What's driving all this? | October 31, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 31, 2008

What's driving all this?

A look at the factors fueling the college-application industry

by Kaytee Comee

On an average day, Palo Alto High School senior Sara Chun sits through four Advanced Placement classes, figure skates for two hours, spends five hours working on homework, and thinks about college twice.

Chun isn't alone in worrying about college. As numbers of applications soar, so has the competition to gain college acceptance. Schools across the nation were flooded last winter with record numbers of applications. Stanford University's acceptance rate reached 9.5 percent — an all-time low.

Increased competition is often cited to explain why students are turning from traditional public high school counselors to private college-application companies and coaches.

Another factor, according to teens and tutors, is mental health. Counselors are a source of stability and soothing advice in an increasingly hectic, worrisome application process, they said. Psychologists observing the trend, however, warn that student stress and the intense college-application process is short-changing teenage development.

The most obvious and visible external stressor may be the swell of college applications. The educational-materials company that administers the SAT and others tests, the CollegeBoard, attributes this rise to a number of factors, including higher numbers of high school graduates, students applying to multiple schools and aggressive recruiting by colleges.

"Last year and this year are huge numbers for the applicant pool," according to Barb Reis, a Palo Alto private college counselor. "Burgeoning population and financial constraints on particularly public institutions add to frustration and anxiety for people."

Jay Mathews, Washington Post education columnist and Newsweek contributing editor, thinks the frenzy is fueled partly by human nature. "We are a tribal, primate species," he said. "We come out of the womb wanting to know what the pecking order is." Mathews himself creates a yearly ranking of the nation's top high schools for Newsweek. Gunn High School netted 81st place out of the top 1,000 schools and across town, Paly placed 329th.

In part because of Palo Alto's academically demanding schools, the pressure on local high school students is particularly intense, students, counselors and therapists say.

"Living in Palo Alto, there are certain expectations at home, in the community, among their peers — it's everywhere and kids can't escape it — just the expectations that the kids are going to be successful," Paly English teacher and private college counselor Kay Van Der Burg said. "And they really believe that the college they get into will dictate rather than influence their future."

Cindie McMahon, a marriage and family therapist, agreed. "All you have to do is get your nails done in this town to know parents compare where their kids go to school," she said. "It's a huge point of pride for parents who have invested 18 years in their kids."

In an area where many parents share an affiliation with Stanford, Berkeley or other prestigious institutions, and where the median annual income according to CNN is $132,903, it is perhaps expected that Palo Alto teenagers plan to follow in the footsteps of their successful parents.

"My parents went to Wellesley and MIT, so that's a little intimidating sometimes," Paly senior Cally Berg said.

Berg took steps to ensure acceptance into the right college, meeting regularly with a private tutor to improve her SAT score. "I didn't really want to do it, but I knew I needed to," she said, referring to the high score certain liberal arts schools expect. Berg's parents wanted her to score well so she could attend a college she liked, she said. But she felt even more pressure from her teachers and friends' parents than from her own family.

"I asked a teacher if I should take the SAT again. ... She said I should retake it if I got lower than 2000," Berg said. "A lot of people at Paly are stressing."

Mathews recalled giving his daughter money to enroll in an SAT preparation course. She was already feeling anxious, her friends were taking the same class, and there was a "certain emotional security in taking a prep course," he said.

Similarly, many students see private college counselors not just as a much-needed edge in admissions but also as a calming factor in the nerve-racking college application process.

"I just didn't want my parents to go crazy over the app thing, because they don't know exactly what it entails," Tim Qin, a Palo Alto High School senior, said. "I wanted the college counselor [to] be the mediator."

While counselors are a motley mix of SAT preparation tutors, college essay mentors and organized personal assistants, many parents also see them as stress-relievers.

"I am the support system!" Reis said. "Once they trust me, both parents and the student can expect what the reality is. Sometimes, there are unrealistic expectations. [My job is] telling them where they can get in and be happy."

Though both Paly and Gunn have college-counseling programs, students from both schools seek outside help.

"You have to sign up weeks in advance ... because it's all filled [at school]," Qin said. And while the school counselors help students select colleges to apply to, "they don't really help with essay ideas or anything like that."

"[Private counselors] focus on you much more," he said. "You can ask personal questions. ...You're not limited by one appointment; you can basically meet them whenever."

Private college counselors offer a host of services. Counselors will meet with students for up to two years before they apply to college, and the breadth of options shows the variety of students attracted to the business.

Some college coaches, such as Allen Koh of Cardinal Education, emphasize the importance of packaging students' essays properly. Koh's educational consulting firm specializes in "emphasizing strengths and mitigating weaknesses" in application essays. Others, such as Van Der Burg, who is also a Palo Alto High School teacher and advisor, help students keep organized by whittling down lists of potential colleges and determining different colleges' requirements. Van Der Burg, also an SAT tutor, coaches students on the writing and critical reading sections.

McMahon pointed out that developmentally, older teenagers are supposed to be rebelling against their parents. "Having a private counselor reduces stress on the parent-child relationship, and kids will respond better and meet these deadlines," she said.

While some students feel they need to enroll in costly SAT courses and spend thousands of dollars on private college counselors to earn a spot at a top university, Palo Alto Medical Foundation doctor and researcher Nancy Brown thinks this mindset is damaging students.

"If you have to work that hard to get [into a prestigious college], you're going to have to work that hard while you're there," according to Brown, who studies child and adolescent development. She pointed to the rising numbers of burned-out college dropouts. "Kids can't keep up that pace."

According to Brown, this issue takes root far before the college years, when younger children are pressured to constantly achieve. "We're just raising the bar so high that fewer and fewer kids can really excel," she said. "Fewer kids are doing the other things that would make them well-rounded and responsible adults; they're not working, they're not learning how to manage more than school. ... They're not learning how to be grownups."

Palo Alto's schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly has also criticized the achievement push. When young adults focus only on success, they don't learn how to handle failure, he said.

Success and stress aside, some students are going through the application process by themselves. Chun, amidst her ice-skating practices and AP classes, chose not to hire a private college counselor. "I don't know if they'd 'know me' any more than the school counselors," she said. "Plus, aren't they all just Stanford students trying to make some money?"

Kaytee Comee is a student at the Harker School and co-editor-in-chief of Harker's The Winged Post. She can be reached at 09katherinec@students.harker.org.

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