“Why Your Kid Won’t Get Into College: A Twelve-Part Series”

We couldn’t help but notice that the New York Times has devoted an awful lot of column inches recently to the brutal process that teens face when applying to the country’s most prestigious colleges.

Looks like we weren’t the only ones who noticed:

To the Editor:

I have noticed several articles in The Times on how difficult it is to get into college. I assume that your goal in publishing them is to drive my daughter, a high school sophomore already worried about college admissions, over the edge.

You have succeeded. Now you can stop. John B. Gilmour

Williamsburg, Va., May 16, 2007


Isn't that the main purpose of the media - to create fear of flying, eating because it causes cancer, drinking water, not drinking enough water, allowing your kids to play video games, getting killed by terrorists, having your identity stolen,...

Wouldn't it be refreshing to see a local news show or newspaper say "not much happened today - goodbye" rather than talking about some mass murder in outer Mogolia and suggesting "it could happen here and probably will".


I assumed that there were more than the normal number of editors at the NYT with kids trying to get into college.

Or maybe they've become investors in Kaplan, or some other prep company that depends on paranoia.


I think this is cyclical. They were playing the same headlines when I was in high school. Freaked everyone out. The statistics were brutal (ratio of applicants to those who get in, etc). There were also lots of advice on every little thing you should do. It sounds more like gamblers than anything else (e.g. "blow on the dice from the right, but rotate to the left before you throw...").
In any case, the number of applications has jumped because it is so much easier. When I was a kid, each essay had to be hand written, each app hand filled out. Now, with computers, you can fill out dozens easily. You can also research all possible schools with the internet, so it is easy to shotgun widely. Further, the more of these scary pronouncements, the more the kids shotgun their applications to be sure they get in to something.


Does anyone find it ironic that we are blasted with statistics about how badly or highschool students test in math, science, and civic while at the same time we hear about is how many solid applicants all schools are turning away?


pkimelma is right - it's too cheap and easy to apply. I too have just gone through this the second time in three years, and it's amazingly simple to apply for college. In fact, many schools waive the application fee if you apply on-line by a given date.
My son applied and got accepted to five schools. He had the courtesy to write the 4 he didn't choose after his selection was made in April, but how many of other kids were rejected or wait-listed from those schools in the meantime?
All this raises the uncertainty level for admissions departments. Ultimately, it costs more money to operate a system that has many more applicants than spaces available, and one that offers spots to many more students than actually register.
Parents are better off coaching their kids to find schools that offer programs of interest to them, and spending their time applying these. One "stretch" school application is generally considered OK.
FYI, I've heard from admissions counselors that, in most regions in the country, the increased volume of applicants is expected to subside in the next few years as the peak baby boomlet levels off. Perhaps the frenzy will subside. It also won't hurt of the US News & World Report Rankings boycott, which some colleges have threatened, occurs.



In my opinion, parents shouldn't worry about where their kids gets in - they need to worry about how they're going to pay for it. Any bright-ish kid can get into a good-ish school and do well for themselves until they retire. What's really depressing is how much even mediocre schools charge for tuition. I went to a top tier school and received an education I would only describe as "passable", and yet I'm saddled with almost as much debt as my parents were when they bought their house. And I was an amazing high school student, and got almost a free ride to college - but it wasn't enough. I'll be paying student loans until my kids are almost old enough to go to college. Fortunately I'm marrying a college professor, so my kids will go wherever daddy works ;)


