For High Schoolers, Summer Is Time To
By June Kronholz,
April 21, 2005, PAGE ONE
Forget about the
lazy, hazy days of summer.
As soon as classes are over for the year at John Jay High
School in Cross River, N.Y., 16-year-old Jamie Cohen is off to
Senegal where she'll work with AIDS victims for four weeks.
Armed with her research, she'll then head to Yale University
to present an AIDS "plan of action" to other teens, as part of
a program put on by a travel company. When she applies to
colleges 18 months from now, Ms. Cohen says the experience
"will definitely help. I'll do an essay around it."
Amanda Baratz, 14, will head from Kehillah Jewish High
School in San Jose, Calif., to Georgetown University this
summer for a five-week course on medical careers, during which
she hopes to watch open-heart surgery. She'll take an
admissions-exam prep course, too, even though she won't take
the SAT test for another year. That way, "I won't be pressured
when the time comes," she says.
Getting into America's elite colleges has never been
tougher, and now, in addition to grades and test scores,
essays, recommendations and class rank, there's this for teens
and their parents to worry about: summer.
Admissions officers dispute that. They say that how a
youngster spends summers won't make or break a college
application. "It doesn't matter as much as what they're doing
in the school year," says Richard Nesbitt, admissions director
at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
But as a record number of high schoolers heads for college,
summer is taking on huge importance among super-achieving
teens and their parents -- and a whole industry is sprouting
to serve them.
This summer, Putney Student Travel in Putney, Vt., is
offering new, month-long "global awareness" trips to El
Salvador, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Senegal. For prices ranging
from $5,090 to $6,290, students will study such issues as
sustainable development, bio-diversity and the cultural
survival of indigenous groups.
A Boulder, Colo., company called Where There Be Dragons LLC
is offering a $6,700 six-week trip to Vietnam where teens will
teach English, build houses and help volunteer doctors -- in
addition to kayaking in Halong Bay and snorkeling in the South
China Sea. Community service is "the buzz word" among teens
signing up for such trips, says Julie Carey, who heads the
company's programs in Peru, Bolivia and Central America. "It's
what people are asking about."
For $5,799, New York-based Musiker Discovery Programs Inc.
sells summer courses on medical and law careers, aimed at
high-school students. "We passed around a human heart," says
Sam Pawliger, a junior at Miami's Palmetto High School who
watched an autopsy during the medical course last year.
A record 16.7 million students are expected to enroll in
college next fall, 1.2 million more than five years ago. The
U.S. education department expects up to 18.8 million enrollees
eight years from now. At the same time, ambitious high-school
students are loading up on advanced-placement classes and
taking prep courses to boost their scores on
college-admissions tests, heightening the competition.
California's Pomona College says one-third of the students
it accepted for next fall scored the maximum 800 on either the
verbal or math part of the SAT admissions tests. North
Carolina's Davidson College says one-quarter of its new class
has a combined SAT score over 1500.
With the glut of high-scoring applicants, colleges are
paying closer attention to factors such as community service,
artistic talent, leadership -- and summers. "There's more
demand than we can accommodate at the selective institutions.
What do you do? You need some tie-breakers," says Barmak
Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars
and Admissions Officers, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
"These days, just having perfect grades and perfect SAT
scores does not guarantee anything," says Victoria Hsiao of
IvySuccess. "It's the complete package that colleges are
Admissions officers agree -- although their view of a
complete package doesn't always square with a consultant's.
Christopher Gruber, acting dean of admissions at Davidson,
says he's looking for students who round out the entering
class -- a cellist or soprano for the music program, kids with
different "life experiences," and those who pursue their
academic interests outside the classroom.
He gives high marks to community-service "entrepreneurs" --
students who, say, "identified the need for teaching kids in
the inner city and created a program." He also likes "creative
followership," he says -- youngsters "who may not be on the
cutting edge, but can make things better as they go."
That sounds like a terrifyingly high bar for many kids. At
Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.,
Jessica Clayton scored 1540 out of 1600 on her SATs, aced five
advanced-placement courses last semester, volunteers two days
a month at a middle school, works after school at a smoothie
shop, is on the varsity Lacrosse team and runs cross country.
But she worried that wasn't enough: An Ivy League recruiter
told her about a rival applicant who composed harp music,
recorded the compositions and sold the CDs for charity. "I
don't even play the harp," says Ms. Clayton. "There are kids
who have sent up satellites that have orbited the Earth. At my
school, I'm pretty average."
So, with money she earned and a scholarship from the Where
There Be Dragons tour company, Ms. Clayton signed up last
summer for the company's trip to Peru, where she painted a
school, helped harvest wheat and organized a trash cleanup. "I
guess I knew that it would kind of give me an edge," she says.
