Ivy choked

Sky-high test scores, straight A’s in honors classes and extracurriculars don’t guarantee a spot at elite colleges, says Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Even high school stars are being turned away, as increasing numbers of students apply to the same list of colleges.

David Weinstein, a senior at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, is an academic star by any definition. His grade-point average is 4.68. His SAT score is 1500. He has served as student body president and co-editor of his school newspaper, all while struggling with the challenges of Tourette’s syndrome.

Ten years ago, he would almost certainly have been ensured a place at one of the Ivy League colleges. But within two hours on April 1, as he checked the admissions messages on his computer, Harvard, Yale, Brown and Pennsylvania all slapped him with wait-list or rejection notices. Princeton delivered the bad news two days later.

Penn? He didn’t make the cut at Penn? He did get into Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and Emory.

Once he gets to college, he’ll be told to relax, go slow and enjoy learning for its own sake.

About Joanne


  1. He had Tourette’s Syndrome?

    I was stopped on the street yesterday by somebody who was soliciting donations for a cure.

    I didn’t give him anything and he cussed me out.

    I guess I deserved it.

  2. I imagine that he checked the box marked “Republican”. That is a sure-fire way to not get accepted.

  3. Surely it is a sign of a mental disorder when some youth, with his parents’ encouragement, wastes his childhood polishing his resume. I hope his “failure” serves as a lesson for others. Life, especially one’s youth, is too short to waste on such silliness.

    Also, to know that many people think such a talented person will not do as well in life because he was denied a chance to give $200,000 to an Ivy League school is frightening.

    My younger daughter is a perfect antidote to such madness.

    She was never an academic superstar, to say the least. She managed to fail Spanish one quarter in H.S. She always enjoyed herself in H.S. and had pleasant, happy friends, like herself. No teenage crises for her and her friends. She went to a college suited for her talents and needs, James Madison, hardly a big name, and did well. Now, she has been accepted into a highly rated (2nd in the country, and in a beautiful area) PhD program in Audiology. If she completes this, and I have no reason to think she will not, since she has never pushed the envelope of her abilities, she will enter a respected and well paid profession.

    All through her youth, she has enjoyed her life. And, she will continue to enjoy her life, because she has never seen the need to knock herself out with superhuman effort in an attempt to impress other people. She is the only person she is really interested in impressing.

    I heard a sad story from my wife. She was driving one of our friend’s daughters to an appointment. This was a college age woman, who went to a much more competitive college than my daughter. This young woman told my wife: “A game we used to play when we were younger was to sit around in a circle and tell funny stories about ourselves and our lives. My sister and I never had much to say, but your kids always had plenty of great stories.”

    Letting children be children has many unexpected pleasant side effects.

  4. Sean Kinsell says:

    “Penn? He didn’t make the cut at Penn?”

    I’m not sure I like the tone of that there comment, Madam. 🙂

    But it’s true: it’s just in the last ten years that Penn’s acceptance rate has fallen like a stone, along with those of Johns Hopkins and Chicago and Cornell and the other schools that used to have rates in the 40 and 50%’s.

  5. I agree with Sean…
    Why your snarky tone about Penn, Joanne?
    According to US News, Penn is now tied for
    5th place with Duke, CalTech, and Stanford…
    (yes, I know the rankings are complete B.S.,
    but its a sad but true fact that they drive application numbers)… Penn’s application numbers have skyrocketed…

    Penn now accepts less than 20% of its applicants, and the middle 50% SAT scores are in the rangle 1340-1520… so the kid in the story above would only be in the middle of the class at Penn…

    Personally, I’m glad Penn is getting more recoginition, I always thought it was underrated and overshadowed by the rest of the Ivy League because it had a state-school sounding name and was always confused with Penn State.

  6. Those Ivy League schools could be filled ten times over with straight-A students with good test scores. If these students are shocked that their academic resume isn’t good enough to guarantee them a spot, then they probably aren’t as smart as they think.

