Over the fall of her senior year at the Hopkins School, Katie has visited her college counselor constantly, stopping in several times a week to ask advice about her Ivy League applications. Edgar, a student at New Haven’s public Wilbur Cross High School who struggles with his English-language skills, said his counselor has tried to steer him away from applying to Yale, as the Ivy League might be out of his reach.
These students are just some of the thousands of high school seniors across the country commencing the arduous college application process. But Katie and Edgar gave very different descriptions of the support and resources they received from their schools. Their divergent experiences are representative of the gap between what public and private high schools can offer their students, and what tools students like Katie and Edgar have at their disposal.
The Nov. 1 early application deadline has passed for many colleges, but Rebecca is far from breathing a sigh of relief. The senior at New Haven’s private Hopkins School — where virtually every senior applies to college and 98 percent attend a four-year college — is applying to four schools early in a combination of joint and exchange programs, and her work has just begun.
Rebecca, who requested that her name be changed, is self-avowedly in the midst of the “year of hell,” which she defines as the second half of junior year and the first half of senior year of high school. The deadline for her early decision applications to the Double-Degree Program between Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York was Nov. 15 and her application for the lesson-exchange program with Juilliard School was due Dec. 1, but to round out her early applications, she still has a January deadline for the exchange program with Manhattan School of Music, where she said she hopes to play the flute.
Colleges looking for applicants’ long-standing commitment to their extracurricular activities will find little cause for concern upon examining Rebecca’s laundry list of activities. Along with performing as principal flutist for the Norwalk Youth Orchestra, she is a member of a number of smaller music ensembles, including a wind quintet that performed on the National Public Radio show “From the Top” in October. In addition to singing in the Hopkins Concert Choir and Honors Choir since freshman year, Rebecca is head of the school’s all-female a cappella group.
Rebecca said her participation in so many activities is fostered by her self-motivation and perfectionist tendencies.
“I try to make everything hard and challenge myself,” she said, admitting that she is experiencing a lot of stress. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”
Although she is also a member of both of the school’s choirs as well as the same a cappella group as Rebecca, Katie, who also requested that her name be changed, is steering away from musically-minded higher education. Katie applied early to the University of Pennsylvania largely because of its renowned behavioral biology department, but as co-head of the Hopkins Drama Association, she has a lot on her mind.
Katie emphasized the focused academic atmosphere of Hopkins, where the pressure to excel has grown more evident as college applications are submitted. That students from Hopkins generally zero in on the most selective colleges, which can only take a certain number of applicants from each high school, just makes the process more difficult, she said.
“Everyone’s applying to the same places,” she said. “The Ivies, lots to Johns Hopkins, lots to UConn, just overall really good schools.”
This phenomenon worries her, Katie said, because of the ways in which it might come to bear on her own early application to Penn.
“I’m definitely a little nervous about Penn because a lot of kids apply from Hopkins,” she said. “Last year over 20 applied and only three got in.”
An important resource Hopkins and other top-notch private schools offer is college counseling, when professional advisers — who are employees of the school — assist students in preparing their applications. At Hopkins, the two college counselors begin meeting with students in the spring of their junior years. Rebecca said many Hopkins students develop close relationships with their counselors.
“[My college counselor] came to see my show last year, and she calls me at home if there’s something important that she needs to talk about,” she said. “I can go meet with her anytime.”
Hopkins Director of College Counseling Susan Paton said she has witnessed the level of admissions stress increase in recent years at Hopkins, where 67 percent of students applied early action or decision this fall. Sometimes as much as 20 to 25 percent of the senior class is accepted to Ivy League schools, she said, and there are currently 34 Hopkins graduates attending Yale.
“I certainly know that our students are concerned about the college process and worry about the intensity of it all,” Paton said. “It is certainly an expectation here that students go on to college, and many go on to the most competitive colleges.”
Mary Lee Hoganson, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said she has seen increasing numbers of disappointed private school students as competition with classmates for a few spots at a certain college grows fiercer. The trend of applying to a relatively large number of schools, sometimes as many as 15, makes it less likely that each student will be accepted to his or her top choices, she said.
