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This is the second most e-mailed and read article on the WSJ website this month,

Who Got Into College?
In an Unusually Competitive Year,
Some Schools Sought Passion;
Others Went for Tuba Players
April 13, 2006; Page D1

Who did get in this year?

The question is haunting thousands of high-school seniors who are reeling from rejections in recent weeks. In one of the most competitive admissions seasons ever, Stanford, Brown and other top schools faced record numbers of applicants and accepted a smaller share of students than ever before.

Facing an applicant pool of unprecedented strength as well as size, admissions officers sorted through the applications with a more critical eye than ever. Recognizing that a growing number of students are paying for outside help with their applications, they stepped up efforts to identify the overly coached. They even spent more time trying to gauge applicants' sincerity to determine, say, when a high school student pursued volunteer activities just to build a résumé.

In addition, admissions officers sought to fill particular gaps in the student body. Swarthmore in Pennsylvania has been particularly interested in applicants who are potential majors in classics, as well as modern languages such as German and Russian. Brown continued its efforts to lure science and engineering students. And the University of Pennsylvania this year was looking for a few more tuba players for its marching band.

Adam Hoffman, a student at Parkway North High School in St. Louis, was admitted to all eight of the schools to which he applied. Among them were Stanford and Brown.

On Mr. Hoffman's application: A flawless score of 800 on the critical-reading portion of his SAT (and a near-perfect 780 on the math section) and a first-place award in the Greater St. Louis Area Science Fair, on top of awards from myriad math competitions.

But his application showed more than just a math expert. It also made clear his deep interest in animal rights. He wrote a essay about the intolerance he faced as a vegetarian at a New Mexico ranch with his Boy Scout troop. He co-founded a "vegetarian club" at his school and has volunteered with the St. Louis Animal Rights Team.

That extra something -- a passion or commitment communicated in a clear voice -- is what many admissions counselors at top schools say they are looking for. "I think we're all looking for kids who are committed to something, extracurricularly, intellectually, and hopefully both," says Jim Miller, the new admissions dean at Brown.

Swarthmore admissions dean Jim Bock recalls a recently admitted applicant who took a year off after high school to work with AIDS-infected drug addicts. "How many high-school seniors would take a year off to do that?" he says. As an admissions dean, he says, "you don't forget it."

"Sometimes you do question, 'Is this for real?' " says Mr. Bock. He believes the AIDS worker is; he said she is a middle-class youth who attended a Southwestern public school and showed a sense of service.

Questions of credibility arise because in the current pressure-filled environment, some parents pay thousands of dollars for extra attention from private advisers. A growing industry surrounds the college frenzy -- including test-prep tutors and independent college counselors whose advice comes for a fee. For admissions officers, it can be more difficult than ever to distinguish students who are genuinely committed from those who are merely groomed. These officials warn that the voices of many of the groomed applicants sound similar: The essays all start to sound like tear-jerkers. And hours spent in community service can appear disingenuous.

"Some more than others are artificially packaged, and you can see that. If they are well-coached ... it's hard to find the nature of that individual and what their passions are," says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.

Private schools continue to play an important role in college admissions. In a speech at the National Association of Independent Schools' annual meeting this winter, Yale President Richard C. Levin said that independent schools provide between one-fourth to one-third of the matriculants at highly selective universities.

But that doesn't mean public-school students are necessarily at a disadvantage. Indeed, many guidance counselors from public schools work extra hard to develop relationships with college admissions officers, who may not have heard of their school. The admissions officer relies on getting good information on students from counselors he feels he can trust. Breaching that trust by offering exaggerated claims or descriptions could cost the high-school counselor an important relationship.

This year, "the level of advocacy for students and the relationship developed with admissions counselors played a much larger role than I anticipated," says David Ford, counselor at Queensbury High School in upstate New York.

Mr. Ford made an effort to get to know one of the admissions officers at Columbia, a top choice for one of his students. In July, he made the initial phone call. He was told that while his student ranked among the top 10 students in the graduating class of about 300 kids, the student would benefit from demonstrating "a high level of intellectual curiosity that doesn't necessarily come out in the numbers."

Over the course of several months, Mr. Ford stayed in touch with his Columbia contact. He called or sent an email about a half-dozen times to ask questions and offer updates. Perhaps the most important call he made was to let Columbia (and other colleges) know his student had won a national award in an Oprah Winfrey-sponsored essay contest -- which came at the end of February, as applications were being reviewed. What followed was "almost a quasi-interview" in which the Columbia admissions officer asked Mr. Ford about the student's personality and ambitions.

While the student was wait-listed at Williams College in Massachusetts and rejected from Yale, he was admitted to Columbia. After that experience, Mr. Ford believes he will make contact with more college admissions officers earlier on in the admissions season.

There are other strategies that are now widely accepted as giving students an edge. One of them is applying "early decision" -- generally in the fall. The pool of early-decision applicants is generally smaller than the pool of students who apply later. Top colleges sometimes fill as much as half of their incoming class with early-decision students. "Our data showed that applying early decision is the equivalent of adding about 100 points to your SAT score," says Andrew Fairbanks, a former associate dean of admission at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and co-author of a book called The Early Admissions Game.

The catch is that the applicant is committed to attend if accepted. Early decision has been criticized for benefiting privileged students who don't need to compare financial-aid offers that would come later in the spring.

Other factors that can help include being the child of an alum, donor, or employee of the school. Offering racial, ethnic or geographic diversity or being a first-generation American may also be a plus. "A student from Montana is more attractive than a student from New York City," says Mr. Fairbanks, because "schools like to boast they have all 50 states."

Amy Seymour is near the top of her class at the Pennington School, a private school in New Jersey. Besides her straight A's, her interests in video and film production took her to Brown University for a three-week program last summer. She also co-founded a mock-ESPN video program featuring her school's sports teams.

Her applications to both Stanford and Cornell were turned away. But she was admitted to Princeton, and both she and her mother believe that her father's job as a math professor there may have played some role. Princeton this year took only 17% of the 1,886 valedictorians who applied.

Some valedictorians weren't so fortunate. Brooke Epstein, who ranked No. 1 in her class at Brimmer and May School, a private day school in Chestnut Hill, Mass., didn't get into her top choice, the University of Pennsylvania. Cornell and Northwestern are among the schools where she has been placed on the "wait list" -- neither admitted nor rejected. "You work so hard for four years and you spend a lot of your life preparing for this, and it's hard when someone doesn't think that's good enough," she says.

Write to Anne Marie Chaker at