    Underlying all these tales is the unwritten whine of “It’s not fair!” It is a true test of character whether or not these students can overcome the shock that is felt when they realize that they aren’t as special as their resumes suggest. Overachievement means a lot more when it is on someone else’s terms.

  7. PJ/Maryland says:

    I’m afraid the obvious explanation is that Weinstein is Jewish, and the Ivies he applied to were overstocked with Jews from the Mid-Atlantic region. The anti-affirmative action for Asians and Jews is one of the seamier results of affirmative action for blacks and Latinos. (Tho my understanding is that the cap on Jewish admits goes back at least to the 1920s.)

    And frankly, I’m not that overwhelmed by Weinstein’s grades. Someone with a GPA of 4.68 makes me think that (a) he’s a grind and (b) there’s serious grade inflation at his school. I can’t find how big the enrollment is at Berman (website is here); this PDF suggests there are about 50 kids in Weinstein’s class (see page 31). How impressive is “student body president and co-editor of his school newspaper” in a class of 50?

    Beyond that, I don’t think Weinstein maximized his chances; perhaps the college guidance counselor at Berman is not very good. Why did Weinstein apply to 8 different schools? It’s possible that some schools rejected him because he had applied to so many others. (I know this used to happen, even tho colleges aren’t supposed to know what other schools you’ve applied to. I know Williams, where I went, got very unhappy if you applied to Harvard or Yale, because they figured you were counting on Williams as a safety school. Dunno how often they did anything about it.) Apart from that, he might have written better essays if he’d only had to write 3 or 4 instead of 8.

    Granted that Princeton, Yale, and Harvard are all highly thought of, but applying to all three makes you think the kid couldn’t make up his mind. New Jersey, New Haven, Boston, oh, they’re all pretty much the same. And then Emory, Hopkins, and Northwestern (Atlanta, Baltimore, and Chicago)? What was he doing, using a dartboard? (Also, I see the article says he was wait-listed at several schools; so he still might get in.)

    Really, Joel is right; if Weinstein is half as good as the WaPo suggests, he’ll do well wherever he ends up. Even if it’s only (shudder!) Hopkins or Northwestern.

  8. Hey, I turned down an Ivy to go to Hopkins!

  9. Most kids look for a “prestige” college without regard for what they want to study. They want to impress family and friends. I tell them that the best college depends a lot on what they’re going to study. Places like MIT or Harvard might look good on their resume, but other colleges might give them a much better education, experience and connections in certain specific fields. A lot depends on the individual department. The University of Utah used to be THE school to go to for computer graphics. You have to look at the department, who is there and what research is being done. When you graduate and apply for a job, the people you interview with know which colleges are best – and they aren’t necessarily the big “name” colleges. It is better to look at the department and not the school.

    However, most students really do not know what they want to do. It may not be glamorous, but the best approach might be to go to a local college for a couple of years (deal with all of your required distribution courses) and then transfer to your best school. If you have decent grades, transferring is a whole lot easier than getting in when you’re a freshman. This process is probably a whole lot cheaper too. (Watch out for transferring credits. Some colleges may not accept all of your credits.)

    High school students should concentrate on exploring and trying out all sorts of things rather than getting perfect grades and worrying about their academic and extracurricular resume. Trying to be perfect is an awful way to live – and quite unnecessary.

  10. JimInNOVA says:

    joel – I wouldn’t disparage JMU, they’re the #3 school in VA now behind UVA and W&M (both excellent). My younger brother’s classmates have been turned away with 3.65 gpa’s and 1300 SAT’s. Too many upper middle class caucasians from fairfax county I guess.

    Jab – Many of my philly-dwelling friends have reported seing “Not Penn State” shirts done up in U Penn colors. I think they should just keep their mouths shut, PSU seems to be the one school that no one can badmouth in a bar without a gang of about 30 people taking him outside for a little character education.

    I love the fact that people treat non-ivies as second rate, when most of the top-teir non ivies are actually giving a more useful education. Northwestern, Chicago, UC Berkley, and UVA are IMHO at least as good at producing cream of the crop graduates as the grade-inflated ego-tripping relics of the 19th century education system.

