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How I Got Into College: 6 Stories

Posted by gradefund on December 12, 2008

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122765578387658069.html?mod=rss_Today’s_Most_Popular

How I Got Into College: 6 Stories

Many seniors in the Class of ’09 — that’s more than 3.3 million students — are now applying to college. For many, it’s a time fraught with paperwork, essays, interviews and road trips. And after all that work, it comes down to a letter or an email: In or out?

Theo Rigby for The Wall Street Journal

Told his chances of getting into Stanford were low, Matthew Crowley, above, applied anyway — and was accepted.

Admissions are expected to be as competitive as ever, and many schools say even the economic downturn has not slowed the onslaught of early applications. At Cornell University, early applications are up 9% from what they were this time last year; at Amherst College, they are up 5%; and at Barnard College, the rise is 8%. The acceptance odds are still long; many highly selective schools accept fewer than 20% of applicants.

Counselors, admissions staff and parents can all provide useful advice for getting in, but some of the best tips can come from the most recent veterans of the application frenzy: college freshmen. We’ve asked a range of students to share what they’ve learned.

Dare to Dream

Matthew Crowley was set on going to Stanford University last fall, but all the signs told him he wouldn’t make the cut. He plugged his grades and test scores into a computer program that tracked college-acceptance statistics and came out on the low end of a graph for Stanford. Guidance counselors at Kent Denver, a private school he attended in Englewood, Colo., did not include Stanford on a list of suggested colleges. And he says a college adviser his family hired for $2,800 told him not to bother applying.

But Mr. Crowley, who at age 16 started a company that built and tested skis, didn’t like being told what not to do. He remembered his father, who died when Matthew was 11, telling him, “What’s the harm in trying?” He sent in his application early, but also applied to seven other schools.

Soon he got the news that Stanford had put him on the wait list, meaning a slot for him could open up later. Then, while hanging out in the basement with his brother, he got the email from Stanford: accepted. Mr. Crowley ran upstairs with the news. “It was the greatest joy I’ve had as a parent other than giving birth,” says his mother, Melissa Crowley.

Now a freshman, he’s majoring in product design and was accepted to a small class led by Banny Banerjee, the director of Stanford’s design program. Prof. Banerjee once worked for IDEO, an innovation and design firm that Matthew had admired so much, he toured the company’s Boulder, Colo., office as a 9-year-old with his father. “I walk into his class and I can’t stop smiling,” Mr. Crowley says.

Advice: Have a backup plan, but don’t get scared off by long odds. “It pays off to keep on going for it even if you’re told you can’t do it,” he says. His mother says with the next kids, twin high-school juniors, she’ll seek advice that is realistic but still “gives them hope.”

Keep It Neat

When Dartmouth College rejected Ramond King last December, he blasted Radiohead’s “Let Down” and tried to figure out why he wasn’t at least put on the wait list. He had a 3.9 grade-point average his senior year, took five Advanced Placement courses and won the headmaster’s cup, an award to the student who showed the most personal growth at the Branson School in Ross, Calif.

A few weeks later, as he was finishing 13 applications, Mr. King’s college counselor called with a possible explanation. On his application, where he’d described his course load, Ramond had spelled chemistry as “chemestry” and literature as “literatre.” The errors appeared six times.

“When it happened, of course, I’m freaking out,” Mr. King says. Before he’d sent that Dartmouth application, his mother, father and sister had studied each word, scouring for mistakes. But the errors were on a page he filled out on his own and gave to the guidance office to complete with recommendations.

In his next round of applications, the errors were corrected. This time, he was accepted to five schools, including Cornell, where he is now a freshman. He says blatant misspellings can be fatal to an application: “I try and laugh about it now,” he says.

Advice: Check every section of an application immediately after finishing it, as well as before sending it. Many college counselors recommend printing out an online application and proofreading the hard copy.

Practice Makes Perfect

Three days after she received her first college rejection, Sophie Nunberg started a Facebook group for others who were turned down by their top choices. Over the next few weeks, the senior at the International High School of San Francisco returned to the online group as rejections and wait-listings arrived from eight of the 12 schools she had applied to, including Columbia, the University of Chicago, Vassar and Swarthmore. “I was very upset,” she says.

She started to look back over her applications to figure out what had happened. When she re-read her essay for Columbia, where she’d applied early, she sounded like she was posing as a kid who could only thrive in a city. Her applications to Swarthmore and Vassar emphasized her love of writing but revealed little else. But her essay for Wellesley, where she was accepted, really stood out — because it sounded like her.

Her ease came partly from her familiarity with Wellesley — her mother is a graduate — and partly from her impatience with twisting her essays to fit what she thought admissions officers wanted to hear. Her two Wellesley essays about working for Planned Parenthood and her mother’s influence on her life came naturally: “I just wasn’t afraid of being judged.”

