College Admissions Officers Look for More Square Pegs

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Last week the office of public affairs at Middlebury College dispatched a press release to education reporters cheering the soon-to-arrive class of 2005. There's the young man who's appeared in "Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda," the recent Russian émigré who launched a successful magazine and the Kenyan-born, India-raised student who founded a nationwide human rights coalition. And finally the professional clown who toured the U.S. performing in Circus Smirkus.

Like colleges everywhere, Middlebury was deluged with a record number of applications — 5,400 — for the 515 seats in its freshman class. Which means that, as every parent, teacher, student and guidance counselor well knows, the competition for admission has grown exponentially fiercer in recent years. The not unsubtle subtext of Middlebury's communiqué is that unless you're a world-renowned peace crusader — or Alan Alda sidekick! or circus performer! or something else truly eccentric! — the odds of getting into an elite school have lately shrunk to Powerball-like improbability.

Admissions officers are drawn to "angular kids, those with a much more focused interest or talent."
Much of this is a simple matter of math — more and more kids are applying for a set number of spots. But as Rachel Toor, a former admissions office at Duke University, explains in her newly published tell-all, "Admissions Confidential," colleges like Duke are now casting about for a different breed of student. For years, the conventional wisdom has held that admissions committees rewarded all-around applicants (hence the whole generation of parents who've nourished their children on a steady diet of piano lessons, soccer games and pottery classes from birth). Today, writes Toor, "most of the students I meet on my travels are BWRKs. That's admissionsese for bright well-rounded kids. You know, the ones who do everything right. They take honors classes, study hard enough to be in the top 10 percent of their class, get solid 1350s on their SATs, play sports, participate in student government, do community service (sometimes even when it's not required). They're earnest, they're hardworking, they're determined. They do everything right and most of them don't have a chance of getting in. . .unless they discover a protein or publish a novel, they are going to look a lot like all of the other qualified applicants." Instead, Toor says, admissions officers are drawn to "angular kids, those with a much more focused interest or talent."

There are some upsides to this new approach. Who, for example, wants to sit in a seminar brimming only with trombone playing, letter wearing football players who chaired their student governments? What's more, looking beyond renaissance students, who tend to be children of privilege, has allowed admissions officers at elite schools to inject a measure of meritocracy into a process that, at an earlier point in history, largely consisted of the guidance counselor at Andover telling Harvard University which students it should admit. The downside, in Toor's view, is that with no agreed upon standard of admission, the individual whims of committee members hold much greater sway.

Toor and her colleagues go to bat for students they dub "mini-mes." Toor herself is a leftist marathoner who falls for socially conscious students who write their essays about running. She also champions a young woman whose answer to the Why Duke? essay begins "because it isn't Yale." (Toor, a Yale alum, writes of her own college years: "While I was there I never used the words 'Yale' and 'happy' in the same sentence.") "I was personally most turned off," she confides of her first year on the job, "by the Junior Statesmen of America and by kids who started investment clubs at their schools." Nor did she look kindly on applications that seemed too polished, sensing the handiwork of a pricey college consultant.

I witnessed the "angular" approach for myself two years ago when Cornell University permitted me to observe its admissions meetings. In Cornell's distinct parlance, renaissance students were dubbed "spread too thin." The admission officers also had a highly refined ability to detect whether kids were undertaking activity after activity to pad their resumes — or out of genuine enthusiasm. Sometimes this was just a hunch, other times committee members added up the time students claimed to spend on various extracurriculars only to realize the total exceeded the number of hours in a school week. In the final decision-making process, idiosyncrasy trumped well-roundedness nearly every time.

Which, in the end, is actually a good thing. As scary as it seems to conceive of admission decisions hinging on an officer's personal politics or mood, there is something comforting about the randomness of it all. It makes signing up one's third grader for violin, judo and Boy Scouts suddenly seem senseless. Or hiring a $20,000 college consultant to help package your child. Or doing anything other than relaxing and letting your child pursue what he or she actually wants to do — even if that means going off to join the circus.