Tell that to the parents and trustees, skoopey



I just went through this myself a year ago, and am now advising my brother and sister on their college choices.
Boy do I hate the college application process now that I'm in college. At the time it wasn't all that nerve racking, but now that I'm in a good college and completely happy, I see how ridiculously college is treated in high schools. That the process is so formulaic, like egretman made it seem (although not that extreme), is kind of sickening.
I had about a 3.25 GPA in high school, took a few AP classes but got 3s on the tests, and got a 2000 on the SAT, and got into every college I applied to, except my "stretch" (the Air Force Academy). As you can see, a pretty unstellar performance, but I now go to Rutgers University (main campus) am in the honors program, and had my choice of many other excellent schools, like Penn State and Pittsburgh.
Don't force your children into a highly stressful application process. Encourage them to do well, but don't put the pressure of either getting into college or not on them, it's not worth it and not realistic.
There are many good schools out there, and there's nothing wrong with a state school. Don't count too heavily on getting into one of the Ivy Leagues, your chances for that are real small. After none of the top 10 in my grade (except for the two with parents teaching at Penn) got into any Ivy Leagues, even a kid whos dad and brother went to Yale, I truly have no idea what they want. If those schools are a possibility, then go for them, but be satisfied when you get into good state schools with lots of scholarship money instead.
Oh, and on that note, don't count on scholarship money...I've gotten none even though I'm in the honors program with a 3.885 and am highly involved. I'll be paying out my ass for years.

...how's that for my first post?


Jed Lewison

This has got to be good news. Must be a reflection of a bigger set of elite applicants. People just need to get over "ivy league" and realize there are tons of great schools. I am a Yale grad, but the best course I took in college was in the University of Washington's philosophy department (a summer course).


Why is the statement People just need to get over “ivy league” always followed by a statement of the type I am a Yale grad

Thanks a lot. That lowered the angst!

One “stretch” school application is generally considered OK.

If you are the worst parent in the world, then maybe. Otherwise, your kid should apply to every Ivy League school and every other top tier school possible. Why did they make it so easy if they didn't want you to apply? Lightning does strike. Your kid has more chances of being hit if he's standing under more than one tree.

Besides, you are the upper socio economic class. You earned it. Well...at least you deserve it.


Don't force your children into a highly stressful application process.

May your god bless you, my son. Yes, this is exactly right. Don't be maniacal about it with them. Which is a way of saying "don't be Asian American about it."

Don't get me wrong. Asian American parents are going to save this country. Whose other kids are going to be engineers or scientists or math oriented? But they put way way too much stress on their kids to get into the top school. There kids are nervous wrecks even when they get in.

Don't believe me? Just go to one of those tours of Harvard or Princeton or MIT. Notice the Asian American parents with 10 year old kids in tow. Listen to them explain how if they study hard they will and must get into this college. 10 years old!

Instead, do it the smooth way. Tell your kids from age 5 that they are expected to go to college. Just leave it at that though. No more pressure other than that.

BECAUSE it is your job, the parent's job, to get them into the right college. Who else is going to do it? Your kids?! Ha. They don't even know what a PSAT is. It's upon them before they know it. Besides, they have to start in 8th grade practicing for it. Remember?

This is why kid of poor parents or divorced parents do not go to the IVY LEAGUE. As a member of the upper classes, it is your job, nay your American duty, to fill the selective colleges.

May you go forth, matriculate, and multiply. (Cornell's motto)



Wow...love the comments. As a fresh high school grad, I've got to say there is waaaay too much emphasis on which college students should go to for undergrad. Also students don't realize the amount of debt they'll go into. Most of my friends (top notch students, I have to say, one of them was student of the year for our area) will be going to the local state school, because of our state's tuition plan. Another student will be going to Cornell. He'll graduate with a mound of debt plus face debt for graduate school. I will be going to a small private school out of state so I will not incur a small fortune of debt. Ivy League colleges are starting to lose their appeal as more students realize that they can be successful without them.


Egretman, you missed the most egregious example of this situation run amok: the young lady who pretended to be a Stanford student for almost a year before she was discovered. She even talked her way into the dorms there.

Though I don't believe the full backstory has become public yet, it's clear that this young woman put such pressure on herself that faking her freshman year seemed like a viable thing to do. Un. Be. Lievable.



Well, I am a high school teacher at a top notch public school who writes recommendation letters to lots of schools every year. (53 letters for 19 kids this year). I get to see the effects of the process close up, over and over again. egretman is not far wrong with the "move to Mississippi" advice.

Having witnessed the process myself, I have come to believe that aside from choosing a major, choosing a college is one of the most over-rated (in terms of importance) choices a person will ever make. For most people, there are tons of good schools at which they could be happy and get a good education. At the undergraduate level in particular, where you go to school is not nearly as important as people think.

