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Coached college applications lose sight of true student

THIS THANKSGIVING, I spent some time with my friend Emily, who is a freshman at Harvard. Looking through Emily's pictures of new college friends, they seemed to be regular kids. But each of them must have stood out in some way - something on their college application made the admissions officers' eyes light up.

"This is Alex. He owns a computer start up in Palm Beach and likes to play golf," recited Emily. "This is my roommate Heather. She spent a summer on a fishing boat in Alaska. This is a girl on my hall who was on 'Law and Order.' This guy was the National Debate Champion."

Emily's friends distinguished themselves in ways that brought a glint to the eyes of Harvard admissions officers. These days, it's becoming increasingly difficult for applicants to elite schools to determine exactly what that admission-offer-garnering je ne sais quoi is.

But now students can hire a college counselor from Kaplan, Princeton Review or Achieva College Prep, the three largest college coaching companies in the nation, to help them figure it out. Previously focused on SAT preparation, these companies now are helping wage the entire college war. They offer advice on everything from essay writing - "use active verbs such as 'led' and 'performed' when describing your volunteerism" and "proofread your application three times, reading each sentence backwards" - to what activities are "in" - current hot items are crew rowers and bassoonists.

These companies will help you market what goods you can offer after 12 years of school by gearing your application toward what officers are looking for. College admissions always have been something of a game. But now it isn't about how good a candidate you are - how well you tailor your application to what admissions officers are looking for.

What happened to those straight-A-tennis-playing-violinist-valedictorians that you used to hear got into top colleges? Now they are the victims in the horror story of denied admission, their generic perfection eliciting a yawn rather than a fat envelope from admissions offices. Maybe they should have known that violin is passe now, because colleges are begging for violists, and that straight As mean nothing since 30 percent of college applicants can boast a 4.0 GPA. If only they had an unusual sport like fencing, or had done exotic community service in Central America that involved teaching dental hygiene to natives.

It's understandable that with 1600-SAT students standing eagerly on every college's block and community service performed by every do-gooder in the nation, admissions officers need new ways to set apart the factory-made "good student" from the designer "great student." It's not just about being academically successful, since colleges strive for well-rounded classes in addition to well-rounded students. And that's okay. What isn't acceptable is that students no longer are told to do what they love, but what Kaplan says they should have loved.

What happened to the sincere college-bound student who is successful because she's passionate about what she does, whether it's field hockey or clarinet? In some ways she still is rewarded because, more than anything, admissions officers just want students who are the best at what they do. But everyone can't be the best at such popular activities, and yet being the best is what it takes. So students look for unusual ways to shine, like rugby or the harp. Normally, there would be nothing wrong with this. But now it's uncertain whether students really love these "unique" activities or if they just do them because they know they are what officers are looking for.

Rather than help market students' goods after the fact like these college advisers are doing, maybe these companies should be there from kindergarten, steering little Johnny away from Play-Doh and toward science projects, handing him a fencing foil over his soccer ball. Maybe then students can become clones of uniqueness, spending their whole school career putting a spin on their activities, but coming up as generic as a Gap kid.

Or instead, maybe students and admissions officers alike should step back from the trends of desired activities and infinite counseling and try to remember what makes a candidate strong in the first place. It used to be the best combination of a strong academic record and interesting activities. Now the former is being sacrificed for the latter. While diversity in talents is important when creating a class, colleges shouldn't discourage kids who participate in mainstream activities because they're looking for something "unique." Because now it doesn't even matter whether the kids in Emily's pictures are there because they loved what they did or because they just knew how to play the college game. But maybe the point is that it should.

(Diya Gullapalli's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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