Do SW Florida Students get into Ivy Leagues? It Could be You! Part 1

Hello again.  Bill Parker, your friendly neighborhood University of Chicago grizzled veteran alumni admissions representative.  For college admissions offices, with summertime having descended in full force, things are pretty quiet -- no folders to read, no interviews, limited outreach travel.  And so it is for the U of C.  Not that its admissions office closes down, because visiting students and their families swarm the campus, checking out the school firsthand (recall that one campus visit is worth a thousand videos!).  So admissions reps host guided campus tours, answer questions, and try to make visitors feel welcome and at home.  I’m told that summer is when the greatest numbers of visitors arrive to view the school and, if they’re smart, check out the neighborhood as well.  Some will maximize the utility of their Windy City stay by dropping in on the University’s North Side neighbor, Northwestern University, and those blessed with enough time even pause to enjoy the sights of the city, which are extraordinary and well worth seeing.  So, while numerous small crowds casually make their way to and fro around campus, unknowingly matching the languid pace of the summer quarter, eyeballing the buildings and grounds, each kid wonders, Do I want to come here?  Some will say to themselves, No way I’m coming here!  Others, Eureka!  This is it! 

While they (hopefully) enjoy the sights, and ponder and evaluate what they’ve taken in, this seems a good place for us to do likewise.  So, herewith, some additional thoughts on admission to selective colleges and the selection process.

First, regarding admission to highly selective colleges and universities, the following quote explains it all:

 “The more selective the college, the more subjective the selection of students.”

--Richard N. Taliaferro*

                Former Director of College Guidance, St. Stephen’s School, Alexandria, Virginia.

What did Dick Taliaferro (“Tolliver”) mean by his pronunciamento?  Simply this:  as college selectivity rises, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the outcome of an application, no matter how strong a student or otherwise well qualified the applicant.  For entry into the most selective schools, almost all bets are off.  One striking example:  the father of one of Dick’s kids was White House counsel and a Yale alum.  His oldest son, both a fine student and track-and-field athlete (he set school and conference records for the pole vault), applied to and was duly accepted into dad’s alma mater, from which he not only graduated with honors but also set the Yale pole vault record.  His younger brother, a better student and better pole vaulter, also applied to Yale.  Viewing younger brother’s superior academic and athletic accomplishments, and keenly aware of his legacy status, the school naturally figured him a lock for an acceptance, so people were stunned when Yale turned his application down.  This tale exemplifies the unpredictability of applying to the most highly selective private institutions:  there are few guarantees.  Twenty years ago, with the U of C still years away from achieving the prosperity in college admissions it enjoys today, an admissions dean captured this anomalous, squirrelly quality perfectly when he told the assembled admissions committee, who were hotly deliberating the fate of an attractive though flawed applicant, “We’re the University of Chicago and we can admit anyone we damn well please!”  (The applicant was admitted.) 

*Dick Taliaferro ran college guidance at St. Stephen’s for 30 years.  Actually, he didn’t just run college guidance; he was college guidance.  Because he taught every single kid who graduated, he knew his kids as students as well as, or maybe better than, he knew them as college advisees, and he wrote counselor evaluations for their college applications.  Warm and honest in his dealings with his students and their parents and with admissions officers alike, Dick knew which kids to put in a good word for and which to just keep mum about.  He was also generously shared his knowledge, much of which has graced earlier installments in this series.  I am proud to call him my friend.

