April 18, 2007

The Ivy League Decision

By Paul Clinton STAFF WRITER

Ivy League schools flooded with applications have been tightening the screws on the nation's brightest high school seniors, who are finding it harder and harder to gain acceptance to colleges like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

With Ivy acceptance rates dropping, local high-achieving students often turn to California schools, where they say they'll get a satisfying education and stay connected to West Coast culture.

Shaun Mansour, a senior at Palos Verdes High School, is weighing whether to attend USC or Harvard. He was also accepted to Duke, Williams College and four state schools.

"I want to go to a college where I can have a balanced lifestyle," Mansour said. "If I'm bombarded with academics all the time, I'm not going to get all I want out of the college."

Mansour, who has been given a full scholarship to USC, said he could attend Harvard University to challenge himself, to "step outside of my comfort zone."

If he attends Harvard, the 17-year-old from Rancho Palos Verdes will be in the most selective class in the history of the nation's oldest college. This year, for the class of 2011, Harvard accepted about 9 percent, or 2,058, of the 22,955 who applied.

Most other Ivy League schools weren't any easier. Princeton accepted 9.5 percent of applicants, its all-time low. Yale University admitted 9.6 percent, up from the all-time low of 8.6 percent from a year ago.

Even Stanford University, one of only two West Coast school listed among the top 20 on this year's ranking of top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, set a record low, admitting a shade more than 10 percent of the 23,956 applications.

"It's still outrageously and painfully competitive," said Gila Reinstein, a Yale spokeswoman. "And we turn away many capable, brilliant, talented students who would do very well at Yale, but there just isn't room for all of them. We turn away valedictorians and kids with perfect SAT scores."

Local students heading to schools in the Ivy League are a distinct minority. The lure of the schools remains powerful in students' imaginations. But many applicants do realistic assessments of how well the schools meet their needs.

Rachel Morgan, a 17-year-old graduating from Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, turned down Harvard but will attend Yale. The "icy feeling" at Harvard turned her off to the school.

"I went and visited and didn't like it," Morgan said. "If it's not the right fit for your personality, it's not the right college. Fun is important."

At the two high schools on The Hill, applying to an Ivy League college has become obligatory for high-achievers. College counselors are often cornered by parents wanting to know how their child can get into one.

One local school seems to be finding an answer.

By developing a rigorous science program that encourages student research and experimentation, Peninsula High has opened a pipeline to Harvard.

Six students from the school were admitted this year. Usually, only two get in, Assistant Principal Mitzy Cress said.

"I think we are really on their radar right now because of our scientific research program," Cress said.

Carol Suh, 18, of Rancho Palos Verdes will attend the Cambridge, Mass., college in the fall.

Interest in the Ivy League at Los Angeles Unified high schools is usually rare, said Honey Koletty, Carson High's college counselor. Even though her own son graduated from San Pedro High and attended Harvard, many of the students don't see it as an option.

"They have to believe it's possible from an early age," she said.

In addition to the students attending Ivy League schools, Peninsula High had 15 students gain admittance to Stanford.

Oftentimes, parents can get carried away with the college application process, turning it into a game of one-upping at social gatherings, Cress acknowledged.

But for Mansour, his parents who are both doctors didn't pressure him to attend any particular college. Mansour's older brother attended Vanderbilt University.

"On the contrary, we tell them they could do whatever they want," said Susan Mansour, a family practice physician. "I don't think you can push your son or daughter to do something they don't want to."

These days, high-achievers need more than perfect grades and high test scores to gain entry to the Ivy League. They often balance volunteering, sports, academics, outside research and other activities.

And decisions about who gets admitted to the elite schools can oftentimes be baffling for those applying to them.

"It's kind of like the Da Vinci Code," said Becky Baiers, the college counselor at Palos Verdes High. "We can't crack who gets in."

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