    Personally, I didn’t even bother applying to the ivies. I wanted a BIG school, and most of the folks with ivy on their diplomas had a graduating class smaller than my high school’s. Almost went Cornell, but I didn’t really like the campus.

  11. I thought Joanne’s remarks about Princeton were tongue in check but just for grins here are the acceptance rates and SAT 25 – 75 percentile numbers for the 4 Ivy schools mentioned plus two public universities to serve as points of comparison.

    Penn 20% 650-750 V 680-760 M
    Harvard 11% 700-800 V 700-790 M
    Yale 14% 680-770 V 680-770 M
    Princeton 10% 680-770 V 690-790 M
    UT – Austin 47% 540-660 V 570-690 M
    Tuskegee U 81% 340-540 V 370-500 M

    V – Verbal Range (25-75%)
    M – Math Range (25-75%)

    Just to avoid any misunderstanding, UT – Austin is a great school and represents on of the best state schools out there.

  12. Ross, the numbers for the class of 2008 are:

    Princeton: 11.9% (http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2004/04/02/news/10118.shtml)

    Harvard: 10.3% (http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=358566)

    Yale: 9.9% (http://www.yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=25563)

    The stats are even grimmer than they seem, as a number of those accepted will have been admitted to a number of highly competitive schools.

  13. Independent George says:

    Ok, I’m going to have to go against the grain here and say a few irate words in favor of overachievement. Exactly what’s wrong with expecting our kids to (1) earn good grades by working hard in their classes and (2) pushing themselves to achieve something great?

    Exactly how can one complain about the dumbed-down, feel-good curriculum that permeates public schools one the one hand while complaining that the kids are working too hard and learning too much on the other? You know why Asian students perform so well? It’s because we’ve internalized the lessons our parents had to learn the hard way: if you want to something, be prepared to work your ass off to get it. Anything that comes easy in life isn’t worth the effort.

  14. JuliaK,
    Good point about the redundency of those accepted. One way to get an idea of which schools were a first choice and which were the “safety school” would be to look at the total of accepted students who enroll:

    Harvard – 79%
    Penn – 63%
    Princeton – 73%
    Yale – 64%

    I would guess that most of the students who were accepted, but did not enroll at an Ivy went to a different Ivy to which they were admitted.

    http://www.princetonreview.com , which is not affiliated with Princeton University, is the source of my information. The site is not extremely current, but it is very easy to use.

  15. What’s the bitching about? I really don’t understand. I understand Northwestern and JHU to be excellent schools (I don’t know anything about Emory). I went to a university with a relatively high acceptance rate (large state university that had a requirement of 80%+ of student body being from NC… I was accepted 2 weeks after I applied in October), but got an excellent undergrad education, managed to get into a top notch grad program, and now have a decent job in midtown Manhattan. I have relatives who are happy to be in community college, and worked hard to get there.

    The sense of entitlement is disgusting.

  16. “Surely it is a sign of a mental disorder when some youth, with his parents’ encouragement, wastes his childhood polishing his resume.”

    Better than wasting one’s childhood in the more usual ways.

    “I hope his “failure” serves as a lesson for others. Life, especially one’s youth, is too short to waste on such silliness.”

    One’s youth isn’t too short for anything. And pushing oneself to succeed to the absolute best of one’s ability is something that we don’t have nearly enough of, and should be encouraged as much as possible.

    (And then, of course, if you don’t get the top spot you’re looking for, you learn to suck it up and try again next time)

    “She was never an academic superstar, to say the least. She managed to fail Spanish one quarter in H.S. She always enjoyed herself in H.S. and had pleasant, happy friends, like herself. No teenage crises for her and her friends. She went to a college suited for her talents and needs, James Madison, hardly a big name, and did well.”

    Did well presumably by behaving differently than she did in high school (i.e., not failing courses). What exactly is wrong with doing things right in high school instead of waiting until college?

    “High school students should concentrate on exploring and trying out all sorts of things rather than getting perfect grades and worrying about their academic and extracurricular resume. Trying to be perfect is an awful way to live – and quite unnecessary.”

