Guides to top colleges warn, 'Don't be blinded by the halo'

Ask a top high school student where he or she expects to go to college, and the answer is often a single, instantly recognizable word: Harvard - or Dartmouth or Yale or ... any of the Ivies, really.

It's an understandable inclination: Shoot for "the top." But just how to get admitted to an elite school can be a stupefying problem for even the brainiest high school graduates and their parents.

Competition at the nation's most selective 25 to 50 colleges has grown from the merely intense to the nearly sublime. At Harvard, for instance, 16,594 applied for this fall's freshman class. Of those, 2,672 were high school valedictorians, many of them with combined SAT scores at or above 1400.

But just 12.3 percent, or 1,650, were admitted. That means more than a few valedictorians who got "thin envelopes" doubtless went weeping.

So what's a diligent high school student to do? A little more homework, says Howard Greene, one of the nation's best-known college consultants and co-author, with his son Matthew, of a new trio of fat tomes called "Greenes' Guides" (Cliff Street Books, $14 to $16).

There are many college guides, of course. And many claim to offer an "insider's" view. Some are written by college students themselves. But those by the Greene duo (both Dartmouth graduates) are notable in that they blend the time-tested (the elder Greene's 10-step method of scaling the Ivy walls) with some fresh, illuminating ways of looking at the college scene.

In this latter category is "Inside the Top Colleges: Realities of Life and Learning in America's Elite Colleges," a revamped version of Howard Greene's 1998 book, "The Select." At its core is a scientific survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at the Ivies and a dozen other top schools. The value of this book is that it tells readers, by charts and graphs mostly, exactly what students think of different aspects of campus life at 20 of the nation's most selective institutions.

Want to know which top schools have the most students worried about alcohol, drugs, safety, or cheating? You won't find many of those issues in the glossy admissions brochures. But they're right there in "Inside."

On a positive note, the survey shows that even at these high-octane schools, students at certain institutions value one another's friendship, fulfilling "my potential," and marrying the right person more than personal power or wealth. Academic, social, and other ratings are there, too.

"The goal was to get underneath what I call the 'halo effect' of the institution's reputation," says Mr. Greene. "I want students and families to understand that these are not perfect places, not a perfect environment - and to understand that there are issues on every campus."

Still, before someone can critique the campus as a student, he or she has to get admitted. And because competition is so overwhelming, even top students need to put their best foot forward. That can mean being packaged in their best light, positioning themselves in the best high school courses but avoiding overt elitist trappings that can turn off an admissions officer.

Putting your best foot forward is what the Greenes' "Making it Into a Top College" is all about. It's an updated, retooled version of a 1990s classic: "Scaling the Ivy Wall in the '90s." A lot has changed since the original came out. One is the shift by top schools to push for "early decision." It changes the timetable and makes early preparation (how does freshman year of high school sound?) and organizing an effective "admissions campaign" more important than ever.

Another change that surprises parents is that few if any top colleges require (and many don't have any) interviews for admission. The admissions essay has taken its place. There's a nice chapter on how best to approach essay questions, including the likes of the University of Pennsylvania's infamous: Write page 217 of your autobiography.

It is, however, the "Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence" that leaps out of the pack as the freshest, of the three. For aspiring valedictorians - and the rest of us - it aims to broaden viewpoints to include names like Colby or Rice, Wellesley or Wake Forest - and explains why we should consider them.

Indeed, that broader view is what the entire trio of books is aimed at, says Greene. It gives students and their parents the tools and insight to puncture "the halo effect" and do a reality check - before they spend a lot of money and potentially disappoint themselves. (Be sure to check out the chart in "Inside" that shows the percentage of students, by gender, who would choose not to attend the same school again.)

College guidance counselors at the nation's elite prep schools are perusing both the new and updated books.

" 'Hidden Ivies' is useful," says Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, interim director of college counseling at Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite preparatory school in Wallingford, Conn. "Anytime you can get people to find even one college that doesn't fall into their list of preconceived notions, it's helpful."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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