Local students make the grade with Ivy League schools

March 11, 1995|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

It's an academic version of March Madness: top seniors at Baltimore area high schools circling the mailbox and praying for good news -- letters of admission to colleges such as Harvard and Princeton.

But a handful of the best students are spared the "senior sweats." Those high achievers get early acceptance to prestigious colleges. Some also become finalists in the National Merit Scholarship competition, an honor earned by one in 200 Maryland seniors.

They are students such as Jessie Rosenberg of the Park School and Josh Salcman of Friends School, who have just learned of their selection as National Merit finalists.

The Ivy League already has said yes to both. Ms. Rosenberg, a well-read 17-year-old from Mount Washington, scored 1500 of a possible 1600 points on her Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and will attend Harvard. Mr. Salcman, 19, a math and science whiz from Homeland whose college boards totaled 1450, is going to Princeton.

The national average for students taking the SAT is 902.

"To be a National Merit finalist is rare; to earn that and gain early admission to an Ivy League school is rarer still," says Stanley Johnson, principal at Friends. "It's far more common to miss the boat on both."

Nationwide, 14,000 National Merit Scholarship finalists are vying for awards worth $26 million. More than a million students participated in the competition, whose winners are chosen for academic and personal achievements and will be announced late this spring.

Maryland has 260 finalists in the program. Friends School, a private institution in North Baltimore that was founded by Quakers, has eight, tops among all public and private schools in the metropolitan area; Park, a private school in Brooklandville, is second with six.

Even at those institutions, Mr. Salcman and Ms. Rosenberg stand out among their peers.

Avid reader

At the age of 4, Jessie Rosenberg decided it was time she learned to read. So she curled up with a book and taught herself.

She'd finished "Little Women" by third grade, "Gone With The Wind" by fourth grade and practically every book by the Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily, before she turned 10. While other girls her age were reading "The Babysitter's Club" series, Ms. Rosenberg was immersed in "Wuthering Heights."

She read so much that friends called her The Sponge. "For Jessie, learning has always been a genuine thirst," says her mother, Diane Rosenberg. Jessie outgrew the nickname but not her quest for knowledge.

"She's from a different era," says Kenneth Greif, her English teacher at the Park School. "So many kids today rely on visual aids, but Jessie learns in traditional ways. She has the tolerance to sit there with a book and think it all through.

"This is a person who absorbs print. Harvard was very smart to take her early."

Ms. Rosenberg can't wait to get there. "I'm going to learn so much," she says. "I just like knowing things, even pointless, esoteric things. For instance, I may take Welsh at Harvard; any language with words that have four L's followed by two R's has to be exciting."

Mr. Johnson of Friends says that waiting for those fateful college letters -- The Envelope, please! -- can cause some strange behavior. "Kids get quiet, anxious and sneak off campus to go home and check the mail," he says. "They come back whispering, 'I heard nothing.' "

While most college-bound students won't know for several weeks where they'll be going this fall, Ms. Rosenberg and Mr. Salcman found out in December.

A crimson-colored jacket hangs in Ms. Rosenberg's closet and the family car has a Harvard sticker.

"It's nice, not having that pressure anymore; a lot of my friends are going through it now," she says. Family and friends say she appears more relaxed and spends more time at the piano, where she is teaching herself to play Mozart sonatas. She also starred in a recent school production of "The Threepenny Opera" and has begun taking private voice lessons.

Similarly, early word from Princeton has eased the senior jitters for Mr. Salcman, a three-sport athlete at Friends who likens the wait for The Envelope to "being in a championship game."

"If you're accepted, you're elated," he says. "But a lot of students take rejection personally.

"The truth is, there are limits to what you can show of yourself in an application," he says. "You're not being judged as a person but as an essay, a couple of short-answer questions and some numbers."

Unusual entry

Mr. Salcman's college application included one unusual item. Noting that last year's freshman class at Princeton lacked anyone born on his birthday, he made his pitch by including a probability analysis based on the odds of such an omission occurring two years in a row.

Admission to Princeton surprised Mr. Salcman, whose grade point average (3.6 of a possible 4.0) paled beside those of many applicants. But few could keep up with him outside the classroom.

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