What to do when 'outstanding' is average

College applicants may find that the tipping point is a passion for a certain subject. Just ask the Civil War buff.

Remember when the ideal college candidate had good grades, and was high school president and captain of the football team?

Today, you might be better off collecting Civil War figurines or starting your own cricket league.

When it comes to applying to the nation's top colleges, being well rounded may be becoming passé, say school guidance counselors and private admissions consultants.

Sure, breaking into the Ivy League will require high grades and a minimum SAT score well above 1400. But with elite schools inundated by candidates at the head of the class and school clubs, the challenge of standing out keeps getting tougher.

A bulging population of echo-boomers, more aggressive college marketing, and schools casting a broader net for students from different backgrounds and countries are all factors that add to the applicant pool.

What's more, students seeking early admissions by applying in the fall are locking up as much as half of available slots before regular applications are even in the mail.

The result: Admission rates are falling toward the single digits at Ivy League universities and elite liberal-arts colleges. "The process has become far more difficult for students than it was 10 years ago and exponentially more difficult than 30 years ago," says Sally Rubenstone, a private consultant and former Smith College admissions officer.

Elite phenomenon

To be sure, this is mostly a phenomenon at the pinnacle of top schools – only a fraction of the nation's 2,000 four-year colleges and universities deny more students than they accept.

At these schools – places such as the University of Pennsylvania and Middlebury College in Vermont – admissions directors say 80 percent or more of applicants are actually academically qualified to attend.

Unfortunately, for those applicants, admissions officers say there's no single formula for who gets accepted. "We have an interest in the best and the brightest, whatever the package they come in," says Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale. "It's not necessarily a narrowly focused person or the person who engages in everything."

Yet counselors say a deeper passion in narrower fields can make it easier to catch the eye of admissions officers at hyperselective schools.

It may be a student interested in languages who starts taking Japanese at a local college and then goes on to a summer program. Or, says Dave Berry, co-founder of the collegeconfidential.com counseling firm, there's the example of the Civil War buff who avidly collected model soldiers. Mr. Berry says that student – who was accepted into several Ivy League schools – described how he hunted in flea markets and worked menial summer jobs to support his hobby. In his application, he included pictures of individual models and described what it took for him to acquire each of them.

"They may not do everything, but they do some things very, very well," says Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, director of college counseling at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn.

Ideally, a student's narrow passion may match a school's peculiar institutional needs, which gives added weight to his or her application. Perhaps the orchestra needs a percussionist or the language department says it's time to find an Italian major.

Counselors emphasize such passions aren't easily faked or packaged, no matter how many last-minute summer programs a high school student attends or private counselors his or her parents hire. "We can see through that," says John Hanson, director of admissions at Middlebury.

Instead, true passions develop naturally over time, and students exhibit a sustained interest. Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, says students "ought to just be themselves."

Intense pressure

But expecting teenagers to have well-developed intellectual passions can put intense pressure on students, educators say.

"These days, kids feel like they have to be veritable Greek gods and goddesses in order to get into college," says Richard Powell, upper school director at the private Oak Hall school in Gainesville, Fla.

Zach Clayton, for example, a senior at Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., is a top cross-country runner and a former intern at the Washington office of Sen. Jesse Helms. He has taken several college-level courses and has served as the chair of the National Student Council and a statewide teen Republicans organization. He gets up at 5 a.m. and goes to bed at 1 a.m., answering e-mails deep into the night.

Still, the 16-year-old has no illusions about actually getting into his triumvirate of hope: Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. "Everybody knows that more and more schools are simply impossible to get into," Zach says. "It's pretty intimidating."

Nowhere is pressure more intense than at prep schools that once served as feeders into the Ivy Leagues, sending dozens of students to top schools each year. As colleges broaden the pool of schools they draw upon, fewer come from any one place. At Choate Rosemary Hall, for example, more than 40 students applied to Harvard last year, and just as many applied to Yale. Neither university accepted more than 10 students.

The type of person in the weakest position in the college "arms race" is the "average outstanding student," who has perfectly good grades and activities but lacks that something extra, says Ms. Rubenstone, author of the "Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions." "They've done everything right and their dream is to attend one of these colleges, and they're not getting in," she says.

Rubenstone cites the example of one client who ranked in the top 2 percent of his class with nearly an A average, scored in the mid 1200s on the SAT, played on the school tennis team, founded an economics club, and plays two instruments. A generation ago, Rubenstone says, the student would have been a shoo-in for at least one Ivy League school, but not anymore. "They Ivy League would have to send a van to hold the applications of kids who look like that," she says.

Rejection can be hard on students – and on parents who don't realize how much the admissions process has changed since they applied to school decades ago.

On the bright side

The biggest beneficiaries of this growing college competition may be schools a few steps down from the Ivy League. They are seeing a big upswing in the number and quality of applicants, so they can now tout themselves as much more selective. At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., for example, the acceptance rate fell to 36 percent from 54 percent in five years, says director of admissions Carol Rowlands.

Mr. Shaw, the admissions dean at Yale, advises students and their parents seeking admission to Ivy League schools to "chill out." "We're way too focused on a few schools when there are many, many possibilities where kids can do very well."

• E-mail sterns@csps.com

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