College & Workforce Readiness

A Leg Up

By Jessica L. Tonn — August 09, 2005 9 min read
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I’m really, really typical,” Samantha Lee from Los Altos, Calif., complains to her writing instructor as they sit brainstorming ideas for the personal statement of her college application. For the next 15 minutes, Tera Kuntz, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of California, Davis, drills the 16-year-old with a barrage of questions about her family life, her academic interests, her values, and her school. Then the teenager reveals that her favorite high school teacher was arrested earlier this year for having sex with students.

Andrew Sargent, 16, who will be a junior this fall at Henderson High School in West Chester, Pa., arrives for camp at Tufts University with his mother, Nancy.

“I could write a novel about it,” Lee says about the case, in which the teacher pleaded guilty. “But would colleges be interested?”

Learning what interests college-admissions committees drew this Homestead High School junior and 18 other teenagers to a 10-day College Admission Prep Camp run by Education Unlimited on the campus of Tufts University here last month. The program is among many such camps offered across the country this summer, by both private companies and college-counseling organizations, because of the growing anxiety and pressure families feel over the admissions process.

Nearly 500 students will attend the six camps operated by EU at campuses in California, Massachusetts, and New York state this year. In 1993, the Berkeley, Calif.-based EU became the first company to offer residential college-admissions camps, according to company officials.

“Getting into college has become so competitive, one has to give their child every tool possible,” Martha Webster says about her decision to send her 16-year-old daughter, Caroline Nype, a junior at the Lawrenceville School, a private boarding school in Lawrenceville, N.J., to the Tufts program.

Over the course of the program, the high school juniors and seniors receive many “tools”: individualized instruction on their personal essays, one-on-one college counseling, more than 28 hours of SAT-preparation classes, and a series of lectures on study skills, time management, and interview preparation.

College-admissions prep camp can be exhausting, with an average of eight hours a day of classroom time, not to mention homework. It also comes at a price: The Tufts camp run by Education Unlimited costs $2,250, including room and board at the university. The company offers financial aid for up to 50 percent of the program’s cost, and 5 percent to 10 percent of the participants receive some level of financial help, according to Matthew Fraser, the executive director of the for-profit company.

Though some families may balk at the cost, more than half the teenagers at the Tufts camp attend public high schools, a typical percentage for EU programs, the directors say. For many public school students and parents, they note, such camps provide the personalized services and intensive test training that families think are necessary to get into competitive colleges, but that public high schools, where the average student-to-counselor ratio is nearly 500-to-1, do not provide.

“Going to public school, and then doing this in the summer, is a pretty good deal,” says Moira McKinnon, the director of the Tufts camp and a college counselor at Berwick Academy, an independent K-12 school in South Berwick, Maine.

But some admissions deans would rather see students spend their summers pursuing academic and personal interests, or taking a break from the demanding schedule of the school year.

“Think about those 10 precious days,” says William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass. “You’re only young once. Is this the best way to spend it?”

On the unusually hot and humid afternoon of arrival day here in Medford, students lug suitcases, laptops, and portable fans to the fourth floor of Tufts’ South Hall dorm.

Later, at registration, camp staff members hand each teenager a box of 750 vocabulary flashcards and a copy of the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide, a 2½-inch-thick tome that includes 375 pages of instructional material and eight practice tests. They also pass out binders with 310 pages of lessons and worksheets developed by the EU staff for the camp’s writing workshops, college-counseling sessions, and SAT classes.

Students take a practice SAT math test under time constraints to mimic actual testing conditions.

“You need to make the most of your time here,” McKinnon, the camp director, says to the students at an orientation session that evening.

The next morning, less than 12 hours after their first class, “Intro to the Personal Statement,” the campers awake to an 8 a.m. practice SAT, the first of three scheduled during the program. In the afternoon, they sit through a 75-minute college-counseling lecture and three 90-minute classes. Their first homework assignments: finish a personal-statement rough draft and learn 100 vocabulary words in two days.

That first day of classes shows the students what they can expect over the next eight days. Instruction to prepare for the SAT takes up two class periods—one devoted to reading and the other to mathematics. Most of the time is spent practicing sample questions, and then analyzing the answers as a group. During the counseling and writing blocks, students meet individually with their instructors for 15 minutes to discuss their college picks or personal-statement topics, and spend the remainder of the class time researching schools or writing independently.