At the top of the desirability pyramid lie the most extremely selective universities.  You know them better than I do.  Last year, Stanford gave the nod to 4 percent of its applicants, meaning that 96 percent of them ended up somewhere else.  Harvard admitted 5 percent of its applicants; Caltech, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Penn, Yale, MIT, and, yes, the U of C all admitted fewer than 10 percent of those who applied.  Dartmouth (12 percent), Duke (11 percent), Johns Hopkins (13 percent), Northwestern (11 percent), Vanderbilt (13 percent) and Rice (15 percent) trail closely behind, and this list is by no means complete.  Looking strictly at the percentage of applicants whom these schools accept, the chances of getting into them seem extremely slim.  Moreover, critics charge that colleges chum the waters for applicants to puff up their application numbers (I believe quite a few colleges are guilty of this practice) and thereby gather brownie points for their US News & World Report ranking.  Finally, consider the economics of attending for students from lower and middle income families.  The schools I named are blessed with strong endowments, accumulated wealth which allows them to offer students who need financial aid all the aid they need (until 20 years ago, Rice University in Houston, TX was tuition free, a utopian condition that no longer exists; Rice administrators needed the tuition money), so while their families may yet experience financial pain, it generally isn’t enough to cancel any chance of attending, which truly opens up these schools to low and middle income applicants.  Still, with competition for a place at the ultra selective colleges so blatantly intense, even high performing high school students can’t be blamed for wondering, Why even bother to apply to a selective college?  What chance do I, a student from the backwaters of Southwest Florida, have of getting accepted?  What’s the big deal about going to these schools, anyway; hey! I can do just as well at some nearby college like USF or UCF, (Heck! I can just walk into FGCU), and by getting admitted into these nearby state schools, I forego the angst and bother of applying to a selective Ivy-Plus school.  So why apply to even one -- much less more -- of them? 

 Image Credit by  Wikipedia

Image Credit by Wikipedia

These musings are not easy to answer, but I’ll try to respond anyway, so here goes.  First, why apply to a selective college?  Let’s consider why they’re selective. These schools have managed to snare many of the best researchers, the brightest, most able and productive scholars, and the most brilliant students, so exposure to the best minds -- both among and between students and faculty -- is maximized.  The expectations placed on students -- and especially on faculty, a factor that applicants still in high school seldom realize, much less appreciate -- are (often an order of magnitude) higher than those at less selective institutions.  The quality of their scholarship and research is superior; the problems on which their faculty work are more difficult and challenging, more important.  Given that some economists (accurately, I believe) term college attendance a screen, a filter by which employers gauge future job applicants, an undergraduate degree from a selective college opens doors not only to better jobs but to better graduate programs as well; in short, it can provide a pathway to opportunity in a way that UCF or USF, God love ‘em, could never hope to equal.*  This explains why so many high school students, great and above average alike, aspire to get into the ultra-selective schools.  Some haven’t a ghost of a chance of getting in; I’ve had a few interviewees of dubious quality reveal that they were applying to Harvard “just because it’s Harvard,” as though that alone would somehow garner them an acceptance.  They’re still waiting…

*When I attended business school at the U of C, it was the big local banks which supplied over half the students and kept the evening program running (the banks would pay their employees’ tuition).  One, the First National Bank of Chicago, sent students through its First Scholars Program, in which carefully chosen graduates of selective colleges were offered a job at the bank contingent on their being admitted to the evening MBA programs offered either by the U of C or Northwestern University.  And from which “select colleges” did the bank recruit?  The Ivies, Stanford, Northwestern, Michigan, Williams and Amherst -- this was explicit.  Occasionally, the bank would accept a First Scholar from an “outside” college (I made friends with one from the University of Colorado), but most came from the schools I named.  

So, if you boast not just an above average, but a superior academic record, you’re off to a promising start.

