Navigating college admissions

Is the Ivy League calling to your teen?
By Pamela H. Sacks


Eileen Fitzpatrick has a passion: to help her son, Corey, get into one or both of the colleges he wants to attend.

They are highly selective schools, as it happens. Corey, a senior at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, is aching to attend Boston College or the University of Notre Dame.

Last year was an eye-opener, Mrs. Fitzpatrick said. Many top students from the best public and private schools were rejected by colleges for which they seemed ideal candidates.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick faced the situation squarely. She knew that she would seek expert advice when confronting important legal or financial matters. Why not do the same in working through the college admissions maze?

“I talk to a lot of parents about this,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said. “They’re clueless.”

So last spring, she turned to Chuck Hughes, a Bolton resident who had been a senior admissions officer at Harvard University. His book, “What It Really Takes To Get Into the Ivy League & Other Highly Selective Colleges,” had just been published by McGraw-Hill.

Within a couple of months, Mr. Hughes would open a college counseling firm, Road to College Inc., with Steve Pemberton, a former admissions officer at Boston College, and Matt Buonomano, a Yale graduate with high-tech expertise.

“We understand passions,” Mr. Hughes said by telephone from his office in Maynard, “but families want to put a formula on it. They have so little understanding about the nuances.”

The fact is, getting into college — especially the “name brand” schools — has become a high-wire act. More high school students than ever before are applying, while the number of spots available remains static. About 65 percent of high school graduates will go to college; in the suburbs, the number is 90 percent.

Meanwhile, the schools themselves are scouring the globe for the proverbial “best and brightest.” Their goal is to create a freshman class of a few thousand eclectic, highly intelligent students plucked from 15,000 or 20,000 applicants.

The competition is intense, to say the least.

“At most of the selective schools, we typically say 70 to 80 percent of the applicants could handle the academic workload,” Mr. Hughes said. “The question is: How many will excel and bring something to life on campus and in the dorm rooms?”

An article by Sheila McMillen, an English professor at the University of Virginia that appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education underscores the challenge that admissions officers face.

In the article, “In Admissions, How Do You Separate the Wheat from the Wheat?” Ms. McMillen writes that she spent a year reviewing applications of 15,000 candidates, a vast majority of whom appeared to be outstanding. She found the experience “brain-numbing.”

She goes on to lament the difficulty in distinguishing academic achievers who are savvy about looking good on paper from those with truly inquisitive minds — the original thinkers she would like to have in her class.


Ms. McMillen concludes, “I finished my admissions stint with some first notions confirmed: No cut-and-dried method, no formula, will yield an outstanding freshman class. But I’m left wondering, is there — was there ever — any way of seeing the quality of mind behind the credentials?”

Mr. Hughes said that there may, indeed, be no foolproof formula, but admissions committees do have to accept some candidates and reject others, and there are ways an applicant can help tip the balance.

At Harvard, about 500 applicants are such academic superstars that they are automatically admitted, he said. Others with a “distinguishing excellence” — a recognized and exceptional ability in music, acting or writing, for instance — are viewed as desirable.

In choosing the balance of the class, top-tier schools want it all — exceptional grades and test scores, along with volunteer work, athletics and extracurricular activities, plus a passion for a particular thing.


Corey is on the track team and plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse. Mr. Hughes advised him to get involved in student government, as well. He needed that credential to enhance his credibility as a well-rounded student.

“I didn’t realize that was necessary,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said.

There are, of course, all sorts of intangibles. Mr. Hughes, who graduated from Harvard in 1992, said neither his father, a police officer, nor his mother, a bank teller, had been to college. That made him more interesting.

And this is where race, ethnicity and geography come in. It doesn’t hurt to hail from Montana.

“You could fill your school with kids from the East and the Mid-Atlantic states and have a bright and powerful group,” Mr. Hughes said. “You want to bring in kids from California, Alaska, Africa and Europe and have them go off and do great things.”

In the end, though, most students won’t end up in the Ivy League, or, perhaps, any of the highly selective schools. What Mr. Hughes and Mr. Pemberton say they want to do is to help students find the right fit.


Joe and Suzanne Grillo turned to Mr. Pemberton for advice on where their son, Mike, a senior at Medway High School, should apply. Mike was considering Boston College and Pennsylvania State University.

“Steve told us they’d be a reach,” Mr. Grillo said.

With a four-year education at some colleges costing upward of $160,000 and colleges marketing themselves more than ever before, Mr. Grillo wanted help finding schools where his son would get in and fit in.

Mr. Pemberton sat down with Mike and then suggested Fairfield University, Sacred Heart University, University of Connecticut and Providence College.

“He helped us dramatically to focus our efforts,” Mr. Grillo said.

In contacting Road to College, Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Grillo have tapped into a booming industry, one that is on track to take in $293 million this year and $413 million by 2007, according to the Independent Educational Counselors Association.

About 20 percent of families in the Northeast use some sort of college counseling, while just 6 percent do so across the country. The services differ vastly in cost. Some private counselors charge as much as $18,000 a year.

Road to College has been in business since July and already has 40 customers, who live from Massachusetts to California and several locations in between. They read Mr. Hughes’ book, which is selling at a clip of 600 copies a month, or logged on to the company Web site,


The company would like to advise students starting in the sophomore year. The college search and planning process would begin in the junior year.

Road to College has formed partnerships with other former admissions officers and professionals who can hone test-taking, interview and essay-writing skills. Services range from $200 to $1,500.

“We want to provide transparency to the process,” Mr. Hughes said. “It’s important for parents to understand the incredibly competitive marketplace and what’s going on on the admissions side.”

Avi Spivack and his wife, Nataly Kogan, both recent graduates of Wesleyan University, have a different approach. The couple, who live in New York City, have created Natavi Guides, a set of how-to books written by and for students, and created a Web site,

Their most popular titles are “Choose the Right College and Get Accepted!” and “How to Navigate Your Freshman Year.”

In their experience, students tend to turn to each other for advice and support. Hearing from peers who have recently dealt with the same challenges has a big impact, Mr. Spivack said.

“I think kids face extraordinary pressure,” Mr. Spivack said from California, where he was attending the annual conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling. “But there are many tools to know how to succeed.”

With all of the students seeking the key to a spot at a top school, Mr. Hughes has found that assisting those in the middle range is often the most rewarding.

One of Mr. Hughes’ favorite customers is a senior at Boston College High School. His father is an electrician and his mother a hair stylist. The student’s test scores and grades are modest.

He and his parents came to Mr. Hughes with no idea where to turn. Now, he’s enthusiastic about the University of Rhode Island and is considering University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and Siena College in New York.

“We’re working on where he would fit in,” Mr. Hughes said.