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Classroom Competition

by Jennifer L. Nelson

Amid strenuous academic competition, how does a student stand out from the crowd and gain acceptance to their top-choice college?

In today’s job market, it’s impossible not to worry about the quality of your child’s education. With students from all across the country clamoring to earn that coveted acceptance letter to an Ivy League school like Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania, and countless local high school seniors submitting applications to the state’s top public and private colleges and universities, it’s no wonder that today’s students are feeling overwhelmed by the task of getting into the academic institution that will help make their personal and professional goals a reality.

In a time when a college diploma is a prerequisite for most well-paying careers, South Jersey’s high school students are being faced with fierce academic competition, and are feeling the pressure to apply—and be accepted—to the “right” college even earlier.

“With the college process moving earlier and earlier, and some colleges even accepting applications the summer before senior year, the pressure to make mature decisions and get into college is overwhelming,” says Meredith Hanamirian, director of college guidance at Moorestown Friends School. “Pressure from peers, family and family friends can add additional stress to an already anxious time.”

The road to acceptance
The early decision program at many colleges and universities can ultimately help a student earn acceptance to the institution of their choice, so the urge to get applications in—and make those final decisions—even earlier is only intensifying the pressure that many students are already experiencing. Matthew Brown, 19, from Mount Laurel, visited 14 schools in the New England and Mid-Atlantic areas, as well as some as far south as Virginia and into the Midwest, in his search for the right college last year. He ultimately narrowed his choice down to just three, and after accepting an invitation to spend two days at Johns Hopkins University, found that the school was the right choice for him and applied under its early decision program. He was accepted and began his freshman year this fall.

But that doesn’t mean the road to the acceptance letter was easy; because the competition is so steep, students like Brown are feeling the need to stretch themselves extremely thin come junior and senior year of high school. “For me, the most stressful part of the college application process was watching our son push himself so hard. … He took many honors and AP classes, and there was the pressure of taking the SAT and the AP exams,” says Matthew’s mom, Toni Proffitt Brown. “He seemed like he never slept, and though we recognized the importance of doing well academically, we also wanted to make sure that he enjoyed his high school experience. It's a delicate balancing act, but one, in my opinion, that is critical.”

Supply and demand
While it’s certainly not a bad thing that more and more students are making the decision to pursue higher education, when colleges and universities across the country are being bombarded with applications from so many qualified, eager high-schoolers, the competition to earn an acceptance letter only gets more intense. According to James Riordan, director of guidance for the Cherry Hill School District, the number of applications received by colleges and universities has increased dramatically over the past several years.

“It is a competitive process, and when students hear horror stories about how less than 10 percent of students are accepted into Brown or Dartmouth, it makes it even worse,” he says. And that kind of competition isn’t exclusive to Ivy League institutions; 10 to 20 years ago, more than 50 percent of applicants may have been accepted into a state school like Rutgers University, and now it may be more like 30 percent, Riordan notes.

“It’s really about supply and demand. Two years ago we saw over a 20 percent growth in undergraduate applications, and I think it’s fair to say that in certain majors and fields, the competition is increasing,” says Rodney Morrison, associate chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University—Camden. For example, students wishing to pursue in-demand fields like health care or business may find it even more difficult to earn acceptance into the educational institution of their choice.

“It is definitely getting more competitive, and for students, they’re feeling pressure to apply to more and more schools,” says Jonathan A. Strout, director of guidance for Washington Township High School. While he recommends applying to four to six institutions, he says there are students who feel inclined to send out applications to upwards of 10 or, in some cases, even 20 schools.

Riordan agrees that 20 years ago, the average number of applications students sent out might hover around four, and today, that number has doubled. “With colleges seeing more and more applications every year, and with a deeper pool of quality students from which to choose, that absolutely is driving up competition for the students,” Strout adds. “It’s great for the colleges because they’re receiving more quality candidates and making money on every application they receive, but for students, it means spending a great deal of time and energy strategizing just to ensure they get that acceptance letter.”

Finding the right ‘fit’
The good news is that there are plenty of strategies that will work when it comes to helping students earn acceptance to the college that’s right for them. “There are certain schools that are selective, and that have always been selective … but there are well over 3,500 schools to choose from, so students will find the right one to match their individual personality and goals,” Riordan asserts.

Indeed, finding the ideal “fit” for each individual is perhaps the advice being offered most often to parents and students who are feeling overwhelmed by academic competition. However, that doesn’t mean that tried-and-true factors like standardized test scores and grades aren’t still on the top of most colleges’ list of priorities when it comes to narrowing down their pool of applications. “The grades a student earns in a rigorous high school curriculum has always been, and probably always will be, the No. 1 factor. … Students need to take high-level courses, and do well in those courses,” Strout advises.

Then come standardized test scores like the SATs and ACTs, followed by a number of other factors, from letters of recommendation to application essays. “I do think students are feeling the need to strategize to get into college these days, but the problem is that they’re not always the best strategies,” he adds. “Instead of trying to build up their résumé with things that really aren’t going to make a difference in the eyes of an admissions representative, students should focus on keeping their grades up and making sure to work on improving their scores on both the SAT and the ACT.”

Even juniors and seniors who are confident that their grades and test scores make them eligible for acceptance into their top choice college may be making the mistake of attempting to get involved in every activity offered at their high school. College admissions representatives may not look too kindly upon students who check off every “interests” box on their application; instead, Hanamirian notes that clearly demonstrating their true interests may be among the best strategies to help students remain competitive. “For the past few years, colleges have been looking for students with depth in one or two areas, rather than a wide range of activities,” she says. “Colleges gravitate toward candidates with a passion for a particular discipline, activity or hobby which they have pursued in and/or out of the classroom. … Whether it is the dancer who volunteers at her dance studio teaching young children, or the student interested in women’s studies who works at the Alice Paul Institute, colleges notice the motivated students who are finding experiences to further their interests.”

“The best advice I could give to a student is to commit to what they really love to do outside of the classroom, and better yet, achieve positions of leaderships in those activities … because for colleges, it’s really about quality over quantity,” Strout agrees.

For Matthew Brown, that meant juggling a courseload that included AP and honors courses and taking college-level courses over the summer, all while holding leadership positions in student government and remaining an active participant in organizations for which he was passionate, such as the animal awareness club.

“While grades, SAT and AP scores are important, it also seemed that schools wanted to know that the student was well-rounded … and on more than one occasion, college representatives said they weren’t looking for students to produce a long list of service activities and school clubs, but wanted to know that the service or clubs had a connection to a passion held by the student,” he explains.

Ultimately, guidance professionals advise students to focus on competing to get into their top choice school by making it clear what they can contribute to the campus environment—and why it’s both an optimal fit for the student as well as the college. “Schools seemed very interested in knowing what the student would bring to the school. … They want to know what makes you special,” Brown adds.

Morrison agrees that when it comes to getting in, students can help forge through the steep competition by taking every opportunity to convey that they are a good “fit” for the institution, whether it’s through their essays, interviews or campus visits. “Prospective students should share what they know about the school, from its culture to clubs and activities, and convey how their personality would be a good ‘fit’… because the more competitive the college, the more important ‘fit’ becomes,” he concludes.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 6 (August, 2014).
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