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In the College Search, He’s the Matchmaker

October 29, 2006

By Dave Marcus, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Oct. 29–PITTSBURGH — Freshmen deep in conversation stroll along a tree-lined plaza and past a bubbling fountain. The classes are small here, and students say they get to know their professors. Gwyeth Smith Jr. feels confident he can recommend Duquesne University to seniors at Oyster Bay High School.

But he has one nagging doubt.

“What about that shooting?” Smith asks a couple of students on a path overlooking the Monongahela River.

The students at the small, Roman Catholic college assure him that the shooting of five basketball players after a party in September was an anomaly. Violence is rare at Duquesne, the two insist.

Smith’s title is director of guidance, but essentially he’s a matchmaker for students searching for the right college. In seven years, he has helped Oyster Bay offer the kind of personalized college-advising service that used to be associated with private academies but is becoming common at Long Island’s best public schools. Although Oyster Bay has senior classes of just over 100, every fall it sends at least a dozen students to Duke, Amherst, Bowdoin and other top schools.

A 2002 issue of Worth magazine ranked the school among the top 50 Ivy League “feeders” among public schools nationwide (the magazine also included four other Long Island schools: Great Neck South, Cold Spring Harbor, Wheatley in East Williston, and Schreiber in Port Washington). Says Oyster Bay Principal Dennis O’Hara: “I’m convinced that our students get accepted into colleges that might not accept them with exactly the same transcript at a different high school.”

Jeff Allen, Class of 2002, remembers meeting with Smith during the fall of his senior year, when he was determined to apply early to the University of Pennyslvania to study business. Smith mentioned that Cornell was about to get accreditation for a business program. With 10 days left before early application deadline, he secured a tour and interview for Allen.

“He has unbelievable connections,” says Allen, who graduated Cornell this year summa cum laude, the highest honors. He’s an investment banker at Merrill Lynch in Manhattan. “Mr. Smith knew my personality, my comfort zone and where I would excel.”

While Smith works hard to get to know Oyster Bay students — he attends their tennis matches, concerts and plays — his true worth is measured behind the scenes. Every year, he visits more than a dozen college campuses, where he interviews students about the classes, social life and safety. He also drives hundreds of miles to chat with admissions deans, and knows the name of their spouses, their previous employers and their favorite meals.

With the Nov. 1 deadline for early applications looming at many colleges, Smith meets with at least six students a day. After school, he teaches a graduate course on college advising for guidance counselors at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus.

“Smitty is a true pro — he lives the job,” says his friend Phil Macaluso, a former guidance counselor at Cold Spring Harbor High School who now has a private practice advising college-bound students.

Entering a vast convention center at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month, they are greeted with hugs by admissions officers from the Northeast’s most selective colleges. Later, they have dinners with deans and they learn informally about scholarships and changes in admissions policies — insights they plan to take straight back to Long Island students.

Between conference sessions, Smith visits Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne. He also takes a 260-mile roundtrip to look at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he concludes the campus was too quiet for most of his students.

Smith, 61, loves the college admissions game. “Which Claremont school made the SAT optional?” Macaluso asks, referring to five prestigious California colleges.

“Pitzer,” Smith responds.

“No,” Macaluso says. “I think it’s Harvey Mudd College.”

Pitzer is correct. Once again, Smith has nailed it.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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