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U.S. College Admissions: All Pain, No Gain?


The U.S. Census Bureau says a college graduate will earn almost twice as much money as a high school graduate during a career. That has led to increased competition to get into traditionally prestigious colleges and universities. VOA's Crystal Park takes a look at the college application process.

There are more than 2,600 four-year universities in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But even with that range of choice, large numbers of high school students are applying to the same select group of prestigious colleges.

High school senior Bhavna Batra works at an accounting firm three times a week, but not for money. She's participating in an internship program for class credit and experience, which she hopes will win the attention of some colleges.

Today, any edge is important for those hoping to be accepted by a prestigious school. Yale University, a member of the select group of universities known as the Ivy League, set a record this year, by accepting fewer than nine percent of those who applied.

Part of the problem is that there are more college age students in the United states than ever -- the population is growing, and the children of the large post-World War II "Baby Boomer" generation are now in high school and college. Acceptance rates are also lower because students are applying to more elite schools -- apparently in the hopes of getting into at least one.

Sharon Alston is the director of admissions at American University in Washington D.C. "There are just simply more students of college going age, so it's really a demographic pattern that we're seeing<' she explains. "In addition to that, in this age of technology, we're also seeing more students, and then more students applying to more colleges because it's very easy to do that."

Students can now apply online instead of filling out pages of documents by hand. A few years ago, each student applied to 3 to 5 schools on average. Today that number is much higher, says college freshman Brian Kalish, who now leads campus tours for prospective students. "Most kids apply to around 5 to 7 colleges, but some of my friends went as high as 18 different colleges."

These days many students begin preparing as much as three years before admission time -- picking courses, getting involved in school activities, and studying for admissions tests.

At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, a career center has been set up to help students prepare for college. Counselor Fran Landau says she's seeing increased pressure on everyone involved in the process. "I'm finding that students are more stressed out and worried about college than they have ever been before," she says, "and I think they're feeling an increased competition and colleges are feeling an excess number of students who are applying more so than ever before."

Students are forced to meet higher standards. For Bhavna, it can be overwhelming. "It's been very stressful only because there's so much you have to do," says the high school senior. "It's like deadlines, essays, teacher recommendations, test scores -there's so much."

And Brian Kalish says getting the letter with the coveted word "Congratulations" makes it all worthwhile. “This school sent me an e-mail and I screamed so loud that my parents came running, one from downstairs," he recalls. "'Brian! What happened?' they asked. ‘I made American [University]!’ Then I fell onto my bed and almost collapsed."

Educators say students should relax. They say a good education is available at many schools in the United States, which is considered to have the finest higher education system. And they say the most important thing is for students to find a school where they feel comfortable.

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