RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The college admissions frenzy revolving around a small group of highly selective schools is intense, and some would say bordering on out of control. It's fueled in part by the rankings in publications like U.S. News and World Report, which rate colleges on factors like SAT scores and percentage of students accepted. That has prompted some colleges to change their requirements and become more selective, increasing the sense of panic over admissions to top schools.
But there are high achieving high school students in excellent high schools who are going their own way, applying to colleges with a very different profile.
NPR's Margot Adler has our first report on Alternatives to the College Admissions Game.
MARGOT ADLER: When you speak to Abigail Wetzel, a senior at Loomis Chaffee, a highly regarded prep school in Windsor, Connecticut, you assume that her college choices will be like those of her friends.
Ms. ABIGAIL WETZEL (Senior, Loomis Chaffee School): They applied early to, there's Columbia, Brown, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, and Cornell. A lot of students here will apply to a bunch of schools and then go to the best ones on their list.
ADLER: Best, meaning like the best ranked?
Ms. WETZEL: Yeah, exactly. The ones that's highest.
ADLER: There's no question that these schools have cache, but Wetzel worries that most people at her school put image before learning. Wetzel, who has excellent grades and excellent SAT scores and already knows she wants to be a doctor, has different goals. Names on her college list include places her friends have never heard of, like Whitman College in Washington State and Cornell College in Iowa.
Ms. WETZEL: I'm looking for a little bit of a more intellectual campus, than a place where the goal is to get good grades so that you can apply for a high influence job, relying on the name of the school that you went to.
ADLER: Her friend, she says, have had difficulty understanding her position.
Ms. WETZEL: Actually, about four of my friends came up to me and were like, Abby, I don't want to see you sell yourself short. I know you can do better than that. Or, you can get into a better school. It's hard not to get really caught up in the names of everything and the things everyone around you is saying about how great a school is, because it's Amherst, or it's Williams, or something like that. For some people, those are great schools. But what college they go to in terms of the name isn't going to decide how happy they are for the rest of their life, I think. I think it's all about how much you put into the college that you do go to.
ADLER: You might think that Marilee Jones, the Dean of admissions at MIT, one of the most highly selective schools in the nation would not be a fierce critic of the current college admissions scene. You'd be wrong. Jones says this entire generation has been so spun, so marketed to, that kids tend to look to the outside for their own self worth.
Dean MARILEE JONES (Admissions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I'm a better person because I go to that school, and it's number, you know, third on the U.S. News and World Report. I'm a better person because I have these SAT scores. It's all one big illusion because nobody even really knows what any of this means. Isn't anybody standing up and saying the emperor has no clothes here?
ADLER: She says many colleges are aware of these problems. And she predicts there will be vast changes in college admissions in the next few years.
AT Loomis Chaffee, Abigail Wetzel feels somewhat unique in taking the position she has. That's not the case at a place like The Putney School in Vermont.
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ADLER: Okay, Putney is not your typical school. It's a boarding school where students don't find out their grades until their junior year, where they work on a farm and in the community, as well as pursue a rigorous program in academics, sports, and the arts. Jennifer DesMaisons is the college advisor for the Putney School. She wants to help students figure out their real values and needs.
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Ms. JENNIFER DESMAISONS (College Counselor, The Putney School): What kind of educational setting would be the best match for them, as opposed to just picking a name that would follow in the family line, or be the best on their resume?
ADLER: Ten young women, all juniors, sit around a long table. Windows look out on rolling Vermont hills. All Putney juniors take a course on college admissions. Here's how Jennifer DesMaisons begins what is the first of 12 classes. She says being a teenager is a lot about figuring out your identity and priorities.
Ms. DESMAISONS: Whether it's what you're going to study, or whether it's the kind of people that you want to be surrounded by, because I think if you head into the college search process without having assessed yourself a little bit, you can start making choices based on, you know, what Zoey was talking about, or what your parents said would be a good place to apply, as opposed to what you want to get out of a college experience.
ADLER: Later that day, a senior, Esther Howe(ph), asked DesMaisons a few questions about her college essay.
Ms. ESTHER HOWE (Senior, The Putney School): It's kind of like two different essays but I think the transition is OK.
Ms. DESMAISONS: I've never read this sentence, so this is really cool. This: I'll never be able to recite every poem, or tie every sailor's knot, discuss every issue of global importance. And to me this is comforting and compelling. That's great.
Ms. HOWE: My voice here is really different than my voice. That's fine.
Ms. DESMAISONS: Yeah. No, this is a thousand times...
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ADLER: One of DesMaisons' students, Luka Negoita, wants to pursue environmental studies and is looking at a small college in Vermont and another in Arizona. I asked him if he had an SAT tutor?
Mr. LUKA NEGOITA (Student, The Putney School): Most of the colleges I'm applying to don't even require the SAT or ACT. And if they do, it's not a big thing that they look at. I'd so much rather go to a smaller college where it's more of a community than go to a college where there's thousands of students.
ADLER: Allison Selking is facing the same issues at Heidelberg High School in Heidelberg, Germany. Her father is in the U.S. Army and is currently serving in Iraq. Like Abigail Wetzel at Loomis Chaffee, Selking has great grades and SAT scores, and her teachers all assumed she would apply to well-known, highly ranked colleges. But having spent hundreds of hours on college Web sites and college discussion sites, she says she finds some of the prestigious colleges competitive in ways she really doesn't like.
MS. ALLISON SELKING (Student, Heidelberg High School, Heidelberg, Germany): The emphasis isn't necessarily so much on the learning, as the being better than other people. And I'm a very competitive person with myself. I want to do better than I've done in the past, but I don't like trying to be better than other people. I want to be in a really supportive environment.
ADLER: Selking visited a few colleges on her one visit back to the states. The place that made the biggest impression: Hendrix College in Arkansas.
Ms. SELKING: Most of the other college tours I did, I met the tour guide. And that was about the only student I really encountered. I can't even count how many students I met at Hendrix and they all were so friendly. It was an amazing school. I stepped on campus and went, this is the one.
ADLER: When asked what advice she would give students about to enter the college admission frenzy, Selking says...
Ms. SELKING: Just because a school is not prestigious and no one knows of it, doesn't mean it's not a great school and it's not the best place for you.
ADLER: You might think Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, would disagree. He has long promoted small liberal arts colleges as places where real teaching and learning take place. But he, like Selking, says it doesn't matter where you go to college, only what you do there.
Professor LEON BOTSTEIN (President, Bard College): What really makes a difference is what you accomplish in college. There is no doubt that college is the beginning building block of an adult life. You have a chance to really make something of yourself. And you can do that at a state university campus, you know, not well-known, small or medium sized, private institution.
ADLER: Botstein says American colleges and universities are among the best in the world, both the coveted diamonds and the hidden gems. But he argues you may be better off being the top student at Northern Illinois University than at the bottom of your class at Harvard.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
MONTAGNE: Later today, you can hear on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED how college presidents deal with the admissions frenzy. And for tips on finding the right college fit, go to npr.org.
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