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Being Smart Not Enough for College Admissions


And Wesleyan is the kind of selective school that's harder to get into than ever before. High school students with perfect SAT scores and impressive resumes are no longer shoe-ins. And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, if you think this year's brutal, wait until next year.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Mark Nussbaum has been pretty successful advising college-bound high students over the last 20 years, and he's got the coffee mugs to prove it.


MARK NUSSBAUM: Well, I have most of the Ivy League schools represented, a lot of schools in Ohio and elsewhere around the Midwest. I've got Yale, Harvard. We've got Emory; we've got GW in Washington; Stanford.

SANCHEZ: On a shelf right behind his desk at Ottawa Hills High School just outside Toledo, Ohio, Nussbaum's collection of college mugs is impressive. They were given to him by students who he helped place, but lately, says Nussbaum, he's never seen so many high achieving students get rejection letters.

NUSSBAUM: Tears are not uncommon. I do think that it can be very difficult for very strong students who have accomplished a great deal to perhaps for the first time in their life be told you're not good enough, and of course that's not the way the letter reads but that's the feeling that they get.

SANCHEZ: Take Charles DeLuga, 18, for example. Number two in his graduating class, a National Merit Scholar, terrific soccer player, near-perfect SAT and ACT scores.

CHARLES DELUGA: I've never gotten a B so far on a report card.


SANCHEZ: Charles is as well rounded as they come, his teachers say. What school wouldn't want him? Well...

DELUGA: Harvard, Princeton, Yale. Stanford was my, by far, first choice. I felt so confident with it, but I got that rejection email and I just stared at my computer for, like, ten minutes.

SANCHEZ: Numb, puzzled, Charles stared in disbelief, his mom Gretchen at his side teary-eyed.

GRETCHEN DELUGA: 'Cause I kept thinking I don't want him to be the smartest kid I ever met that didn't get into any colleges.

SANCHEZ: Charles eventually applied to 17 colleges. And though he's still on a wait list at Dartmouth, he didn't want to spend the last few weeks of his senior stressed out, so she settled on a school that wasn't even on his list - the University of Virginia. Charles's advisor, Mr. Nussbaum, says schools that have the luxury of turning down 80 to 90 percent of the people who apply are turning down more and more deserving academically qualified students.

NUSSBAUM: Which is why whenever a student looks at one of these what I sometimes call ridiculously selective schools, it really doesn't matter what their academic profile looks like; their chances of admission aren't that good.

SANCHEZ: Getting into the best colleges is still very much about academic merit. But schools also want students with a wide range of backgrounds and non-academic experiences, which ultimately makes the admissions process a lot more subjective than it used to be. Still, experts say, there's something else going on here.

DAVID HAWKINS: This year has been the most chaotic admission year on record.

SANCHEZ: David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling points to a couple of factors. There are more students graduating from high school than ever before, and students are submitting more applications than ever before in a scattershot approach that Hawkins says simply doesn't work.

HAWKINS: And colleges who are standing on the other side of this divide are asking themselves, does this application look like it's coming from a student who really wants to go here or does it look like an application that came from a student who put together an assembly line of 20 or 25 applications?

SANCHEZ: Hawkins's advice: narrow down your choices and tell each institution why you really want to go there.

HAWKINS: As many admission officers will tell you, that is far more important than anything like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, geography. Any of the attributes that a student doesn't control.

SANCHEZ: Getting students to take this advice, of course, is another matter. Too many kids and their parents, after all, are obsessed with elite colleges and the Ivy Leagues, says Hawkins. But with a frenzy in college admissions getting worse every year, it's going to be up to high school counselors like Mr. Nussbaum to force students to do a reality check.

NUSSBAUM: I'm much more focused in working with students on the right fit rather than the prestige of the school.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.