Kyle Sullivan-Jones went on all his campus tours last year with his father, Bruce Jones. They were a team, with a $3,000 budget for bicoastal travel and application fees, and a mutual determination not to lose touch with reality.
The family lives in Barnstable, Mass., and the father is a high school counselor in nearby Plymouth. He has been telling his son for years about what he considers the idiocies of the college admission process -- the overheated expectations, the fetish for rankings, the failure to analyze costs and benefits. The two of them resolved to do it the right way, and in the end achieved a perfect admission season: eight college applications sent, eight college acceptance letters received.
Some valedictorian science-fair-winning football stars manage that feat, but they have little in common with Kyle. His high school record was far from spectacular. He had a 3.6 grade point average and a 1320 SAT score. He took extended time on some of his tests because of his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He had some interesting extracurricular activities. He played acoustic and electric guitar and scored a political success organizing his school's first "Mix It Up" day, when everyone agreed to sit with strangers at lunch. But overall, many students at his 2,000-student school had more impressive college applications than he did.
The secret to Kyle's success is pretty simple. What he had going for him was a keen sense, augmented by his father's expertise, of which colleges would accept him. His final list of schools included two sure things, Johnson State in Johnson, Vt., and the University of Maine-Farmington. There were five reasonable choices, St. Mary's of Maryland, Guilford in Greensboro, N.C., Lake Forest in Illinois, Earlham in Richmond, Ind., and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He added one school, Whitman in Walla Walla, Wash., which was a slight reach because its grade and test score average was higher than Kyle's and because it looked for Advanced Placement classes, which Kyle did not have.
"I didn't want to waste time and energy with places that didn't interest me," said Kyle, and that included colleges unlikely to admit him. You could call the colleges on his list safety schools, but there should be no shame in that label. They were all known for their good teaching and vibrant campuses and had smart admissions officers who would be intrigued by his eccentricities.
College application experts say they admire Sullivan-Jones' method, and wish it were more common.
"It seems that they went through this whole process in a very organized way and also with such a realistic mind-set," said Jean Jordan, director of enrollment services at Emory University. "I love that they did not get swept into the hyper competitive New England norm. ... If only we could get all parents to go through the process this way."
This being America, there is nothing wrong with putting a couple of schools on your list where your chances of being admitted are as great as the likelihood of my winning the lottery. Sometimes there are surprises, and schools that seem a bit beyond your reach can be a very good idea. But I have to admire Kyle for knowing what he wanted and passing up the admissions season crap tables.
Some families may find it irritating to be so dependent on their applicant's test scores and grade point averages in deciding where to apply. But that is the way the world works, and smart applicants realize there are excellent colleges even at the less selective levels. The Sullivan-Joneses looked up the range of SAT and ACT scores in the freshman class of each school -- an easy statistic to find in college guides -- and applied to places where Kyle's score was in the middle or upper part of that scale.
Being accepted by every school did not end the Sullivan-Jones team's labors. They had to be careful with their money. "We're basically paycheck to paycheck people," Bruce said. He and his wife, Maggie Sullivan, had run through their liquid savings during the past three years assisting an older daughter as her husband slowly succumbed to leukemia.
The eight financial aid offers arrived and were scrutinized. Kyle had not applied early decision anywhere, in part so he and his parents could make such comparisons. "For an old liberal, need-blind, egalitarian, increased-access, diversity-is-good kind of guy, the packages were comforting and uncomfortable," Bruce said.
They were happy that the five private schools offered grants ranging from 21 percent to 40 percent of the total cost of attendance, although their share of the cost at Whitman -- Kyle's final choice -- was still $27,000 a year. "I'm two years from retirement," Bruce said. "Or maybe I'm not."
But they felt sheepish, after being critical of a system that gave merit scholarships to affluent applicants, to discover that they too would be needing, and getting, financial aid despite having a family gross income of $130,000. Bruce called it one more example of the surprises that can come if you "aim a little below the U.S. News & World Report radar for the terminally competitive."
Kyle found it difficult to call the College of the Atlantic, the runner-up, and tell them he wasn't coming, after the school had flown him to Bar Harbor, Maine, at its expense to compete for a merit scholarship. But once that unhappy duty was taken care of, he celebrated his Whitman decision with a new look, cutting his hair and shaving his beard.
He said he was glad that all that careful work had gotten him somewhere. And he noticed high school classmates who were suffering the pain of being rejected by an array of long-shot schools.
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