Camp Compulsive

College admissions just gets crazier. The latest thing is college admissions camp. For nine to 12 days over the summer, students prep for the SATs, draft college essays, practice for interviews and visit dozens of colleges. The New York Times profiles camps charging $2,295 to $2,899.

The pitch is none too subtle. “Colleges don’t accept people, they accept applications,” said the press release announcing the Brighton program. “In the vast majority of cases, the admissions officers that decide whether to `admit,’ `wait list’ or `deny’ will never meet the candidate. With that in mind, it doesn’t make much sense to struggle for years to compile a wonderful academic and extracurricular record only to rush together applications at the finish line.”

Better to spend time over the summer, the Brighton materials say, making sure that every element of the application is “carefully crafted to tell a compelling story.”

Brighton’s director, David Allen, said: “These kids, all the kids are there with their great grades and their great SAT scores, so those factors that used to be secondary, like how well rounded they are, and whether their essays really say something, are a lot more important.

It’s true that grade inflation has made it hard to tell one A student from another, but the number of students with great SATs isn’t rising dramatically. The problem is that increasing numbers of students are applying to the same list of elite colleges, which have limited spaces.

When I was graduated from high school in 1970, some elite colleges remained all male, and others limited female students. (Stanford had a quota; Radcliffe had far fewer slots than Harvard.) Males had some shelter from competition. Fewer minority students were applying to college at all levels. And students typically sent out three to to five applications; now it’s common to apply to 10 or more competitive colleges.

We didn’t think we could game the admissions system, so agonized a lot less about it. In particular, we thought our SAT scores couldn’t be improved by studying or repeating the test. There were no essay-polishing services, much less marketers promising to craft our applications. We just applied, made sure to include a safety school and left it to the fates. It’s a sign of how things have changed that my safety school was Middlebury, which is now very selective.

About Joanne


  1. It seems to me that this is the same kind of thinking that makes people take test preparation courses, only moreso. It only shows that people think it really makes a difference where you get your undergrad degree.

  2. You forgot one more thing: The “recentering” of the SATs that effectively added 50-75 points to the average SAT score. This makes it harder to distinguish the good from the very good.

    A harder SAT would actually make the SAT more meaningful. As it is, some of the 1500 scorers are more equal than others but we won’t know because of the new scoring.

  3. I’m a little surprised that people in your high schoool thought that they couldn’t prepare for the SATs. I am many years older than you and attended a rural high school, but I assumed that one could prepare, if only psychologically, for the test.

    As it happens, I took it twice because I was not satisfied with my first score and improved it reasurably on both halves. (50 points on one and 25-30 on the other, if I remember correctly)

  4. If *I* ran admissions here I would demand not only an essay but also an internal test — when you come for your campus visit (which are almost de rigeur) you sit for a short math test. We make it. We score it.

    If I had a million dollars to give away I’d set up a lavishly endowed scholarship (you know – “summer travel funding included”) based on a competitive examination, topic set by ME until I die and at that point roll over into the standard scholarship fund (because the test would be hijacked, eventually). I be we’d get people who’d give it a try.

    Ah, dreams….

  5. I wonder how many of the people who are so desperate for a “good school” are motivated by the belief that they will *learn more* there? About 5%, would be my guess..the rest are motivated by the belief that the diploma will be of more value in the workplace.

    This is the classic definition of a bubble…a piece of paper that is valued for the tautological reason that it is valued.

  6. I took the SATs twice, nearly 25 years ago. While my scored did improve, my guidance counselor primly told me that she thought I was cheating.
    But this whole application system makes me want to vomit. I blame the admissions officers, who see themselves as on a mission from God to redress all wrongs.

  7. How about a different way to get admitted. Take all of your core classes at the local community college, finish up there with some specific coursework to earn the A.S., A.A, or A.A.S. degree from that community or junior college.

    Take your newly minted degree, plus transcripts showing evidence of your hard work, and apply to the college you want to attend as a transfer student (chances are quite good that you can be admitted, though you might need to take a couple of extra courses that the comm. or junior college didn’t offer) before being accepted to a specific major.

    When you finish, you’ll have a pair of degrees (Assoc. and Bachelors, along with perhaps a minor in a field of interest).

    Oh yeah, your costs to attend the junior or comm. college will be a BIG savings and your bachelor’s will still say (Univ. of ).


  8. My son is actually investigating Bill’s plan but there a number of higher level schools that don’t want to take anyone (no matter how deserving or hardworking) from a CC.

  9. Sounds like the 4 year school is afraid of the 2 year school, or perhaps they think the student who attends the local 2 year school isn’t good enough for them (well, i’m finishing up my 2nd Associates, and as a result of a lack of worthwhile alternatives for 4 year schools here), i’m going to probably get my Bachelor’s from the Univ. of Phoenix (costs more, but they’ll take all of my previous work)


  10. PJ/Maryland says:

    Bill, it’s my impression that your 2+2 plan is the way UConn works.

    There are drawbacks, of course. By transferring to a 4 year school, you’ll be surrounded by kids who have already had two years at the school. It will be harder to make friends, and otherwise fit in.

    Also, there aren’t huge numbers of freshman and sophmores dropping out at the name schools; unless they’re willing to have a larger junior class, 4 year schools will naturally limit how many people transfer in. For example, this page says Williams, my alma mater, accepts only a handful of transfers; 5 accepts in 2002, in a student body of around 2000! They also want to see your SATs and high school transcript, as well as your CC or other school transcript. (And Williams has a big “Junior Year Abroad” program, so in some sense there’s room for more juniors. Of course, the ones abroad come back for senior year, so the room is temporary.)

  11. PJ/Maryland says:

    When you finish, you’ll have a pair of degrees…

    Oh, and in passing, I’m not sure there’s much advantage to having an AA and a BA. I know an AA is important in some careers (nursing, I think?), but most places won’t care about an AA if you have a BA.

    I remember one of my Econ professors trying to encourage me to get a PhD (I didn’t). I asked about getting an MA, and he said that in Econ, you work towards a PhD, and one day someone drops your MA off on your desk. In other words, a Masters doesn’t mean much in Econ.

    Of course, you’re absolutely right about the $ savings; Williams is now up to $35k (of course, they emphasize that it “costs” the college $54k for each student… strange, how come I don’t get rewarded for my ability to spend money?)

  12. JimInNOVA says:

    PSU already uses their branch campuses to do a 2+2 type of plan for “less equal” students. The biggest selling point is that the diploma doesn’t say “Penn State – Altoona (or whichever city you happen to live in)” on it, so that prospective employers never knows you went to what is essentially a junior college to get your degree.

  13. I applied to three schools: UF (Gainesville), UCF (Orlando), and Northwestern. I was accepted to all three, but chose UCF because they offered me the most in the way of scholarship money.

    My SATs were 1210, my ACT I think was 31 (unless 31 is the highest, then it was 28… I remember it being very high). I did exactly 75 hours of community service, the ultimate minimum to get what is now Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship.

    I make no bones about the fact that it was my application that got me in. The only person I saw at UCF was AFTER I was accepted, when I met with the then-assistant director of the Honors Program.

    Why do you think there are so many diversity essays required? Because the schools have too many people attending things like this camp, and they need to differentiate any way they can.