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Applying The Pressure

Art Zhong knows he should relax about college.

Whittle the stack of applications down from 20. Forget the leafy quads and storied bricks of at least a few of the two dozen campuses visited. Skip a third run at improving the SAT score.

Start ignoring either the high school counselor or the private college counselor the parents hired, since their advice tends toward contradiction.

"I hate this application process," Zhong admits, late at night when he should be writing a civics paper. "Am I thinking about it too much? Probably."

It's crazy season for high school seniors, but it doesn't have to be that way. More students get into more great colleges than recent hype would have us believe, without the expensive gymnastics of résumé-building and test-boosting. Most freshmen are at the college they sought most. And some of the most expensive colleges offer surprising levels of financial aid.

Still, the grace of perspective is as rare as a "yes" from the vaunted "H-Y-P axis." (Harvard-Yale-Princeton. If you have to ask, you probably can't get in.) Some parents would argue that Art Zhong should have started fretting two years ago as a sophomore, when increasing numbers of students are now taking prep courses for the PSAT, which is itself a prep test for the SAT, for which students also take cram courses.

In the past decade, the ranks of some private counseling services have doubled, college marketing budgets are up 50 percent and the number of students applying to 12 or more colleges has more than doubled.

While the number of slots at colleges remains relatively stagnant, the echo-baby-boom surge of seniors peaks next year at 3.3 million. The percentage of those kids going to college returned to an all-time high of 67 percent in 2004, up from 62 percent in 2001.

And yet a growing sanity movement among counselors, higher-education analysts and college admissions officers now rails against application anxiety that reaches levels of academic hypochondria.

"Collectively, we have robbed students of their senior year," argues Lloyd Thacker, an education writer who has campaigned to get 65 universities so far to stop ranking their peers in the oft-purchased, much-maligned U.S. News & World Report survey.

"There's a diversity of interests beginning to realize something is wrong."

"What if all health care coverage focused on the Mayo Clinic and the Sloan-Kettering cancer center?" asked Scott Jaschik, editor of the magazine Inside Higher Ed. "It's not as if they don't matter, but very few people will get cured at the Mayo or Sloan-Kettering."

A certain elite group of parents in every major city repeats "Harvard admits only 1 in 10" as a mantra, noted Marty O'Connell, director of a consortium of lesser-known schools called "Colleges That Change Lives."

"It's who we are as a culture," she told a recent forum of 650 parents and students. "Apparently, we love to be scared."

The counterintelligence from the college sanity movement focuses on the following:

More than 80 percent of the nation's 2,500 four-year colleges accept more than half the students who apply. The average acceptance rate among all schools, even when the formidable H-Y-P axis is included, is 69 percent.

More than two-thirds of college freshmen still report they are attending their first-choice school. Of those at their second choice, half report they were accepted at their first-choice school but did not attend because of financial aid or other reasons.

The portion of students applying at a dozen schools or more remains tiny at

2.2 percent; the median number of applications in 2006 was four.

High-quality teachers and students, as measured by test scores and degrees, have trickled down to a far broader group of schools than the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the "liberal Ivys" such as Amherst and Wesleyan.

For example, U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Washington 42nd on its list of top 50 national universities; 84 percent of freshmen were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. And yet Washington accepts 68 percent of applicants.

"What I don't think people realize is how many schools are truly outstanding these days," said Steven Antonoff, a college counselor, author and lecturer. "The students getting into Northwestern today are the same students who were getting into Dartmouth five years ago."

"People in this country are name-brand conscious," shrugged O'Connell. "The stories make people feel worse than the reality."

Zhong's application reality is filtered through a supportive yet demanding family dynamic. His parents, Joshua and Lily, are first-generation Chinese immigrants who came to America for higher education.

In China, Joshua Zhong said, only a tiny percentage of students attend college, so the American system seems refreshingly open.

Also, getting into anything other than the top universities in China is "shameful," he said. Zhong doesn't think Art or his twin sister, Amy, have the scores to reach the Ivy League, and he has told his children to pick a subject they love and go where they like.

Joshua alternates between exasperation and accommodation, wishing Art would narrow down his list.

Getting anxious parents to back off is another key goal of the application reformers.

"Do NOT come in and pick up your son or daughter's transcript for the application," said Wendy Trumbull Strait, a college counselor at a Colorado high school. "If they can't come in and do that themselves, here at the big-bad-scary counselor's office, how will they do off at college?"

Agreed, said Ponderosa High School parent Chuck Meadow. He sat with his senior-class daughter, Heather, at the small-college forum and tried to find the balance between encouragement and micromanagement. Heather's 3-by-5 index cards were at the ready in her lap, one for each of the 40 colleges in which she might be interested.

"I think it's the baby boom generation wanting more for our kids," Meadow explained later. "I am guilty of not letting my daughters make decisions on their own and experience the success and/or consequences thereof."

Another target of admissions critics is the résumé-building -- sometimes indistinguishable from résumé-padding -- that high schoolers conduct.

Antonoff calls it the "hot air ballooning over Tibet" approach to applications.

"The truth of the matter is that Yale and the selective colleges like individuals, and interesting people," Antonoff said. "Get young people doing what they love to do."

Being early and organized does a lot more for a student's chances than the "perfect" résumé, said Kevin MacLennan, director of admissions at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Of the 18,000-plus applications the university received for this year, 1,800 came in 12 hours before the Jan. 15 deadline.

"It's those students that are putting themselves in some jeopardy," MacLennan said.

Those arguing for a more relaxed admissions season know full well that monetary pressures have turned the process into a business calculation for many families. Time and money put in early -- a private counselor charges up to $2,500, while test prep courses are $300 to $3,000 -- may generate huge savings over four years.

Many families taking prep courses for the PSAT have their eye on the coveted National Merit Scholarships that are based on those scores -- a few schools offer free rides to National Merit winners, while many others offer partial academic scholarships to finalists and semifinalists.

Seniors should not be cramming for entrance exams just to pursue tuition aid, experts said. A much wider range of colleges now offer aid and scholarships to a much wider range of students, Antonoff said. "There's more money on the basis of need, but there's also more money based on merit," he said.

Zhong is narrowing down his "safety" schools, including some in the South -- Wake Forest, Vanderbilt -- that may have fewer Chinese-fluent applicants than West Coast elites like the University of California at Berkeley. He knows his dithering is driving his parents a bit crazy, not to mention himself.

"But it's four really important years of your life," he said. "And I'm really looking forward to going to college."

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