She’s now a campus tour guide, touting Wellesley to prospective students. “If it hadn’t been for a hard year and very difficult admissions, I might never have come here, and I might not be as happy,” she says.

Advice: The more applications she filled out, she says, the better they got. So she advises students not to rush an application for the sake of applying early. College counselors recommend avoiding clichéd essay topics, such as community service, unless they’re essential to a student’s identity. Students can also consult how-to books to view sample essays.

Cast a Wide Net

Virat Gupta was at the top of his class at Detroit Country Day School, president of the student council, captain of the cross-country team, captain of a public-speaking team and secretary of the honors choir. So when he applied to about 10 colleges, including four Ivy League universities, he felt pretty confident.

Fabrizio Costantini for the Wall Street Journal

Virat Gupta, now at the University of Michigan, wasn’t accepted at the four Ivy League schools where he applied.

In December, Columbia University rejected his early application. In April, he was put on the wait list by Duke University, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown and Rice. Rejections came from Yale, Cornell, Northwestern and Washington University in St. Louis. He got the news while on vacation in Paris. “I had a couple of breakdowns,” he says.

Last fall, Mr. Gupta was accepted at two in-state schools, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, but he considered them “safeties” — schools he had a strong chance of getting into — and barely paid them any mind. Now he’s a freshman at the University of Michigan, where he says he enjoys working in student government and singing in the men’s glee club. “I really, really like it,” he says. He thinks less about transferring than he used to, though he still may send applications to some schools that rejected him. “It’s not the end of the world,” he says. “Everything will end up working out.”

Advice: Students shouldn’t just apply to dream schools and safeties, but schools in between as well. “And make sure that all the schools you apply to, you’re pretty sure you’d be willing to go there,” Mr. Gupta says. In his view, the pressure of college is nothing compared to the stress of getting in, he says. And he still has big plans. “I’ll do my best and get into a killer law school,” he says.

Just Do It

Mari Huessy says she was expected to be “the pride of the high school” in Essex Junction, Vt. But when December of her senior year rolled around, she was overwhelmed by the prospect of applying to 10 different colleges. “I totally freaked out,” she says.

Her approach: apply only to her top choice, Grinnell College in Iowa. An aspiring writer, she’d been hoping to attend the school ever since ninth grade because of its top English program. But she froze when it was time to follow through on her dream. She didn’t visit the campus or interview with the admissions office. She struggled with her essay about imagination. “It was really bad,” she says. Her rejection notice came on April 1, her birthday.

Instead of applying elsewhere, she took a year off after high school to teach English at a school in Germany, hoping the experience abroad would strengthen her bid. When application season came around the next fall, she spent nearly two hours speaking with Nancy Maly, Grinnell’s interim director of admission, describing the ways Germany had changed her.

Two days before Christmas, Ms. Huessy’s parents called to tell her she got in. “It was incredibly, incredibly wonderful,” she says. The 20-year-old freshman says the gap year didn’t just help her get into Grinnell; it also enabled her to make the most of college once she arrived. She’d given her major a lot of thought during her year off and gained confidence from living in a foreign country.

Advice: Had she visited a number of campuses, Ms. Huessy says, she probably would have gotten excited and applied to more schools. Many school counselors urge students to apply to at least 10 colleges, and some say seniors should apply to extra schools this year to give themselves some lower-priced options. Ms. Huessy also tells peers not to apply at only one school: “I got lucky,” she said.

Know Thyself

Caitlin Flood, the oldest of six children, turned down Georgetown, which costs about $50,000 a year. She also passed on Cornell, too, worried she’d feel timid in big classes at a school with more than 13,000 undergraduates.

After visiting 40 campuses, Ms. Flood of Bellerose Terrace, N.Y, discovered Lafayette College. The Easton, Pa., school offered $16,000 in financial aid, and she thought she’d thrive in a freshman class of 600 students.

The choice surprised some classmates at Mary Louis Academy in Queens, N.Y. “It was hard for me,” she says. “Most people hadn’t heard of Lafayette.” For three weeks, she questioned turning down two elite schools. But she also knew she didn’t want to worry about a mountain of student loans, and she didn’t want to go to a pressure-cooker school where she’d feel guilty if she left the library before 2 a.m.

Since starting her freshman year, she’s joined the College Democrats and the school’s law society. She’s also helping kids with educational projects at a local community center. She says she adjusted to college right away, while some friends at big universities still haven’t gotten comfortable.

Advice: Ms. Flood suggests setting limits on campus visits; touring dozens of colleges just ended up confusing her. To get up to speed on financial-aid options, students can use calculators found on the prospective schools’ Web sites. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities also has financial-aid resources at information on its site at www.ucan-network.org.

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

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