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.
Throw 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
By May 1, the deadline for students' decisions, the
university expected to have a new freshman class of about
So how did Princeton's admissions officers decide who makes
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.
Formula 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
"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
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
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
"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."