January 30, 2004

Admissions: Getting in is the Hard Part

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Remember the stress and anxiety of applying to college? Believe it or not, today’s high school juniors, seniors (and now even sophomores and freshmen), are facing college application pressure like never before. This past December’s Newsweek reported that getting into a top college will only become more difficult as the number of graduating high school seniors skyrockets each year while the number of spots at colleges won’t budge.

Due to a variety of factors, more high school students are applying to the same top-tier schools, which, for many, means more rejections. Cornell, a school that rejects a majority of applicants is more statistically selective, making it more attractive to the next year’s applicants. The cycle of more applicants, fewer acceptances continues, making the process less predictable and the competition increasingly intense.

Enter 1965 Harvard grads Grant Ujifasa and Richard Sorensen. Ujifusa is the founding editor of the Almanac of American Politics and Sorensen, now a consultant at Morgan Stanley, was a former assistant director of admissions at Harvard. It was when the two college pals were discussing Sorensen’s children’s chances at getting into Georgetown that the idea for a website that could demystify the process arose.

Their online service, ThickEnvelope.com, launched on Dec. 20 promising prospective college students a “credible second opinion” about whether or not they had a shot at making it into the country’s most highly coveted schools.

Sorensen and Ujifusa created models of the admissions processes at the nation’s top 80 colleges. Using statistical profiles of recent freshman classes, data on applicant pools and interviews with admissions officers, the models produce a percentage probability of admission to each school.

Curious students can enter detailed information about SAT scores, grades, class rank, recommendations and extracurricular achievement into an online application form, and for 80 bucks can view a list of their probabilities of acceptance.

Wondering if Thickenvelope.com really does what it claims, we put the service to the test. Four years ago, this reporter made it into Cornell and a number of other sought-out schools — but if she were to reapply in 2004, did she stand a chance?

The questionnaire required me to dig deep into my recollections of senior year in high school. I entered my SAT and SATII scores, GPA, class rank and checked off participation in various extracurricular categories. Interestingly, Thick Envelope only asks if applicants have been leaders in their respective activities. Unless a student is a soloist in the orchestra or a captain of an athletic team, mere participation in the activity is not even noted by the application.

Fifteen minutes and several phone calls home later, I hit enter and the computer revealed my chances. The results were harsher than expected.

Sure enough — if I were to apply to Cornell this year, I’d have a 70 percent chance of getting in. Shockingly, however, I’d have a lower chance of getting into Washington University in St. Louis (42 percent) or NYU (44 percent) — two schools at which I’d been accepted. And Harvard or Princeton? I had a less than 20 percent shot at both.

According to Ujifusa, “Cornell has an odd system of legacy,” and I was “bumped up as a legacy.” My SAT verbal score of 700 — which I had been pretty proud of after months of diligent flashcard study — lowered my chances at a school like Stanford that places greater emphasis on the verbal score.

The goal of Thick Envelope is to “allay anxiety, foster realism and perhaps get students who are completely taken by the Ivy League to think about other places that might be good for them,” according to Ujifasa.

While Ujifusa would not disclose how many students and their frazzled parents have used the service since last month’s launch, recent publicity has convinced some to give it a shot.

Susan G. Ruben, a mother of 11th grade twins in Cleveland, Ohio read about ThickEnvelope.com in the New York Times and decided to give it a try. She was pleased with the results.

“The individual results have helped us identify which schools are a good fit for my kids admissions-wise and which are not.”

Jason Locke, director of the undergraduate admissions office, would not comment on the service.

Ujifusa admitted that he and Sorensen may have made a mistake in charging $80 for the service; the website will soon offer a more reasonably priced option of probabilities at any ten colleges for $29.95.

Archived article by Stacey Delikat