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Princeton Has Its Pick of the Brightest

The Bergen Record
By PATRICIA ALEX May 3, 2004

Students don't come much more accomplished than Jonathan Lin. He's first in his class at Northern Valley Regional High School, one of the most rigorous public schools in the state. He scored an impressive 1,530 out of 1,600 on his SATs and has excelled in honors classes.

The RecordThrow in a host of extracurricular clubs and music lessons and an A-plus grade average, and Jonathan shapes up to be an all-around achiever. Yale wants him. So do Columbia and Tufts. He has been accepted into prestigious eight-year medical programs at Brown and Johns Hopkins.

But at Princeton University, the Ivy League magnet in his home state, Jonathan made it only to the waiting list.

If Princeton isn't accepting the likes of Jonathan Lin, who has made it into the Class of 2008?

The numbers tell part of the story.

Of the 13,690 applications from 5,382 high schools in all 50 states and 116 countries, Princeton offered admission to just 1,634. More than 4,500 applicants had 4.0 grade-point averages, and more than 7,400 had combined SAT scores of 1,400 or higher.

By May 1, the deadline for students' decisions, the university expected to have a new freshman class of about 1,175.

So how did Princeton's admissions officers decide who makes the cut?

Amid intensifying competition for the most selective colleges and universities, they frankly admit that very little distinguishes those who make it from those who don't. More than 1,400 high school valedictorians vied for fewer than 1,200 freshman openings. Of those offered admission this year, 95 percent were in the top tenth of their class.

"We could have filled this class four or five times over, given the caliber of the applicants," said the dean of admissions, Janet L. Rapelye.

But Rapelye cautioned that class rank alone does not guarantee one of Princeton's coveted seats. Almost all applicants boast impressive portfolios showing off extracurricular activities, community service, athletics, or musical and artistic talent.

Many variables come into play, Rapelye said. For instance, "we go out of our way to consider students who would be the first in their family to go to college," she said.

Student essays are given great weight. "We care a lot about their writing," the dean said. "What we're looking for is intellectual curiosity. We're less concerned about rank."

Rapelye said there was no particular formula for assembling a class. "We're looking for independent thinkers at Princeton," she said.

princetonFormula or no, the nation's most selective schools might one year reject the qualifications of an impressive student they had eagerly embraced the year before. These inconsistencies madden high school guidance counselors and frustrate students.

"It has to do with the applicant pool and the institutional needs at any given time," said Sue Sawyer, a guidance counselor at Fair Lawn High School. "They may need a tuba player that year."

Jonathan, the Northern Valley senior, is sanguine about the snub. "It comes down to chance," he said with a shrug.

While Jonathan ponders his choices, Ashley Amo is already contemplating walking to class among the stately oaks that define the Princeton campus.

Ashley's scores - 1,420 on her SATs and a 4.2 grade point average at Ridgewood High School - are impressive but hardly top of the heap, at either her highly rated school or at Princeton. But Ashley is also a lacrosse standout, and Princeton's women's team is ranked first in the nation. Ashley could have chosen either of two other outstanding schools on athletic scholarship - Vanderbilt and Georgetown - but opted for Princeton, despite its lack of lacrosse scholarships.

"I'm excited to play lacrosse, but I also wanted the academics of Princeton," said Ashley, who was named to the All-North Jersey first team last spring. "It will be hard to be a student athlete, but I'm motivated."

Ashley was one of 581 students admitted through early decision. These students promised to attend Princeton if accepted by Dec. 15. The process relieves a lot of anxiety for students who get the good news months ahead of classmates, and it assures the university of some of the most sought-after students in the country.

These 581 students, almost half of the eventual incoming freshman class, were chosen from an early applicant pool of 1,817. Out of the overall pool of 12,000 applicants, Princeton extended an additional 1,053 offers, Rapelye said.

In all, Princeton offered admission to 11.9 percent of its applicants this year, which made it the third most selective comprehensive university in the country. Harvard sent acceptances to 10.27 percent of its applicants, and Columbia invited 10.5 percent.

But if the almost 200 children of alumni and faculty, the so-called "legacies," are factored out of the new class, the acceptance rate was even lower, about 8.8 percent at Princeton, said Robert Shaw, a consultant who helps families devise strategies to get their children into the most selective schools. His Long Island company, IvySuccess, is made up of former college admissions officers.

The competition may ease slightly in coming years. Princeton plans to expand its total enrollment by 500 seats, phased in beginning in 2006, and Cornell, Harvard, and Columbia are also planning modest enrollment expansions.

But even with bigger classes, the admissions process probably will remain thorough, exhaustive - and largely subjective.

"There is no set formula for admission, but the secret is how politics and policies at a given institution affect admissions," Shaw said. "To most parents, it's random, but to admissions officers, it's very carefully crafted."

And every dean of admissions puts a personal stamp on the process.

For 25 years at Princeton, for example, longtime admissions dean Fred Hargadon acted as a gatekeeper to the university, personally signing off on all admissions, Shaw said.

Hargadon retired last year after his underlings admitted hacking into the Yale admissions computer to see whether Yale was accepting students who had also applied to Princeton.

Rapelye, who replaced Hargadon, has instituted the kind of committee system used at most universities.

"Hargadon was old-school," Shaw said. "Rapelye will bring a new philosophy and a new vision that will change the demographic."

Rapelye explained that each application is read carefully and screened by a committee. Additionally, almost 80 percent of the applicants, more than 11,000 students, are contacted by alumni, who give their own recommendations.

With few signs that the desirability of an Ivy League education will wane, Shaw says students will face stiff competition for many years to come. He advises them to start preparing early.

"High schools should be preparing students for college sooner," Shaw said. "If you wait until junior year, you will be too stressed out. The whole landscape of admission has changed so much in the last five to 10 years, and parents and high schools haven't caught up with it."