Yet it takes more than a high GPA and high test scores to get in.  Why?  Call this an axiom:  to admissions officers at the schools I just named, an applicant possessing a fine academic record is a commodity.  Why?  Because 95 percent of their applicants sport straight-A grades; on the surface, virtually every applicant looks terrific -- which may be a difficult thought to wrap your mind around.  Hey!  Wait just a minute!  I have a 4.5 average at a leading Lee County high school, I’m taking four APs in my senior year, I rank in the top 2 percent in my high school class, all my teachers tell me how great a student I am, and now you’re telling me that I’m just a “commodity?”   In the context I just described, yes.  That is exactly what I’m saying:  to admissions officers at the most selective colleges, you -- or your application folder -- are a commodity.  From among all these applications, it falls to them to distinguish the very good from the truly superior, no easy task.  [A corollary:  If, as a Lee County high school guidance counselor lamented at the Ft. Myers college fair four years ago, kids who (academically) take their sophomore year off, thinking they can really strut your stuff and wow colleges with a stellar junior and senior year performance, have effectively killed any chance of getting into an Ivy or a Duke or a Northwestern or a Stanford -- maybe even of getting into the University of Florida.]  Yes, a high GPA is a good starting point, but no more.  Two years ago, I read an internet rant from an angry dad who “claimed” (we are not privy to the pertinent records, so we have only dad’s word) his son brought a 4.59 GPA and meaningful extra-curriculars to the college admissions table, but didn’t get admitted to the Ivy of his choice -- or to any Ivy.  The system is rigged, charged the dad, and the Ivies are only interested in money!  Yeah!  Many agree with the aggrieved dad.  But critical information is missing from his rant, which renders it incomplete and, therefore, highly questionable.  Aside from dad’s understandable pride in his son’s accomplishments and his disappointment over Junior’s application getting turned down -- and what parents don’t believe their child is the absolute best? -- dad leaves much unstated.  What we don’t know or aren’t told:  maybe Junior turned in mediocre admissions essays -- at Chicago, a so-so essay is a sure path to a rejection letter, and surprisingly many applicants who sport gaudy GPAs and test scores submit weak essays.  Or perhaps his kid got trashed by an unflattering or lukewarm teacher recommendation (“Johnny is an above student” is the kiss of death).  Moreover, a lot of bright kids (and their parents) who don’t care squat about learning are out to game the admissions system, the goal being an acceptance at a prestigious college; maybe that was the case with Junior, and admissions departments saw through it.  Maybe the kid is interpersonally incompetent -- a jerk;# ultra selective schools don’t need and don’t want jerks, no matter how smart they are.  There are lots of ways an applicant can stumble.  Final point:  the angry dad’s disclaimer -- and his son’s high GPA and test scores -- notwithstanding, admission to ultra-selective private colleges is not a right, is by no means an entitlement:  one way or another, it must be earned.

#  Years ago, at graduation for a high powered Washington, DC school which sent platoons of students off to HYP&S (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford), the senior class valedictorian won most of the prizes for various subjects -- clearly, he was a superior student.  His listed college destination was Columbia, which, back then was a far cry from being the popular and selective destination it has become today, and so it was considered a step or even two below HYP&S.  Naturally, I wondered why this kid didn’t end up at HYP or S.  The answer came from the school yearbook, in which the young man’s senior write-up was garnished with a telling Theodore Drieser quote, “999 men out of a thousand are bastards.”

But wait, do kids from Southwest Florida actually get admitted to selective colleges?  Yes!  Maybe not dozens and dozens, but some extremely hard working, talented kids do get in.  Four years ago, the valedictorian at Cape Coral HS left for Duke to study neuroscience.  A lady from Ft. Myers -- I forget which high school she attended -- who at her interview seemed indifferent to learning in general and Chicago in particular, did not make it into Chicago, but, I was informed, she wound up at MIT.   A thoroughly engaging minority lady whose parents had emigrated from Haiti and who loved and excelled at Irish box dancing ended up at Chicago.  A young assistant professor of finance at Chicago’s Booth School of Business hails from Ft. Myers by way of Swarthmore and Harvard.  Chicago lost a great prospect from Punta Gorda (she tracked down and telephoned a convicted child molester to obtain data for a high school research paper) to Brown -- alas, Virginia!  We don’t win ‘em all!   Chicago lost another fine prospect to Northwestern, which early accepted her -- Chicago passed on her early application, but admitted her via regular notification (perhaps for some, the thrill of being accepted early trumps acceptance via regular notification).  A fine candidate whom Chicago passed on was offered a four-year free ride to Amherst.  A lady from Bonita Springs, whom I interviewed several years ago, produced an extraordinary paper on comparative health care in the US and Central and South America; Chicago offered her a four-year free ride.  And this list is far from complete.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  Kids from this area do get admitted to selective colleges and universities.

Read on for Part 2 of this post next week... Bill Parker breaks down the best chances students have to being admitted to selective schools.