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Competition for Top Colleges Is On the Upswing

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College-bound seniors across the country are keeping a close watch on their mailboxes this week for the sign of good news from the school of their choice: a thick envelope.

That envelope, bearing an offer of admission, will be a welcome sight after one of the most competitive admissions seasons in recent years.

The increased competition--the result of individual students applying to more colleges, more colleges filling spaces with binding early-admissions policies, and more students taking Advanced Placement tests--has led to hiked-up admissions standards at many schools. In fact, as some students are finding out, schools that used to pass as sure bets for admission--"safety schools"--can no longer be considered quite so safe.

"There's certainly pressure on us now to make sure that our top kids have a very balanced list--some of the schools that had been a good backup are no longer," said Bill McClintick, the director of college counseling for Mercersburg Academy, a private high school in Mercersburg, Pa.

"It's going to be an interesting year," added Mr. McClintick, who is also the vice president for admissions practices for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "There are a lot of nervous kids and nervous guidance counselors."

Applications Up

Many colleges, especially at the most competitive level, are reporting increases in the number of applications this year.

At Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., for example, the number of applications jumped from 15,360 last year to roughly 16,400 this year, according to the private university's admissions office. Stanford has space for about 1,600 students in its freshman class.

Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., also has reported an increase in its applicant pool, from 5,300 total applications two years ago to a record of 6,840 this year. The school is aiming for a freshman class of 720 students.

"Because we've had a three-year period of growth, that's afforded us the opportunity to be more selective," said Mary Hill, the dean of admissions at the 2,800-student private college.

Some high school guidance counselors say students are applying to more schools this year to improve their chances of being admitted. "There are not more kids out there; there are a lot more applications," said Hugh Chandler, the chairman of the guidance department at Weston High School in suburban Boston. He said the "common application," which allows students to use the same form to apply to several colleges nationwide, has helped seniors follow a multiple-application strategy.

Mr. Chandler, who estimated that 90 percent of the 107 seniors at Weston High will go on to four-year colleges, said students applying to schools in the middle tier are in a buyer's market. But, he added, "in the more competitive group, it's probably the fiercest market I've seen in years."

Decisions Made Early

The increase in early-decision opportunities and applications has piled on more pressure for students this year; colleges began to select greater percentages of their incoming freshman classes from students who applied early. Under early-action or early-decision programs, students apply to colleges in the fall and hear on the decision by December.

The New York City-based College Board reports that 471 of the nation's 3,200 colleges and universities had some kind of early-admissions plan this year, up from 371 in 1990. Stanford University, which added a binding early-decision program this year, had more than 3,000 students apply early under its new program.

"The increase in early applications seems to have surprised a lot of institutions and individuals," said Kevin D. Keeley, the executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va. "I don't think we saw it coming, at least to the degree that it did."

Diane Scattergood, the director of college services at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, said that though her office has not necessarily encouraged students to apply early, many have felt the pressure to do so anyway. Virtually all of the 105 seniors at the private K-12 school are college bound.

"We said to the juniors, if we find that it's true that schools are taking half of their class early, we'll have to tell them to apply early," Ms. Scattergood said. "We're feeling a little boxed in here. If that's what schools are going to do, we can't just stick our heads in the sand."

Some students said that knowing where they stood well before the traditional April 1 admissions-notification date was a relief.

Adam Cowburn, a senior at Westfield Senior High School in Westfield, N.J., was accepted by Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., under its binding early-admissions plan. "My guidance counselor believed that early decision was the best choice to relieve senior-year pressure and felt the odds were more favorable in the early-decision pool," he said.

Adam Dinwiddie, a senior at Ardmore, Pa.'s Lower Merion High School, agreed. "If someone knows where they want to go, early decision is a wonderful thing," said Mr. Dinwiddie, who was accepted under the binding early-decision program at Columbia University in New York. "It takes away the agony of waiting until April to hear from schools."

Savvy Consumers

Mr. Keeley attributes much of the increased competition to students being savvier consumers in the college marketplace. "For a variety of reasons, students are better consumers today, and more demanding consumers," he said. Students recognize that college is an investment, he said, and have educated themselves more about what colleges can offer and have learned how to target their applications strategically.

Students also appear to be preparing themselves better for college: According to the College Board, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement tests in 1995 over the previous year. High scores on AP tests enable students to qualify for placement or credit at colleges and universities.

And increasingly computer-literate high school seniors have found creative ways to market themselves to colleges, such as creating "home pages" on the Internet's World Wide Web.

John Ikeda, a senior at the 800-student Christian Brothers High School, a private secondary school in Memphis, Tenn., included a brief letter with his applications explaining how to sign on to his Web site. "I don't have the greatest grades in the world--I'm not Mr. School," he said. "I figured the Web page would be the best way to show off what I do outside of school."

The strategy appears to have paid off: Mr. Ikeda, who applied to seven colleges, has been accepted to all four colleges he's heard from so far.

'Recentering' Confusion?

A few guidance counselors said they feared that increased applications at the most competitive schools might stem from students being overoptimistic about their chances for admission after seeing their scores on the new, "recentered" SAT I. The new scoring system for the Scholastic Assessment Test that took effect in April 1995 shifted the scale for the widely used college-entrance exam; a student unfamiliar with the change might misinterpret his scores as being higher than they really are.

Mr. McClintick of Mercersburg Academy said he feared that uninformed students might use outdated score information from guidebooks and overestimate their ability to get accepted. "Kids walk into libraries, and say, 'Oh, my scales match up perfectly,' when in fact their scores are 100 points below the norm," he said.

But officials of the College Board, which sponsors the SAT, downplayed that fear, noting that they had blanketed students and schools with information on the change. And many students disputed that theory even more vehemently.

Mike Epstein, a senior at Great Neck South High School in Great Neck, N.Y., said he had heard "much more than enough" information on the scoring changes. "I was getting so tired of seeing recentering everywhere I looked," he said.

Mr. Keeley of the college-admissions counseling group said he had asked his daughter, a high school senior, if a student could possibly misunderstand the new scale for the SAT.

"She said, 'We have been so inundated with information on recentering that any student who doesn't understand it has no business taking it,"' he said. "Recentering confused a lot of people but students were not among them."

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