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Getting The Hook

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, January 2003

It was October of his senior year. Having gotten an early start on the college search and application process, Seth (not his real name) was sure that Colby College was his top choice school. He had visited the school twice and had spoken with faculty, coaches and students. His transcript and SAT scores were well within Colby's range. He had participated in several interesting school and community activities. He had worked hard on his application essays and they were a good reflection of his personality and accomplishments.

Although Seth was a good student, he was aware that Colby typically accepts only one third of all its applicants and he was concerned that his application would not be compelling enough to earn him an acceptance.

As his educational consultant, I had helped Seth identify his strengths and prepare an application that reflected both his accomplishments and his potential for personal and academic growth. I had expected that at our appointment that day Seth would show me his completed Early Decision application for Colby and then we would talk about some of the other colleges he was considering if Colby did not accept him. I was speechless when Seth marched in, slapped a slightly crumpled computer print-out on my desk and announced, "I got it! I'm gonna be gay!"

A woman of many words, I am rarely caught without something to say. Certainly, it should take more than the announcement that a student is gay to render me speechless. In the twenty five years that I have worked with adolescents, several have told me that they are gay. Others have told me that they think they might be gay. Some have asked how they would know if they were gay. No student has ever told me that he or she was going to be gay.

Without waiting for me to find appropriate words, Seth excitedly explained that while wandering through web sites related to Colby College he learned that Colby had participated in a college fair at a Gay-Straight Youth Pride Celebration. "They're recruiting gays!" he shouted. "I'll be gay! They'll never know whether I am or not! I've got a hook!"

Hook. That word has become almost as important as the words 'test prep' to families who are eager to give their child a competitive advantage in the college admissions race. The word is used to refer to attributes that families hope will distinguish their child from the crowd of applicants with similar grades and test scores. The search for a hook propels otherwise rational parents to introduce their little figure skater to ice hockey or to sell the family piano and buy a bassoon. After all, it's only reasonable to believe that colleges need more ice hockey players than figure skaters, especially if the athlete's name is Sara rather than Steve. Parents also believe that if a college is desperate enough for a bassoon player they might overlook a few weak grades from sophomore year. After all, how many bassoon players are there in a typical high school senior class?

The emphasis that many families place on creating or identifying their child's hook is a result of the way some colleges - especially the most competitive colleges - decide which applicants will earn an acceptance letter and which applicants will be denied. The goal of the typical college admissions committee is not to enroll a class full of the brightest students they can find. In 2001 Swarthmore College denied admission to 55 % of its applicants with a perfect 800 on their math SAT. They denied admission to 45 % of its applicants who scored a perfect 800 on their verbal SAT. So if stellar SAT's don't do the trick, what is it that helps a student make the final cut? And why did Colby - and Swarthmore - buy a booth at a college fair aimed at gay students?

The typical admissions committee has a two-part mandate. First, it must create a class of academically competent students who will contribute to the life of the college in a way that is both interesting and varied enough that potential applicants will want to join the college community. Second, it must build a class that satisfies the needs of the people who support the college, primarily the alumni and the board of directors. To achieve these goals, colleges target specific categories of students. These categories might include musicians and artists, members of specific racial, religious or gender groups, athletes, alumni children, community activists or leaders, poets or writers, computer wizards, or students who plan to pursue a particular field of study.

The admission goals for a given year reflect the needs of the college at that particular time. If the college plans to build new physics labs the admissions committee needs to enroll enough physics majors to populate the structure. If the football team has a shot at the Rose Bowl next year, the admissions committee had better be sure that the marching band will have its full quota of horns - and glockenspiel players. In addition to looking for academically competent students, the admissions committee seeks to identify candidates who will bring skills, talents or attributes that the college needs. In our case, that means potential physics majors and marching band musicians.

So where does this leave well-intentioned parents? Too often it leaves them in the position of looking at each activity their child samples as the potential key to an acceptance at Most Perfect U. Sadly, this sometimes begins when the child is still in elementary school. And in reality, as tales abound about students who are accepted at top-ranked schools because of their perfect pitch or Olympic medal, it is hard to separate truth from urban legend.