If you are good enough to get into Yale, you are probably good enough to get into at least a few of Berkely, Northwestern, Bowdoin, Grinnell, Pomona, Duke, Oberlin, Michigan, Amherst, Carnegie-Mellon,... For that matter you could get into Ohio State, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, Penn State, Denison, NYU, Davidson, Wooster, Emory, ... All are good schools. All of them will give you a good education if you want it. For every Ivy Leaguer in a prominent position you can find a non Ivy Leaguer with similar stature.

Since this is an economics blog, let's look at the last two CBO directors: Douglas Holtz-Eaken (Denison) and Peter Orszag (Princeton). How about the last two Fed Chairmen: Ben Bernanke (Harvard) and Alan Greenspan (NYU). In some areas, the Ivy League and other "elite" schools may be a disadvantage. If you want to be scientist, the evidence says you should go to a liberal arts school, for example. (And such schools offer a lot more financial aid, in general.)



The biggest problem I have with the APs? They aren't taught at all like college courses. Some kids are taking 5 or 6, which is more than what some actual college students take!! They need to be abolished, badly.

I'm a psychology major at a very up and coming state school. I have amazing undergrad research opportunities that are unheard of at UVA or Tech. I know that I am more successful here and will have a stronger vitae and application for grad school than I would at the schools parents pressure their kids into.

Sometimes I want to slap the parents of middle class America and let them know the realities of college life and what their children will get out of it. Their ignorance astounds me sometimes.


Doesn't matter where you go, just how much you pay:

"We find that students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges. However, the average tuition charged by the school is significantly related to the students' subsequent earnings."

(Dale and Krueger)


I just finished my undergrad in fiance at a local university. The more I think about it, I don't think there is that great of difference between the faculties at the top universities and the faculties at my alma mater.

What I did was take the powerpoint presentations, homework, lecture notes, etc that many professor have online for the whole world to see. Although I am not intelligent enough (or wealthy enough) to even consider applying to an Ivy school, I can learn the same things.

I read the lecture notes and did the homework like the rest of the students. If I did not understand something, I would ask my professors. It is not that they are less qualified, it is more that the students are less qualified to handle the material.

To summarize, you can get just a good education at smaller school with great professors as you can at an Ivy School, you just have to try quite a bit harder.

An example is MIT. They have a resource where you can review old classes. Sure, it may be 2005 classwork, but I get much from it.



I don't think it's that hard to get into a decent school. Every friend of mine that worked hard (I'm a college freshmen becoming a sophomore so this was a year and a half ago) got into a school that they are happy with. I think one friend maybe could have been more ambitious in his application choices, but no one I know settled for a "safety school" if they put in some effort in high school.

In fact, I really resent those ACT and SAT prep courses. I think they're just a tool to allow parents to feel like they're doing something. If anything, I think the effect is purely psychological and accrues mostly to parents. I never took one, and not to brag but my scores were sufficient to get me in just about anywhere. Anecdotally, most of the people I know that did take one ended up with scores that were not significantly improved their friends in the same classes and SES, and frequently worse. In other words, this is probably a nonexistent impact we're talking about.



"Move to Mississippi"

Unfortunately, that's not far from the truth. I'm originally from a small west texas city, and that's all that Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and Yale alumns wanted to talk about in my interviews. I was only 25th in my class, but the fact that someone from West Texas applied, even if I was upper middle class caucasian, was enough to satisfy some quota they had. I ignored them all, picked the school that gave me the second most money (less restrictions), and here I am applying to graduate school almost 4 years later.

Personally, the big names don't matter as much until you get into graduate school anyomre. I'm a sociology major, so going to Harvard means a lot less than going to University of Michigan.

Parents need to find a balance between pushing kids too hard and being their friend and not caring.

Nir Levy

I'm finding all of this very interesting, thanks for all those that have commented. This coming from a High School Junior (after the summer) in the US, with parents from out of the US feeling almost clueless as I start my college search.