    Trying to excel in class is not the same thing as trying to be “perfect”. Trying to excel in class is a good way to spend one’s time, especially during the teenage years when there aren’t too many other genuinely worthwhile things they can be doing (but plenty of ways to get into trouble if they don’t keep busy). I mean, the whole point of stopping the kids from going to work was to free up time to pursue education, not to free up time to play around, build nasty little subcultures, and get into trouble.

  17. Hmmm, given that I attended college many years ago, and graduated from my local comm. college in fall of 2002 (associates), and scheduled to earn a 2nd associate’s in fall of 2004, I don’t feel like I needed to attend a top notch school, as with my skillset and work ethic, I’m used to cleaning the floor with recent college grads (who often get a shock when they find out 60% of the stuff they learned in college is nothing like the real world of business) 😉


  18. 4.68 GPA?

    Something’s deeply wrong, either with the kid, his school, or both.

  19. (who often get a shock when they find out 60% of the stuff they learned in college is nothing like the real world of business) 😉

    They are fortunate if 40% of the stuff they learned in college is like the real world of business.

  20. The problem is not with the kids. The problem is with today’s tycoons who, unlike the tycoons of earlier ages (Carnegie-Mellon, Leland Stanford, Rockefeller (U. Chicago), etc.) refuse to apply their vast wealth to the creation of new elite schools. If tomorrow there came into existence Gates U., Dell U., Buffet U., Ellison U., Soros U., Allen U., Hilton U., Pritzker U., etc. (and each one of these billionaires could single-handedly endow a university that would be competitive on day one with the Ivy League), kids would not be driving themselves insane playing musical chairs with college applications.

  21. Mad Scientist says:

    So, you are saying it is the duty of those with wealth to provide for those that don’t?

    News flash: That system exists. It’s called welfare. Productive people pay taxes so the whiners can survive.

    Besides, why should there be a Gates U. when there are so many existing choices one can go?

  22. I work in TV documentaries–a glamor job, if you will. I get scores of resumes from bright young folks wtih degrees from the Ivies and the like. Most of them are useless at solving problems in the real world. My very best assistant is a kid from some school in South Florida. He worked his way through–delivering pizza, sellign gym memberships, tending bar. He’s got great people skills, killer work ethic, initiative (most of them expect me to hold their hands through the easiest tasks). He’s got a great career ahead of him.

  23. JimInNOVA says:

    There is a Dell U, he pumps UT-Austin with a disgusting ammount of money every year. And I believe most of those past tycoons (with the exception of Stanford) set up their schools near or after their death. Perhaps we just need to kill off the 10 richest people in the US.

  24. Tim from Texas says:

    Why not change the system altogether? What is wrong with students graduating from high-school with what would be the equivilant of a BA/BS degree from a good university now. The BA/BS 4yr degree is just an additional tax. I don’t understand why we tolerate it. We pay thru the nose a myriad of ways to get our children from k-12. That’s 13 to 14 years of paying for a child’s education. Then we’re supposed to pay for another 3 to 4 yrs at the rate of 30,000. or more a year. Then when they get their BA or BS,it’s no longer good enough. I did it for my two eldest sons, one now 40 and the other now 28. I’m down right sick of this adult support we are forced to go thru in this country. It never ends. My two eldest sons are infuriated with me because they now have to pay me back for 1/2 the cost of their college education.

    I also have two younger sons, one 11 now and the other 8. I am hoping and working with all my strength to get people to realize the idiocy of our system,hopefully in time for my two young sons. I have them working their keeeesters off because they will have to pay me back in full for any additional education after high-school.

    Did I mention before I’m sick of adult support?

  25. jeff wright says:

    Once again, Tim from Texas strikes. I like your style, Tim, but exactly which high school system would you recommend as the grantor of the BA/BS equivalent? Kids today can’t even pass 10th grade math tests to get out of high school—something you should think about with your younger children.

