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Perfect college entrance exam scores don’t help student who dreamt of the Ivy Leagues
Despite perfect scores on the SAT and ACT, a LBJ Liberal Arts Academy student failed to make it into his dream schools.
By Laura Heinauer
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Things were going, well, perfectly for Navonil Ghosh up until several weeks ago.
The college-bound LBJ High School Liberal Arts and Science Academy senior racked up more than 400 hours volunteering in local hospitals and libraries. He plays the piano, is a first-degree black belt in Kung Fu and got a perfect score on both the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Ghosh had mailed out all of his college applications and was just waiting for the acceptance letters to come pouring in.
But the letters that began filling his mailbox were of a different kind.
The first rejection came from Stanford University in California, but the hits kept coming. From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From Ivy League institutions: University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale, where he was wait-listed. But the biggest disappointment came from Harvard University, which Ghosh had chosen as his “dream school” based on the course offerings. Even the Plan II honors program at the University of Texas turned him down.
“I know this news must be quite difficult,” the letter from UT’s Plan II director said. “This year, however, with our number of applicants higher than any year of the last decade, we have been compelled to make an extremely difficult decision.” Ghosh did get accepted to the California Institute of Technology, UT, Duke and Rice.
Rejection letters are arriving in record numbers across the country this year, due to the large number of high school graduates and an increase of those applying to college.
Overall, the acceptance rate for applicants at all colleges in the United States is still about 70 percent — about the same as it was in the 1980s — but acceptance rates at the top 200 schools in the country have dropped, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
He said three factors have contributed to this year’s historically low acceptance rates at the more selective schools. First, there are about 3.3 million students graduating from high school this spring, according to the Department of Education, which is the largest number of graduates seen in recent years.
Second, though there have been graduating classes nearly this big in the 1970s, for example, the number of students applying to college — now estimated to be 60 percent to 65 percent — is higher than ever. Finally, he said, students are sending more applications than they ever have, particularly to the most highly selective schools, due largely to the ease of submitting applications over the Internet.
The surge likely won’t get any better, he said.
“Actually, we’re projected to have even more students graduating,” he said. “Because we don’t see the tendency to submit more applications tapering off any, it’s probably going to be even more chaotic. However, it is important to keep in mind that the overall acceptance rate isn’t dropping, and there is space out there.”
Caitlin Cash, an 18-year-old Bowie High School senior, said she thought of UT as a backup school and didn’t apply to any honors programs there. UT ended up being the only school of six she applied to that accepted her.
“I’m in the top 1½ (percent) to 2 percent of my class. I’m a varsity soccer player. I mentor eighth-grade girls. I’m the Student Council vice president and French Club president,” Cash said. “I was extremely surprised. I was like, somehow, somewhere, they’ve messed up.”
Cory Liu, a 17-year-old senior at the LBJ academy, said he also had a tough time getting into some of the elite colleges this year, despite scoring 2240 on the SAT and getting a 4.2 grade point average on a 4.8 scale.
Of the 11 colleges he applied to, only two accepted him: the University of Chicago and UT, which admitted him into a summer program for students who didn’t make it into the fall class.
Liu, who was president of his high school’s Youth and Government Club, said he’ll likely go to Chicago, which also reported a drop in its acceptance rate this year, from 35 percent to 27 percent.
“I knew it was increasingly competitive, so I tried not to get my hopes unreasonably high. But it was still disappointing,” Liu said. “I am very happy that I got into the University of Chicago.”
Harvard officials said they rejected a record 93 out of every 100 students who applied. Officials at Yale, Dartmouth and Brown universities said they also turned away a record number of applicants.
“We had an increase that was close to 20 percent in the number of applicants this year,” said Marilyn McGrath, Harvard’s director of admissions. She said it was because Harvard, which expects a fall freshman class of 1,660, increased scholarship opportunities and cut its early admissions process for the first time this year. “It was a very difficult year, because we had not only a large number of applicants, but they were also exceptional.”
It is not clear how many students were able to score both a perfect 2400 on the SAT and 36 on the ACT, because the tests are scored by different companies. But McGrath said fewer than 1 percent of Harvard applicants, 254 of 27,462, got a perfect 2,400 on the SAT. She said 3,368 applicants were ranked first in their class.
Shannon Duffy, a college counselor at Bowie, said she has noticed more college aspirants this year and had quite a few surprises over who did not get into their top picks. She said the trend has affected schools such as St. Edward’s and Texas State universities.
“They’ve been bombarded with late applications,” Duffy said, after recently speaking with a college admissions counselors at both schools. “Next, I would say students need to broaden their safety schools and really make sure they do a good job applying to them.”
“It was disappointing to know I did my best on those two tests, got the best possible score and it still wasn’t good enough,” said Ghosh, who is fourth in his graduating class. Ghosh, who is interested in biomedical engineering and medical school, said he is seriously considering CalTech and Rice.
Ghosh’s father, Nirmalendu Ghosh, said he is also upset about the slew of rejections. He quit his job three years ago so he could help shuttle his son to extracurricular activities, including to work at a UT research lab that he knew would impress college admissions officers.
“My son was devastated, and I was really sad,” he said, recalling the day they got the letter from Harvard. “My son told me he could not study any more and went to bed. I could not sleep that whole night.”
Ghosh’s high school teachers were surprised as well. They said it has been a tough year for all of the students at the school. Most students in the academy, one of the Austin district’s most highly regarded magnet programs, apply to college.
This year, however, the white board where students traditionally hang their rejection letters is more full than usual. The words, “April is the cruelest month,” scrawled in red between all the letters, sum up many students’ feelings.
“Navonil is a really great, hardworking, serious student,” said Jason Flowers, who was Ghosh’s history teacher last year. “He does kind of stand out. I think we were all surprised he didn’t get into any of the Ivys … But one thing we’ve learned is that the admissions game can be very unpredictable.”
“Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the Admissions Committee also considers many other criteria, such as community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities, and work experience. The Admissions Committee does not use quotas of any kind. We rely on teachers, counselors, headmasters, and alumni/ae to share information with us about applicants’ strength of character, their ability to overcome adversity, and other personal qualities — all of which play a part in the Admissions Committee’s decisions.
“Harvard seeks to enroll well-rounded students as well as a well-rounded first year class. Thus, some students distinguish themselves for admission due to their unusual academic promise through experience or achievements in study or research. Other students present compelling cases because they are more “well rounded” — they have contributed in many different ways to their schools or communities. Still other successful applicants are “well lopsided,” with demonstrated excellence in one particular endeavor — academic, extracurricular, or otherwise. Some students bring perspectives formed by unusual personal circumstances or experiences. Like all colleges, we seek to admit the most interesting, able, and diverse class possible.”