When considering what she will do if her early decision plans fall through, Katie remains optimistic. She said she will apply to seven additional colleges — though not Yale, because she wants to leave New Haven — but she would like to maintain a healthy attitude about admissions decisions.
“I would be disappointed but not devastated [if I got rejected by Penn],” she said. “I would be happy anywhere.”
Rebecca said she can feel the tension rising at Hopkins as students become increasingly obsessed with the impending decisions that they feel will determine their futures.
“I don’t think the seniors talk about anything else anymore,” she said. “It’s college, college, college!”
It is a Thursday night, and 20 or so students, many with parents in tow, are seated at tables in the long, low-ceiling cafeteria at Wilbur Cross, one of two comprehensive public high schools in New Haven. They have come for the “Noche Universitaria Hispana,” or “Hispanic University Night,” a presentation being given by Yale students for Latino and Spanish-speaking students hoping to apply to and attend college.
Asked if Wilbur Cross does a good job providing students with the resources and information they need, a Yale student who works as a mentor and asked not to be identified said the situation was mixed.
“Yes and no,” the mentor said. “For the AP and honors students, absolutely.”
Suzanne Salgado ’08, a mentor with Las Amigas, a Yale-run program that counsels Latina girls in New Haven, said the college counseling services do not receive enough publicity.
“A lot of the students are not always aware of the resources that are available,” she said.
Ivyhanca and Dagelis, who participate in Las Amigas, were the first to arrive at the meeting. Both girls said they do not know many people who want to go to college.
“[Other students] don’t like school,” Dagelis said. “Me and my cousin are the only ones in my family who want to go.”
Ivyhanca said she does not think enough is done to get students excited about the prospect of four more years of school. More mentoring events like Noche Universitaria Hispana would make school and the process of applying to college more fun, she said. But she said her guidance counselor has been extremely encouraging, telling her over and over to go to college.
Dagelis said she wants to go to places like the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac. Ivyhanca said she has yet to decide where she wants to apply.
“I want to be an FBI agent, so I don’t know where I want to go,” she said.
The college night presentation touched on the usual things: AP classes, extracurricular activities and financial aid. Although the Yale students stressed over and over that financial aid can be found, the overwhelming majority of the parents’ questions involved how to pay for school. One mother asked if the Army is a good option, and she received a flurry of replies from the Yale students, who told of their friends stuck and miserable in Iraq.
Edgar spoke softly in Spanish and looked down at the table as he explained why he wants to go to college. He said he came to this country a year ago and speaks limited English.
“I have a hard time communicating,” he said in Spanish. “I want to study and learn another language. They’ve already given me forms and a Web site to look up on the computer.”
Edgar said his counselors have shied away from telling him to apply to top schools where he may not be admitted.
“They tell me to try to apply to universities that will help my future,” he said in Spanish.
But Edgar said he wants to study computing in college and is thinking of applying to places like UConn and even Yale, something he said a lot of people at Wilbur Cross are not planning to do. Edgar said his desire to enter the top echelons of academia is matched by his friends, but some of them might have a hard time achieving that goal.
“We all want to go to Yale, but some of them don’t have [immigration] papers,” he said. “They tell me they are going to try to do everything they can to keep studying here.”
At another table, Stephanie and her mother Vivian, discussed her plans for after high school. Stephanie, who is in the AP program at Wilbur Cross, is applying to Parsons School for Design, Cooper Union and Pratt Institute, among other places. Her emphasis on art schools is deliberate, as she said she is “really into urban design” and wants to be an architect. Extremely organized, she has already completed all her applications.
Stephanie said there has never been a time when she did not envision herself going to college. It was a done deal that adults in her life hammered into her from day one, she said.
“First you learned reading, and then you went to school and then college,” she said.
Stephanie said Wilbur Cross does not do a good job of disseminating information about college to students who are not in the AP or honors programs.
“They make announcements, but they only do it once in the morning,” she said. “They say it, but then they don’t follow up on what they’re saying. There’s no drive.”
Stephanie’s mother, who tries to point out college-educated Latinos to her daughter, said she agreed.
“They have good intentions, but not the right tools,” she said. “They need to hold parents’ hands more.”