Inside the College-Admissions Process

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College students sitting outdoors

The business of getting into college has increasingly become just that — a business — and the highest payers get the best results. For years, wealthy families have paid private companies thousands of dollars to give their children a double leg-up in the college admissions process. But what about everyone else? In his new book, Acceptance, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David L. Marcus follows Gwyeth "Smitty" Smith, a public school guidance counselor in a New York City suburb who has a unique touch. Through Smitty's story, Marcus shows us the uniquely American madness that high-school juniors and seniors must endure before making the leap to university. Marcus spoke to TIME about what makes a great guidance counselor, Ivy League obsessions and how the recession is affecting college admissions.

What makes Smitty — the guidance counselor your book revolves around — so unique?

He's really unusual because he lives his job. He would visit kids in the hospital. He went to the funeral of the grandmother of one of the kids he worked with. He would come in very early in the morning when working parents needed to see him before school started. He made it clear to them that if they had family problems, he was available at night.

He made it his mission to get to know as many kids at his school as well as possible. He likes to find out who kids are and then he tries to help them find out who they want to be. Since my book came out I've gotten emails from kids who got counseling from him years and years ago, in different schools around the New York. They just wanted to tell me about how he changed their lives.

So what makes a bad guidance counselor, then?

I don't think that there are so many "bad" guidance counselors, but I do think that there are a fair number who are just punching the clock, simply helping kids decide if they need to take physics or chemistry before applying. They don't get to know the whole kid, or the whole family, which takes a lot of time. It's like a pediatrician. Some pediatricians just look at the throat of the kid and say, "You better take some pain reliever," and there are others who will say, "I notice you're tired, I notice that you seem stressed." It's looking at the kid as a whole that makes a great counselor different from a run-of-the-mill counselor.

It seems that whether it's a guidance counselor or a plain old teacher, the amount of time they put in with kids is really what makes the difference.

I have no doubt that the best teachers are the ones who don't turn it off at 2:55 p.m., who are constantly thinking of ways to inspire their students just like Smitty does. He's a teacher; he just doesn't have a regular classroom. And frankly, many kids learn better by hanging out with the guidance counselor or going to a job or doing an internship than they do in a 42-minute class.

You write several times in your book that "2008 was the toughest admissions year ever." What made it so, and do you have any sense of how this upcoming year looks in comparison?

For the next couple of years, we have huge graduating high-school classes across the country. More than that, in a lot of middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, there's a fixation on 40 or 50 so-called "top colleges." So you have extraordinary numbers of students jockeying for the same places in certain schools. I think the tough economy makes a lot of parents more eager to latch onto a brand.

Do you believe that there is too much of an emphasis on getting into those Ivy or Ivy-like schools in this nation, then?

It's absurd that Americans have this idea that there's a small number of schools that are the "best places" for engineers or doctors or architects or teachers. The fact is, a lot of students change their major during college. The name on the gate is not the important thing. It's what the student puts into it and whether he or she finds challenging professors.

We've become a very brand-conscious society, and we have decided that in education — more than almost anything else — a big name tells us everything about quality. Guess what? At a lot of top research universities, professors are doing research, and often their focus is not on teaching. I'm a big skeptic about the allure of Ivy League schools. And I went to Brown as an undergrad, did a fellowship at Harvard, and taught writing at Dartmouth's business school. So I love those places, but I don't think you need to go to schools like that to be a success.

How is the recession going to affect this upcoming class of students' applications?

It's a terrible, terrible time to be a student or a parent looking at four years of tuition and fees and late-night snacks. Not only are families' budgets hammered, but a lot of college endowments have shrunk. Frankly, colleges should be insisting that students take a gap year after high school, for three reasons. One, students can spend the year earning money toward college. Two, they grow up during that time. And three, we taxpayers have been footing the bill for their education through high school, and it's time for them to maybe give back to the community through public service. Other countries have a "thirteenth year" of [{schooling}]. Why can't we?

Smitty believes that the college-application process is about "discovering who you are," and you actually make the direct analogy between the class he teaches and a therapy session. His philosophy seems a bit different from that of your average guidance counselor.

Smitty thinks that the college process should be about self-discovery and growing up — not board scores and grade-point averages. So he urges students to talk with classmates about their essays, and really to pour their souls into their writing — what I call essay therapy. Too many students just see the college application as one more task during senior year. But it should be one of the best learning experiences of high school.

If you had to channel one or two of Smitty's maxims to parents and students who are entering the college-application process, what would you like them to know?

It's about the fit, not the brand. Find a campus where you can challenge yourself. College-admissions offices value real intellectual curiosity. There are so many students who have extraordinary grades, and yet they have no clue how to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. What happened to the thirst for knowledge for knowledge's sake? [{I think}] we're beating it out of kids in this race to look good for admissions committees.