At 8:30 p.m., after finishing her last class of the day, Laura Schultz, a 17-year-old senior from Highland Park High School, a public school in Dallas, already is bemoaning the lack of free time. “The way they described it made it seem like there would be more downtime,” she says. “I spend more time in class here than I do in school.”

Except for one evening trip to nearby Davis Square and one half-day excursion into Boston, most camp days last from 9 in the morning to past 8 at night, and are filled with a mixture of classes, lectures, and workshops. Nightly room check in the dorm takes place at 11:15, but the teenagers usually stay up well past midnight talking with friends, listening to their iPods, or reading the latest Harry Potter book.

Despite the intense schedule and lack of sleep, few students lose their focus during the 10-day program. At an SAT class on day seven, the teenagers answer dozens of practice questions as seriously as they did in the first session. In a college-counseling session a few hours later, they pore over college guidebooks so intently that the only audible sound is the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead.

Gabe Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Vestal High School in Vestal, N.Y., sums up the driving force behind his enthusiasm on the day he arrives: “I’ll do anything to help my admissions chances.”

But do the camps really help? “Their effectiveness really depends on the kinds of services these kids have at their own schools,” says Fitzsimmons of Harvard. “For the kids that have lots of resources at school already—good counseling, teachers to help with essays, et cetera—these services would be redundant.”

Redundant, yes, but also a “second opinion,” says McKinnon, the camp director. “[Those students] want the reassurance of people saying, ‘Your colleges are good fits,’ or ‘Have you thought about these schools?’ ”

Students compete in a game of "SAT Jeopardy" run by instructor Todd Gutmann, left.

They may be straight-A students or have scores of 2050 on the new 2400-point SAT, but most campers arrived at Tufts with little idea of how to approach the admissions process. One teenager sat down at his first personal-statement workshop planning to write an essay comparing two books and a French film. Many had not thought much about where they want to apply.

“I think it’s entirely understandable why these programs have sprung up, and why students think they are necessary,” says Karl M. Furstenberg, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

But he worries that the camps’ prices raise equity issues, and that they may operate under the misplaced notion that average students can be made to look extraordinary. “I think that Dartmouth is pretty savvy at determining whether someone is interesting or just polished up,” he says.

Regardless of what the deans say, parents and students seem to think the camps work. Several parents sent their children to the Tufts camp based on positive reviews of similar programs from family and friends.

According to Fraser, the executive director of Education Unlimited, the company has kept its marketing constant over the past 12 years, and has relied on word of mouth to generate business for the admissions prep camp. “Our philosophy is that if the programs are strong enough, they will grow on their own,” he says.

Gabe Harris is one such happy customer. By the seventh day of the program, he feels much relief after nearly completing his personal statement, receiving a list of 12 colleges matching his search criteria, and earning a higher score on his second practice SAT than his first.

His results are typical of what the program promises. On average, the camp’s directors estimate, students have had a 150-point increase on the previous, 1600-point version of the SAT, or a 250-point boost on the new test, first administered this past spring, by the third practice test of the program. Campers go home with versions of their essays that have been proofed by their writing instructors several times, and a list of at least eight schools that they have researched and discussed with an admissions counselor.

Rush Thrift, left, relaxes with campers Gabe Harris and Samantha Lee, after each finished a practice SAT math test before the alloted time had run out.

The entire camp also fills out the Common Application, which is accepted at more than 150 colleges, while the counselor answers questions such as how best to describe extracurricular activities and whom to ask for teacher recommendations.

Ken Johnson, a 17-year-old senior from Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn., is struggling to stay awake in class after a week of the camp. Calling the program “a necessary evil,” he appreciates that he’s made progress on his applications and raised his practice SAT scores, but resents having to attend class nearly every night.

“[The classes] are what I’m here for,” he acknowledges, “but yesterday was Saturday night and I was sitting in an SAT lecture.”

Researching colleges on the Internet at Tufts’ computer lab, Laura Schultz, the senior from Dallas, is equally exhausted on day seven. Having arrived at the camp without any colleges in mind, she’s acquired a list of 15 schools from McKinnon over the course of the week. She now feels overwhelmed by the amount of work she’ll have to do to get her applications ready this fall. Among the schools she is looking at: Washington University in St. Louis; Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. While she finds the college counseling and personal-statement tutoring helpful, she questions whether she should have come to the camp.

“I’m having fun, and getting a lot of stuff done, but I could have done most of it at home for a lot less money,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as A Leg Up


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