    When all was said and done, I paid more than $80K for my daughter’s college education at an excellent, albeit non-heavy hitting private school. And this was more than 10 years ago. She got a great science education—I can’t imagine anything better at an Ivy—and is doing very well in her career. She has offered to pay us back (and she can afford it), but we’ve declined the offer. She is our only child and the fact is we didn’t have to sacrifice. However, if we’d had more than one kid, they would have been in state schools, prestige notwithstanding.

    My advice to any parents mulling over the costs of a so-called “prestigious school” is this: if it will entail considerable sacrifice on the part of the family, don’t do it. The overall integrity and welfare of the family unit is far more important than indulging one member. What’re you going to do, pinch pennies in your old age because it was so important to send an 18-year-old off to party in Cambridge instead of in Jacksonville? There are a lot of good state schools and the fact is that 20 years later, nobody cares where you got your degree. You’ve still got to produce.

    This fixation on so-called elite schools is really over the top. It’s non-egalitarian and, IMO, contrary to what this country’s all about. It smacks of old-line Euro practices. We have enough of a self-appointed ruling class—which bedevils us constantly in our daily lives—as it is. We don’t need any more of them.

  26. “What’re you going to do, pinch pennies in your old age because it was so important to send an 18-year-old off to party in Cambridge instead of in Jacksonville?”

    No, we’re not going to send our children anywhere. They go where they want, and they pay for it. If the education is profitable, they’ll do it even if it means going heavily into debt. If the education isn’t profitable, I’d just as soon they do something that is profitable anyway.

  27. Tim from Texas says:

    Jeff, more students each year will pass the 10th grade or 11th grade “standarized” or “high stakes” exams, for I think our system has finally found some direction. I also think the students feel it and are trying, for the most part. Very much more, however, needs to be done in my opinion. The above mentioned tests must get
    extremely more difficult and should reach this difficulty by the time this year’s 4th graders reach high-school graduation. The test should then be given in the latter months of the 12th grade. By then the test should be as difficult a test as one would expect today’s BA or BS grads to take and at least do fairly well.

    My two older sons went to a very good university,worked hard, and they are doing fine also. I don’t even need the money back nor do I miss it. It is the principle that matters,and I don’t believe adolescense should go past 18yrs much less into the 30’s. I would have had them pay back all of it, if they hadn’t had to endure a system which was a lie and outright pathological.

    I also don’t agree with any fixation on so-called elite schools. Yes, we certainly have enough good universities, elite schools included.
    The true fixation or obsession our society has,or has bought into,in my opinion, is that the only beneficial route for our youth is to attend and graduate from a university. We have bought into this pathology so much that it’s all we have organized for them. Not all of todays youth nor yesterdays are “true university material” nor do many of them really want to be,or inclined to be, but what else have we provided for them. I think not much at all.

    I see nothing wrong with university prepatory public high-schools with the aforementioned difficult graduation exam open to any with the abilities and inclination and fortitude for that kind of work. Moreover, I assure you, it will be surprising who makes it and who doesn’t. We also need other types of high-schools providing pathways,and education for like or similar professions and high schools providing pathways and education for many different vocations.
    These high-schools would also require graduation
    exams commensurate to the next levels open to the graduates, which would become many, if such a system were established.

    Now, I know this smacks against what our country is all about, non-egalitarian, a class system,and all of that. Our country is rapidly flowing towards two classes-the very rich, and the poor. We now have the smallest middle class,percentsage wise, of all the industrialized countries, and it is dwindling at a sickenly rapid pace. We have young rogue males and females scurrying around causing all kinds of mayhem and probems in and out of schools. We have university students scurrying around getting drunk constantly,not taking care of themselves,not to mention the drugs involved in it all. And there are so called “mature” adults doing same. Does anyone think they want it that way. I say they don’t. We have abandoned and left them without class. Is that what we are about? Is that what this country is all about?

    My advice to parents is to not buy into our present system anymore, it treats education as a commodity and it is therefore pathological. It is a system our rich/ruling class hopes we will continue. It is good for them but not for us.

