Stress test

race to the top

Students feel heat of elite college competition

April 12, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,

In his quest to capture a spot at a top college, Andrew Lutz has done just about everything right at Pikesville High School.

He has earned a nearly straight-A average, taking 10 Advanced Placement classes and wrapping up two years of calculus by the end of junior year. He worked on the school paper, played tennis year-round under the supervision of a private coach, and traveled to Ukraine for community service.

And yet, when Andrew looks around in his AP chemistry class, he sees himself as pretty ordinary. After all, he's not among the top three or four in his graduating class nor did he have a perfect or near-perfect score on the SAT exams, as did two of the eight students.

The competition to get into highly selective colleges, which has reached a peak in the past two years as a baby boomlet grew up, is forcing students like Andrew into a high-stress game that could one day affect the brightest of his generation.

The eight AP chemistry students navigated the just-completed admissions process together this year, giving up Friday and Saturday nights to write college essays and skimping on sleep to fit in five or more hours of homework on weeknights.

"I found myself saying, 'I can't believe I thought last year was hard,' as the work piled higher and higher year to year," Andrew reflected. "Many a Friday or Saturday night, after I got home around 12 a.m., I would take about a half an hour or so to memorize vocabulary or take a practice [test] section."

Angel Perez, the director of admissions at Pitzer College in California, said our culture has created a system that makes students believe they must be at their best to get into an elite college. "It's affecting students in ways we don't understand yet. We are very well aware of this."

Some argue that more is at stake than teenagers' social lives. High achievers may be molded into perfectionists rather than into the creative and problem-solving adults society most needs. "In order to improve the world you have to challenge the world. If you are a high achiever you are going to do that, but if you are a perfectionist you won't allow yourself to do that because you fear that the idea you come up with won't be good enough," said Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of a book on adolescents and stress.

Like most upper-middle-class families, Helene and Randy Lutz embraced the American tenet that education is the key to a successful life. They both graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park and assumed their two sons would go to good colleges, too. Andrew had more than exceeded their expectations as a student. By middle school, he began dreaming of going to Princeton University, and by the fall of his junior year he had great grades. But the dark-haired teenager still needed to nail the SAT.

"The night before the SAT, I was so nervous and so stressed out that I couldn't fall asleep. ... It was 1 a.m., 2 a.m.," Andrew said. "He had a tearful meltdown," recalled his father, who sometimes felt his son should relax more.

Randy Lutz tried calming Andrew down by telling him to forget taking the SAT the next day. He pulled out a movie about Queen Elizabeth that they watched until a drowsy Andrew went to bed. He turned off his alarm.

Early the next morning, his mother, unawares, woke Andrew up and gave him a back rub and a banana. Despite the sleepless night, he took the three-part test and was surprised to learn he had scored a perfect 800 in math and 600s in writing and reading. He celebrated the 800, but knew he had to get at least 700s on the other sections to be competitive.

His parents got him an English tutor for six weeks. He made it on the next try.

Andrew began to think strategically when he visited Princeton. "I was so impressed," he said, "but then reality kicked in." The Ivy League college offered prestige and resources, but he wasn't good enough to play Division I tennis. He also doubted he would earn the straight A's he believed he would need to get into medical school.

Tufts University near Boston seemed a better fit. He made an overnight visit there in the fall, finding a niche with the tennis team. He decided Tufts was best for him, but he also applied to College Park and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The admissions frenzy is in part a matter of raw numbers. Most highly selective colleges accept a third or fewer of their applicants and the Ivies take fewer than 15 percent. Harvard accepted only 7 percent this year.

People involved in college admissions - including college presidents - increasingly say the process has broken down. A nonprofit group, the Education Conservancy, is leading a movement to de-emphasize college rankings and focus instead on the quality of an institution's teaching rather than its rank.

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