Wrong Answer

(Photo illustration by Mary Kocol)
By Marjorie A. Schiff
Sunday, April 2, 2006

The admission office phones rang off the hook after the decisions were posted online. Between 8:30 a.m. and noon on the morning of April 5, 2005, I answered 18 decision-related phone calls -- 16 from parents, one from a guidance counselor and only one from an actual applicant. The parents were upset, wanting to know why "we" had been wait-listed or denied admission. Several were graduates of the University of Virginia with an inflated sense of what legacy status might do for their children. Others had not attended college or were recent immigrants who felt betrayed by the competitive nature of the process.

The 11th call I answered was from a father whose daughter had been denied admission. I tried to convince him that the decision was less a reflection of a deficiency in his daughter's application than of the very competitive pool of prospective students. When such generalizations inflamed rather than soothed him, I offered to put him on hold while I pulled his daughter's application file.

I walked back to my office, file folder in hand, while scanning the evaluation of the young woman's course selection, grade-point average and SAT scores. When I turned to the narrative summary, I recognized my own handwriting, and my heart sank. "After a long battle with bipolar disorder and countless medical interventions, [this student's] mom, a once-energetic, impulsive, brilliant woman, committed suicide last year," I'd written. I dreaded picking up the phone.

When I took the father off hold, I made no mention of my assiduous documentation of his wife's final act. Instead, I explained that although his daughter was a fine student, she was not as academically competitive as most of the candidates offered admission. She had earned mostly B's while taking only a few of the top courses offered at her school and was in the second decile of her graduating class. At the mere mention of course selection and grades, however, he grew angrier -- not, apparently, because the admission committee hadn't factored in the personal circumstances that might have affected his daughter's academic performance, but because he was convinced that if he had sent her to her public high school rather than to the private school she had attended, "she would have made straight A's" and been offered admission.

This emerged as a popular refrain throughout the morning. In several conversations, parents seemed unable to remember what must have been, at some point, good reasons for sending their children to private schools. They were certain that public high schools were a breeze where top grades grew on trees, and seemed to view an offer of admission to U-Va. as the sole acceptable return on their private-school investment.

One mom, an alumna, was dismayed that despite her daughter's "extraordinary record of community service" and legacy status she was not offered admission. When I pointed out that not even steady participation in community service or a legacy tie could offset a decline in grades between sophomore and junior year, or two C's on a midyear grade report, the mother became enraged and threatened to stop contributing to the university.

EVERY YEAR ABOUT 16,000 STUDENTS seek admission to U-Va. Many of them don't get in. About 50 percent of the students who apply from within the state are denied admission. For out-of-staters, the odds are worse: 75 to 80 percent don't get in.

In the admission department, a dozen full-time employees along with eight or so part-time evaluators sift through the mountain of applications. It's an agonizing process that involves weighing all kinds of factors: course selection, grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, essays, recommendations of guidance counselors, teachers and club advisers, personal circumstances, etc.

We are acutely aware that as we decide who will be offered admission and who won't we will leave some students crestfallen. Yet they almost never call to protest an admission decision; to vent about how disappointed they are in the institution; or to threaten to sue because someone in their class with a lower grade-point average was offered admission, and they weren't. Most have realistic expectations when it comes to selective college admissions. They remember who got in where the year before and see who was deferred by Ivy League schools during early decision. They understand that being qualified or high-achieving or even the apple of mom's eye is no guarantee of admission to a top school.

It is the parents who call. Even before decision day, they call seeking advice regarding high school, or even junior high school, course selection. Or they need help with the online application. They do not find it strange that they are working on the application in the middle of the afternoon -- at home or from the office -- while their sons and daughters are at school. Increasingly, they show up to information sessions sans sons and daughters, who are apparently too busy with homework, soccer practices, drama club rehearsals or volleyball games to research their college options.

This behavior is not unique to U-Va. When I talk to my colleagues at Brown, Duke, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and other selective schools, they all marvel at the way many parents have hijacked the application process. Most of us were admitted to college before the advent of private college counseling, how-to guides and endless SAT prep. Our parents were as mystified as we were by the offers of admission and the rejections we received, and it never occurred to them to question, let alone protest, a decision.

Now those of us who work in admissions swap stories about the parental outrage du jour. One friend, an admission counselor at an Ivy League university, recalls an alumnus who became furious when his daughter was deferred during early decision. Hours after the decisions were posted on the university Web site, he left hostile voice messages at the admission office, a coach's office and at the particular school to which his daughter had applied within the university. He barraged the university with angry e-mail. He was convinced of two things: that there must be a quota for applicants from particular high schools to particular schools within the university, and that another student at his daughter's elite, mid-Atlantic prep school -- a recruited athlete who was admitted during early decision -- had taken his daughter's "spot."

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