes of 2002, 1997 and 1992.

Georgetown and Penn suggest that dramatists and debaters may be more poised and articulate than some other candidates, making a better impression on interviewers.

In addition, although community service has been widely touted over the past decade as crucial to college admissions, our numbers suggest it matters much less than you might expect. That was especially true at Penn, where community service ranked below nearly every category we analyzed. The reason is that colleges, aware that students think community work looks good on an application, closely scrutinize such activities. In: Kids such as Camille Gerwin, a student in Mountain Brook, Ala., who started a ballet class for abused children. (She was accepted to Brown University this year.) Out: Kids such as one whose father called Penn’s Mr. Stetson and asked how many hours of community service was enough. (It’s quality, not quantity, Mr. Stetson says.)
(See related letter: “Letters to the Editor: Quash Squash Talk When Thinking Ivy” — WSJ May 4, 1999)

The data indicate that students needn’t worry about taking on activities perceived as retro. (Howard Greene, an independent college counselor in Wilton, Conn., and author of several books on admissions, describes such activities as “Norman Rockwell categories.”) One example is scouting: Scouts had bad luck at Penn a decade ago, but last year their odds improved considerably.

Mr. Stetson says students who pursue scouting today tend to pour themselves into it. “When they’re involved, they’re very involved,” he says.

We also found some surprising news on the tuition front. While even parents of infants know to sock away money for tuition, many families don’t realize how much early extracurricular planning can help with the bills. Over the past five years, there has been at least a 25% jump in the number of scholarships based on factors other than academics and financial need, says William Nelsen, president of Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America, which administers corporate scholarships.

The best sources for this information are two Web sites: fastWEB (www.fastWeb.com), which asks applicants questions to assess their eligibility for more than 400,000 scholarships, and Finaid (www.Finaid.org), which provides links to scholarship sites and helps calculate how much need-based aid users can get.

Mr. Nelsen says the biggest increase has been in funding for students involved in community service, estimating that there are five times more such scholarships now than five years ago. Target Stores Inc. offers as much as $10,000 for students with interest in community work. (Like many of these scholarships, there’s a marketing gimmick: The application must be picked up at a Target store.) Duracell Inc. and the National Science Teachers Association offer $20,000 awards to students who design the best battery-operated devices.

Scholarships are also available for students with bizarre interests. If you live in Michigan and Junior fancies himself an undertaker, for example, he can apply for a $2,200 Michigan Mortuary Science Foundation grant. Children of members of the Western Sunbathers Association, a nudist group, can compete for one of two $1,000 scholarships. (Among the application questions: What does nudism mean to you?) A scholarship at Carnegie Mellon University, a prestigious school in Pittsburgh, offers a full ride for qualified bagpipe players.

Before you start overhauling your child’s after-school schedule, however, keep in mind a few basic principles. First of all, calm down. The admissions process is ultimately about the kid, not you, and admissions officers are brimming with horror stories about parents who hound them too much. Parents who get overly involved “can actually do damage,” says Kathryn Forte, a counselor at the Chadwick School outside Los Angeles.

This goes double for a particularly angst-ridden breed of parent: the ones who want their child admitted to the alma mater. Colleges concede that alumni children have an edge. And, yes, it probably helps to have donated money or volunteered for alumni activities over the years. But playing the alumni card too forcefully is usually a mistake. “Even though the parents may be wonderful people, sometimes that trait skips a generation,” says R. Russell Shunk, dean of admissions at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

And remember that pushing your kids can backfire. Mr. Fash, the film director who taught his son squash, says that when the young man was applying to Cornell, one professor questioned whether his interest in the game might be too great. The professor noted that some top athletes drop out of school to turn professional.

Worried that the professor might block his son’s admission, Mr. Fash had a high-school guidance counselor call to underscore that Nicholas’s priority was academics. “My main objective was to get him a good education,” Mr. Fash says.

Class of 2002
Based on data provided by three elite schools, Weekend Journal
calculated the odds of admission last year for applicants involved in
various extracurricular activities. Below, our results:
Georgetown
13,420 applied;
3,004 accepted; 23% acceptance rate
% Points
%      over/under
ACTIVITY                                Accepted   average
Squash                                          35        +12
Editor: newspaper/yearbook        34        +11
Crew                              31        + 8
Cross Country                     30        + 7
Community Service                 29        + 6
Field Hockey                      29        + 6
Class president                   28        + 5
Ice Hockey                        28        + 5
Debate                            27        + 4
Drama                             27        + 4
International Exchange            27        + 4
Reporter/Writer                   26        + 3
Band                              26        + 3
Student Government                26        + 3
Lacrosse                          26        + 3
Gymnastics                        20        – 3
Football                          20        – 3
University of Pennsylvania
16,658 applied for class of 2002;
4,750 accepted; 29% acceptance rate
% Points
%      over/under
ACTIVITY                        Accepted   average
Fine Arts: National/
State Award Winner              59        +30
Debate, National/
State competition               51        +22
Olympic potential athlete         50        +21
Debate Captain                    46        +17
Student Council President         43        +14
Editor: newspaper/yearbook        42        +13
Drama                             40        +11
Eagle Scouting                    39        +10
Instrumental Music                39        +10
Business Owner                    38        + 9
Dance                             37        + 8
Study Abroad                      35        + 6
Vocal Music                       35        + 6
Sports team captain               34        + 5
Community Service                 32        + 3
Reporter/Writer                   28        – 1
Work — at least half-time        25        – 4
Swarthmore College
4,585 applied;
890 accepted; 19% acceptance rate
% Points
%      over/under
ACTIVITY                        Accepted   average
Trumpet                           33        +14
Violin                            24        + 5
Clarinet                          24        + 5
Cello                             23        + 4
Cross Country                     22        + 3
Piano                             22        + 3
Flute                             21        + 2
Chorus                            21        + 2
Guitar                            21        + 2
Lacrosse                          19          0
Crew                              14        – 5
Badminton                          8        -11

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