April may be the cruelest month in college admissions. Even for its deans. When the formal white envelopes go out with decisions on the 3,100 spots in UVA’s first-year class, a returning tide swells with irate callers who demand to know why a stellar applicant was denied admission. In recent years, the complaints have become more frequent, the ire more intense.

And almost without fail, the caller is a parent.

The facts differ from case to case, but the refrain is the same: my child deserved to get in. Some feel betrayed. Others are incredulous. The explanations they hear do not convince. Sometimes they threaten to involve their congressman or stop contributing to the University. Parents are understandably upset, and admission deans find themselves on the firing line.

“It’s really fierce sometimes, and my staff takes a lot of abuse from some of them,” says John A. Blackburn, UVA’s dean of admission. “For some [parents], it’s the first time they’ve been told ‘no’ about anything.”

This period of manning the phones post-decision generates its own share of frustration and bewilderment among admission staff. Judgments to accept or deny are not made lightly or superficially. Spend any time with UVA’s deans and you are struck by the exacting care with which they undertake their job. There’s a vigilant sense of fairness in a complicated evaluation process that they refuse to reduce to a numeric formula.

On extracurricular activities:
Participate in activities that you enjoy, not what you think admission officers will find impressive.

Many of these calls reflect a widespread public perception of college admissions that is distorted, fed by misinformation and reinforced by media coverage that has lapsed into hype. People mistakenly believe that there is a quota system at UVA. That you need to be a superstar in a particular area. That you’d better have the “right” extracurriculars. That this is a game that’s rigged—but never in your favor. That if the thin envelope arrives in your mailbox, you’re a failure.

There’s a consensus that the admissions process has in many ways escalated, though opinions differ as to what—or whom—is to blame. It’s fair to say that pressure has intensified on everyone involved in the process. Certainly the stress on teenagers to get into the “best” school is acute. Critics charge that the growth of test-prep and private college counseling services only fans the flames of anxiety. Some point to parents and the high expectations they set for their children. Others say the institutions themselves are complicit, in their race for prestige and fixation on rankings.

All of which has some people asking questions that sound heretical: Why are the stakes so high? How did admission to an elite university become tantamount to winning a prize? Are you trying to buy prestige or are you investing in an education?

Not so long ago, the subject of college admissions was a snooze. Ignored by the media, admission officers quietly toiled beyond the public’s scrutiny. These days, the topic seems to constantly cycle through our psyche; it never quite leaves the headlines. The commercial success of U.S. News & World Report’s annual guide to the best colleges has spawned other rank-obsessed guides and how-to books that promise to crack the code of the admission game. Many of these publications are oversimplified and grossly misleading, according to college officials.

Signs of franticness are apparent: more SAT-prep courses, a growing reliance on private college counselors who “guarantee” admission to an Ivy for fees up to $30,000. In the last five years, a new trend of high-achievement summers has appeared; some teenagers are filling their heretofore carefree days with academic work and volunteer projects to enhance their college applications. Maybe this push for endless credentialing isn’t surprising, considering the kind of information that’s circulating. In one recently published study, called “Chess, Cheerleading, Chopin: What Gets You Into College,” sociologists found that the likelihood of a student getting into a highly competitive school has a correlation with how often their parents visited art museums.

Given such a climate, UVA’s admission deans often face an uphill battle when they meet with prospective students, whether in Fairfax or Frankfurt. Parke Muth (Col ’79, Grad ’82), director of international admission, begins every information session with a provocative question: “Do you think the admission process is fair?” The answer is always a resounding “No.”

An attitude prevails that “we’re not telling them the rules,” says Muth. “If we told them the rules, then they would do whatever it is. So if we said we wanted pointy kids, they would make themselves pointy-headed. If we wanted well-rounded, they would make themselves that.”

But for students to try to craft themselves to some perceived ideal is wrongheaded. “It’s good for students to distinguish themselves, but we don’t value one kind over another,” adds Greg Roberts, an associate dean of admission.

There is no secret to getting in, deans say. Stop looking for a gimmick. Tune out the hype. Study hard. Take the toughest curriculum that you can. The heart of the application is—and always has been—one’s academic preparation.

Sometimes this message doesn’t appear to sink in with students.

“You’ll go into high schools and talk about the importance of their program and taking the strongest classes, and they’ll still say, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure that matters? What about SATs?’” says Lee Morgan (Col ’84, Grad ’87), a senior assistant dean of admission.

“It is interesting to me that no matter how much we say and do,” Blackburn adds, “still people think there’s a great mystery about it.”

The media tends to focus on the most selective institutions, where the odds of getting in are smallest—the 50 or so institutions out of 3,000 that accept fewer than half their applicants. In other words, the Ivies are the exception, not the norm. “There are a lot of schools out there, and a lot of very good schools beyond those 50,” says Roberts, who often mentions such statistics to apprehensive teenagers and their parents. “The average acceptance rate across the country is 70 percent.”

UVA officials distance themselves from admission practices at some highly selective schools like Harvard or Yale, which take a markedly different approach to shaping a class. At those schools, which accept 9 percent of their applicant pool, they pick out the most interesting candidates. Consistency is not necessarily a priority. “They’re just looking at the most amazing kids that they can,” says Roberts. “So the more selective the school is, the more random it might appear to students.”

About 16,000 students apply each year to UVA. For the class of 2010, UVA admitted 45 percent of its Virginia applicants and 32 percent of its out-of-state applicants.

It has gotten tougher to get in, officials acknowledge. The number of applications hasn’t grown much, but the quality of the students certainly has. The admission deans say they don’t see weak candidates anymore.