  28. As one who has participated on the sidelines in admissions at one of those universites, the stats cited of GPA and SATs are among the least important. Moreover, given that there are lots of kids with good GPAs and SATs, yes someone is quite likely to come up with several declines.

    I’ve explained to applicants and families that there are five areas which matter: recommendations, SAT, GPA, activities, essays in ascending order of importance.

    Least important are letters of recommendations. No one ever seeks a bad letter of recommendation.

    Just above that is SAT: consider it a hygiene test — above some mark, you can conclude that one’s hands are clean. Higher corresponds one’s hands being even cleaner, but it doesn’t particularly matter. It’s just a test. one arguable exception: review is a little tougher for the highest SAT scores. Not due to anti-intelllectualism, but instead to questioning that the applicant had some life and depth outside of being a test-taking machine.

    GPAs have slightly more bearing since it pertains to studies over time. But there are few controls on grade distribution or objective standards: one can imagine a school with a hard curve and a wealth of good students or a school with liberal grades and few good students. You can get some idea of scope or scale but little more focus.

    Activities start to matter even more: there are several gradations —
    1) exposure to activities
    2) participation over time
    3) leadership within organizations
    4) national proficiency
    5) initiative to start something new

    Finally, the item which matters the most in one that gives some insight into the candidate, the essay(s). one can imagine someone ticket-punching through the earlier steps (although it gets harder to levels 3-5 of activities) but essays give some measure of individual spark and emotion.

    Finally, decisions aren’t perfect and they’re not a character judgement on the individual (either the admit or the decline) There *are* a wealth of good institutions … and a range of strengths to match with students interests and goals. There isn’t one perfect college for all.

  29. How is a 4.68 GPA indicative of “something deeply wrong?.” I’m presuming that it’s on a 4.0 scale, that AP and honors courses are weighted so an A in Calculus counts more than an A in physical education, and that the student in question took a lot of advanced college prep classes. What’s wrong with that system?

  30. Mad Scientist says:

    One thing most people seem to be missing: It’s not the place where the diploma came from, it’s what you manage to do with it.

    Once you are 5 years out of school, the important thing is what you have done with the education you bought.

  31. I agree Mad Scientist, after you have X of years of work exp. the degree isn’t even a factor in most cases (unless the HR dept is staffed with morons) 🙂

  32. Bill, where have you ever seen a HR department that wasn’t staffed with morons?

  33. Elite colleges are like elite cars: in the end, the students and the drivers travel the same roads as the rest of us. Like any investment, value and price should be evaluated.

    But this nation doesn’t run on practical thinking.

  34. jeff wright says:

    You know what? I just realized that I don’t care a bit about this particular tale of woe.

  35. The problem is that the SAT has been dumbed down such that 1500 isn’t such an impressive score any more.

    I wonder where 4.68 places one in the graduating class of the MJBHA?

    It sounds like he should’ve applied Early Admission somewhere. Especially since, as a Jew, he’s not going to catch any breaks from the Ivies.

  36. I am working with people who have 4-year degrees from public and private colleges, in the sciences, who cannot set up simple equations that my teenage daughter could do with one hand tied behind her back. You can show them, you can explain that if you will just write your units the calculations will do themselves, but it’s just not there. I don’t know what the answer is, but more time and more expense to get my kid educated to her satisfaction due to this garbage just isn’t it.

  37. Thanks to Jeff Wright and Chris for their thoughts. I’m 59 but have daughters in their teens: one at a great books college and the other at a parochial high school that touts a college prep curriculum. In my opinion, except for the offerings in math the high school falls far below what I experienced in school 40 plus years ago.

    Choosing a college in order to get a golden diploma and chance at an interview seems at odds with the “love of learning” concept that is required to guide us toward truth.

    My older daughter was a bit depressed by her friend’s mid term report of all A’s at a Rocky Mountain sited college. My daughter’s grades were B’s but the reports were that she was a solid contributor to the seminar discussions. Her consolation was in the knowledge that she wasn’t learning to pass a test – but to think. I am eager to pay the cost for this.

  38. Asmun Key says:

    I like waffles they are tasty