Colleges freely admit that they are eager to accept students who stand out from the crowd. "Pointed, not rounded" has become the mantra of admissions personnel. The class should be well-rounded. The well-rounded student, however, is no longer a top choice candidate at many of our most selective universities. These colleges seek individuals who have particular talents and passions. The talents and passions that stand out are those that the college has designated as being important to the college community.

What separates the good news 'fat envelope' from the disappointing thin one often has little to do with being class president or owning three varsity letters. At the most selective colleges, those credentials are commonplace. Successful applicants have something more - the activity or intellectual pursuit that engages and energizes them. And what is most frustrating for high school students and their parents is that what the family considers to be an outstanding feature or talent - their passion -- gives them an advantage with an admissions committee only if that feature is needed by the school of their choice in the particular year that the student is applying.

In the mid 80's Leo Botstein, president of Bard College, was asked by the parent of an eight grade student what advice he had to offer to middle school students that would help them get into the college of their choice. His answer was, "Read the New York Times every day and learn to play the oboe." Four years later there was an increase in the number of oboe players applying to Bard. The competitive hook no longer worked.

Not all colleges review the applications of students with special talents or attributes in the same way. However, at most schools students are evaluated in relation to other students who fall within their category. Suppose that the woman's varsity gymnastics team at Most Favorite University needs one new member who excels in balance beam. The coach makes her recommendations to the admissions committee, which then evaluates each recommended beam expert in relation to other gymnast applicants. The gymnast's only competition is other gymnasts who excel in beam and have similar scores, grades and SAT's.

Students are sometimes considered in more than one category. Should an applicant be a coach's choice, come from an underrepresented geographic area, have two parents and three grandparents who graduated from the college, and indicate an interest in majoring in physics when the college needs to populate its new science labs, that student may be considered in any of four categories. In each case, she will be evaluated in relation to other applicants in that particular category.

All parents of college bound students are concerned about ways that their child will find schools that meet their academic, social and extracurricular needs. Parents of talented students or students with a special interest face the additional task of trying to identify schools where their child's talent or skill will be a positive factor in their quest for admission.

Students often rely on their teachers and coaches for information about colleges. High school coaches, for example, often contact college coaches to introduce their talented athletes. Fine and performing arts teachers frequently introduce their students to college professors at National Portfolio Days or at dance or theater festivals. While these are good ways to begin the search, students can use the internet to conduct a much wider and more thorough search of schools where their talent might be seen as a valuable asset.

The internet is beneficial to all students as they explore their college options. College webpages are a good first stop, but students should also visit non official sites such as a school's archives, student and community newspapers, and unofficial faculty and student homepages. By doing a site search of a college's web site a student can learn about plans to expand or modify departments in which they are interested. A little detective work might reveal some insight into the college's admissions goals. For example, if a student is interested in a field that has just won faculty approval to upgrade from a minor to a major, it is safe to assume that the school will want to populate that major. That would be important information to have when families consider their child's chances of being accepted at a school.

Search engines such as altvista.com and google.com direct students to important information that has not been screened by the college, including newspaper and alumni magazine articles, and information about faculty activities. An effective way to begin is to type in the colleges name and a topic, and follow links that appear promising. A recent Google search revealed one highly selective, but formerly regional, Midwestern college that is seeking a more national student body and is eager to enroll students from New England. It revealed a New York college that has created an exciting new math program and is looking for students who have done well in high school calculus, and a large state university whose restructured academic support center has won national recognition. And, of course, it was a search engine that gave Seth information on the forty colleges that attended the Gay-Straight College Fair.

While the most selective colleges do expect that applicants will demonstrate a high level of accomplishment in some clearly defined area as well as a high level of academic achievement, other excellent colleges are aware that many seventeen year olds are still exploring a variety of interests. These colleges look for students who have demonstrated the potential to be interesting and accomplished students, even though they have not yet attained a level of commitment and expertise in some area of endeavor. While still looking for students that will create an interesting freshman class, these colleges accept a larger percent of academically competent students with a range of interests.

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