“Everybody has the firepower to come here,” says Muth. “We don’t get any terrible essays anymore … We don’t see any incredibly stupid mistakes. Everything is much more packaged. That and the programs, on the whole, are better.”

That improvement in the pool has meant that one’s legacy status doesn’t carry the weight that it once did for in-state students. For out-of-state students, a legacy status puts them in the in-state pool, where their odds are better.

As the Alumni Association’s liaison for legacy applicants, Cindy Darr Garver (Col ’80) warns alumni of this fact. The University has always embraced the legacy tradition—legacies typically make up 10 to 13 percent of a class—but the increasingly competitive landscape means that alumni shouldn’t assume that their child has a significant advantage in the application process. “Managing expectations is my primary job,” Garver says, and “it gets harder all the time.”

Garver won’t give odds or offer predictions on a student’s probability of getting into UVA—though she’s often pressured to do so. Instead, she provides a yardstick for prospective students, reviewing the previous year’s pool for insight into the profile of the successful candidate. This year, she counseled about 500 seniors and their families. An increasing number of younger students also book appointments; this past year, for instance, she worked with 200 juniors and another 100 sophomores. She also fields questions about curriculum from parents whose children are in middle school—a sensible concern, considering the fact that schools are tracking students at a younger age.

Garver, who has directed the legacy liaison office for 14 years, has also witnessed more parental involvement in the application process. “I have some parents who come into my office and say, ‘OK, how do we get this done?’” she says. When they hear there isn’t a role for them or that they can’t affect the process, their anxiety intensifies, she observes.

In such cases, Garver tells parents that they shouldn’t try to drive the process. It’s sometimes helpful to remind them of their own experience when they applied to schools. “Parental support is fine,” she says, “but the application and decision-making processes have to be their child’s.”

The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek and other major media outlets have chronicled this baby-boomer generation of “helicopter parents,” whose hovering solicitude continues during what is typically a time of growing independence. The micromanaging takes many forms. Parents call faculty to complain about a grade on a paper or test. They hound the dean’s office about changing their child’s roommate. How to deal with this phenomenon is a perennial topic at professional higher education conferences.

Some call it interference, but others say it’s a reasonable consequence of wanting the best for your child.

“I think my generation has pulled our children very close,” says V. Shamim Sisson, a boomer-aged senior associate dean of students. “And I think we have tried to make their lives perfect. This begins at a very early age and it’s all designed for them to be able to get into a place like UVA and designed for them to be able to excel.

“The expectations are obviously high for both parents and students,” she says. “When things inevitably happen that are counter to that perfection and in a setting where the student must now take the lead, it can be especially hard for parents to let go.”

Technology has made communication easier and many students talk with their parents every day, even multiple times a day. That can be both good and bad. “They think of their parents as consultants about a lot of things,” says Sisson. “But if that technology were not so available, they would figure things out on their own.

“One of the observations made in higher education is that we may be graduating less-resourceful and less-resilient students because there are fewer opportunities to face difficult decisions on their own,” she adds.

As it’s gotten harder to get into UVA, some parents would rather shield their child from possible rejection than take the gamble of applying. “A parent will call and say, ‘Here’s what my kid has. Are they going to be able to be competitive or get in? Because I don’t even want to bring them up there to visit if they don’t have a shot,’” recounts Valerie Gregory, an assistant dean of admission.

Adds Garver: “I can’t tell you how many parents have said to me, ‘If so-and-so doesn’t get into UVA, he’s going to think he’s a failure.’ Well, where do they get that idea? I encourage students to think of UVA as part of their overall plan—not as the only option.”

Garver and others urge parents to help their kids to make contingency plans. And to listen to them more closely. “Really get to know your child and what the needs of that child are in terms of what’s going to be most successful for them,” Gregory says. “Take yourself out of the formula.”

Since the first college rankings were published by U.S. News & World Report in 1983, the system has become too authoritative, some critics argue. It’s become a trap, a system without inherent value that dictates what is good and important. Admission deans like Parke Muth encourage students to use their own system of weights and balances—not externals like rankings—to determine what college is the right one for them.

Muth and others in the Office of Admission have found a message that resonates in the book College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, which is an open call for changes in both admission policies and application strategies. It also reasserts the importance of gaining an education over where you get it. As the deans continue to field calls from disappointed or distressed parents, it’s a message they wish more people heard.

“If you apply and we don’t accept you, no one has failed,” Kim Stafford of Lewis & Clark College writes in the book’s opening essay. “If we accept you and we don’t turn out to be the best place for you, no one has failed. The real thing is you—your life of learning that can be nourished, stunted, accelerated, redirected, but never stopped.”

Are you prepared academically?

  • Put academics first. UVA is looking for students who challenge themselves. That translates to five solid academic classes in all four years of high school.
  • Take the hardest classes that you can do well in. Most successful applicants have a substantial number of honor classes in their early years of high school. Many will have at least one advanced placement (AP) class in their junior year and several in their senior year. It’s not uncommon to see successful applicants who take four or five AP classes in their senior year.
  • Most students who are offered admission have grades in the honors or distinguished level of their classes. That translates to As and Bs—with As predominating—during all four years of high school.
  • A student’s academic track can be marked early—even before high school. Taking algebra by the eighth grade is one commonly used benchmark that will help equip a student for a rigorous high school program.
  • There are no “right” or “wrong” extracurricular activities. The admission office is looking for students who have identified their passions outside the classroom—regardless of whether it’s a group or individual activity, a competitive sport or a hobby. Participate in activities that you enjoy, not what you think admission officers will find impressive. Drop out of a club or a sport if your academic load is too much; the admission office won’t think you’re a “quitter.”