Five colleges accepted her, she says, including Bowdoin,
Vanderbilt and Colgate; she's wait-listed, she says, at
The Supreme Court's affirmative-action decision two years
ago also seems to be fueling summer angst for students from
affluent families. The ruling freed universities to make
decisions on factors other than grades and test scores,
including family background and race, among other things.
Economist Tom Mortenson, who publishes a newsletter about
college accessibility, calculates that blacks and Hispanics
represent only 11% of undergrads at the country's top public
universities, even though they make up a quarter of all U.S.
undergraduates. Low-income kids, he says, account for 12% of
students at the country's 51 top-ranked liberal-arts colleges,
down from 13% a decade ago.
ambitious students see fat rsums as a way to overcome a
perceived handicap. "You're not a football star, you're not a
minority, you're us -- white, blue-eyed, private-school kids,"
says Will Daly, 18, a senior at Middlesex High School in
Concord, Mass. "What do you do that will make you stick out?"
Last summer, he paid his way to Varanasi, India, where he
spent three weeks writing English-language lesson plans for an
ashram's school, then spent another three weeks traveling. "I
did not do this for college," says Mr. Daly, who says he went
for "the experience." Still, he wrote his college-application
essay about the trip. He is going to George Washington
University in the fall.
"I am the average white American, and colleges have their
pick," says Daniel Germain, a senior at Madison High School in
Madison, N.J. He joined an organized trip to India, where he
taught English, built soccer goals and did other "little
things that needed to be done" at an elementary school. "Yes,
I met their academic requirements," he says of the six
colleges that have offered him admission, "but I'm positive
that all my extracurriculars are what got me in."
Many high schools now make community service part of their
graduation requirements, fueling exotic summer programs that
youngsters think will help them stand out in the crowd.
Indeed, Ms. Hsiao of IvySuccess says she tells clients not to
work in the local hospital because "it's something every
single high-school student does."
Tour operators say teens are eager to pay for trips that
include chances to volunteer. "It used to be you waited until
graduation and joined the Peace Corps," says Peter Shumlin,
director of Putney, the youth-travel company, which this
summer offers trips to 13 countries, plus Alaska and Hawaii.
Sara Hubbard, a junior at Park Tudor School in
Indianapolis, says she earned 150 community-service hours last
summer teaching English and decorating a school in one of
Putney's trips to Rajasthan. Now, she's doing a two-year
school research project on the life of Phoolan Devi, an Indian
bandit, and hopes the two projects will "show a growing
interest in something," she says.
Admissions officers say exotic summer programs don't give
youngsters a leg-up in admissions. A fancy trip "is going to
be looked at as an opportunity anyone with $7,000 can get,"
says Pomona president David Oxtoby. He worries such pricey
programs -- just like prep courses that can boost SAT scores
-- will further tilt admissions in favor of privileged teens.
His school, he adds, is "going to give an edge to kids who
have overcome obstacles."
But if summer trekking in Mongolia ($6,850) or bicycling
the Alps ($4,795 plus airfare) doesn't count with admissions
directors, that's not a message kids say they're getting.
"It's been so cutthroat ever since I've been in fourth grade
-- if I didn't have great grades and extracurriculars, I
wouldn't stand out," says James Sacks, a junior at Wooster
School in Danbury, Conn.
Last summer he joined a $7,000 Musiker trip to Australia,
where he spent three weeks working with dementia patients and
restoring antique ships in Sydney before heading to the Great
Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock. With that trip, and a moral
philosophy course the summer before, "I think I have it all
there, summerwise," he says.
"I was 13 and already being told the importance of doing
things" to build a rsum, says Mr. Daly, the Middlesex
student, who biked cross-country after his freshman year and
trekked in Peru after sophomore year, both with organized
tours. "The pressure's on."
That's a message many kids believe. Liza Friedman, a senior
at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan, says
she wrote her college-application essay about her trip to
Vietnam, and also told college interviewers about previous
community-service trips to Slovakia and Tanzania.
The trips helped her decide to focus on African studies in
college, she says, but also "definitely gave me something to
talk about in the interviews." She received admissions offers
from three colleges, she says, including one that wrote that
her summer tours showed she is "an active member of the global
community." But during the interview with her first-choice
school, which she is still waiting to hear from, there were
more questions about her softball team and her work for
Amnesty International, she says.
So then, what has come of the idea of summer as a time to
relax and unwind? University of Chicago admissions director
Theodore O'Neill says he would look kindly on an applicant who
spent the summer "reading 50 books under a tree."