Teens under stress in top college competition

In his quest to capture a spot at a top college, Andrew Lutz has done just about everything right at Pikesville High School.

He has earned a nearly straight-A average, taking 10 Advanced Placement classes and wrapping up two years of calculus by the end of junior year. He worked on the school paper, played tennis year-round under the supervision of a private coach, and traveled to Ukraine for community service.

And yet, when Andrew looks around in his AP chemistry class, he sees himself as pretty ordinary. After all, he's not among the top three or four in his graduating class nor did he have a perfect or near-perfect score on the SAT exams, as did two of the eight students.

The competition to get into highly selective colleges, which has reached a peak in the past two years as a baby boomlet grew up, is forcing students like Andrew into a high-stress game that could one day affect the brightest of his generation.

The eight AP chemistry students navigated the just-completed admissions process together this year, giving up Friday and Saturday nights to write college essays and skimping on sleep to fit in five or more hours of homework on weeknights.

"I found myself saying, 'I can't believe I thought last year was hard,' as the work piled higher and higher year to year," Andrew reflected. "Many a Friday or Saturday night, after I got home around 12 a.m., I would take about a half an hour or so to memorize vocabulary or take a practice [test] section."

Angel Perez, the director of admissions at Pitzer College in California, said our culture has created a system that makes students believe they must be at their best to get into an elite college. "It's affecting students in ways we don't understand yet. We are very well aware of this."

Some argue that more is at stake than teenagers' social lives. High achievers may be molded into perfectionists rather than into the creative and problem-solving adults society most needs. "In order to improve the world you have to challenge the world. If you are a high achiever you are going to do that, but if you are a perfectionist you won't allow yourself to do that because you fear that the idea you come up with won't be good enough," said Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of a book on adolescents and stress.

Like most upper-middle-class families, Helene and Randy Lutz embraced the American tenet that education is the key to a successful life. They both graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park and assumed their two sons would go to good colleges, too. Andrew had more than exceeded their expectations as a student. By middle school, he began dreaming of going to Princeton University, and by the fall of his junior year he had great grades. But the dark-haired teenager still needed to nail the SAT.

"The night before the SAT, I was so nervous and so stressed out that I couldn't fall asleep. ... It was 1 a.m., 2 a.m.," Andrew said. "He had a tearful meltdown," recalled his father, who sometimes felt his son should relax more.

Randy Lutz tried calming Andrew down by telling him to forget taking the SAT the next day. He pulled out a movie about Queen Elizabeth that they watched until a drowsy Andrew went to bed. He turned off his alarm.

Early the next morning, his mother, unawares, woke Andrew up and gave him a back rub and a banana. Despite the sleepless night, he took the three-part test and was surprised to learn he had scored a perfect 800 in math and 600s in writing and reading. He celebrated the 800, but knew he had to get at least 700s on the other sections to be competitive.

His parents got him an English tutor for six weeks. He made it on the next try.

Andrew began to think strategically when he visited Princeton. "I was so impressed," he said, "but then reality kicked in." The Ivy League college offered prestige and resources, but he wasn't good enough to play Division I tennis. He also doubted he would earn the straight A's he believed he would need to get into medical school.

Tufts University near Boston seemed a better fit. He made an overnight visit there in the fall, finding a niche with the tennis team. He decided Tufts was best for him, but he also applied to College Park and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The admissions frenzy is in part a matter of raw numbers. Most highly selective colleges accept a third or fewer of their applicants and the Ivies take fewer than 15 percent. Harvard accepted only 7 percent this year.

People involved in college admissions - including college presidents - increasingly say the process has broken down. A nonprofit group, the Education Conservancy, is leading a movement to de-emphasize college rankings and focus instead on the quality of an institution's teaching rather than its rank.

Andrew tried to increase his odds of admission to Tufts by applying early decision on Nov. 1. He would hear back by Dec. 15, months before the April 1 deadline for colleges to pick freshman classes. He would be obligated if admitted unless financial aid was unacceptable.

The other boys in his class pursued similar tactics, given that selective colleges accept a greater portion of the applicant pool in early admissions. Collectively, they applied to Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Stanford, Brown and Yale. The two girls, including Rebecca Suldan, took a scattershot approach, submitting multiple applications that could give them options come spring.

As the Dec. 15 deadline approached, teachers noticed changes in their body language and mood. "I can see the stress level," said chemistry teacher Susan Adess. As she stood before students who routinely gave chemical equations unflinching focus, she saw faces that weren't following her. "To them, this is a turning point in their lives," she said.

Andrew's friend Jon Monfred said that he "kind of shut down." He said he had difficulty concentrating and stopped doing his work. Jon, a school newspaper editor, lacrosse player and middle school tutor, wanted to go to Penn. His weekday schedule left little time for anything but activities and homework.

"I am very much looking forward to it being over," Jon said. "How much longer am I going to have to keep this crazy schedule to get into college?" The pressure on seniors has been so intense at times that twice this year, Jon said, he has witnessed others break down into tears.

By midweek, two students in the class had been deferred by Brown and Dartmouth. On Friday, Jon went to the school library at 3 p.m., and entered a password into a computer. "I was just trying to breathe," he said.

Success. He was on his way to Penn.

Pikesville's principal and some parents say they don't perceive excessive stress. Rather, they say, the children sign up for multiple AP classes and activities because they are part of a highly motivated group. "I think there was a certain ethic among the group that said more is better," said Joel Suldan, Rebecca's father. "This isn't an unhealthy pressure."

But some believe that the drive to do everything well is detrimental when it becomes perfectionism. Students are less likely to push their boundaries and test themselves, said Ginsburg, the pediatrician. Failure is an important part of the learning process because it builds resilience.

A wider issue may be the performance of undergraduates, according to Denise Pope, a Stanford University professor who has written a book on college admissions. She sees students who are asked to think outside the box, but can't. A decade ago, students came to her and told her what they would write a paper on. Today, they ask, "What can I write a paper on to get an A?" she said. "It is not a leadership mind-set. It is a middle manager mind-set."

Late on Dec. 12, Tufts sent out its early decisions online. Andrew's mother and grandmother leaned over his shoulder, staring at the computer in an upstairs home office. They hung on one word that popped up in his e-mail: "Congratulations."

Andrew had been accepted to Tufts, the college he saw as right for him. It also had what his parents viewed as the ridiculous price tag of $51,400 a year.

"Let the macaroni-and-cheese dinners begin," his mother said. Even as she joked, Helene Lutz was proud. Her husband, on speakerphone, told him: "I could never have done that, Andrew."

Andrew had dug into his studies with perseverance they found remarkable. Now they were ready to make financial sacrifices to send him to an elite college with hopes he would go on to medical school.

For his part, Andrew kept filling out scholarship applications, to reduce the cost for his mother, a research nurse, and his father, an environmental lawyer, who at 63 was nearing retirement age.

A few days later, Stanford admitted a classmate, Kevin Chow, and Andrew got the acceptance from Case Western he had expected. But his mind was on Nataniel Mandelberg, the friend who had gotten a perfect 2400 on his three SATs, a rare feat. The curly-headed boy with the perfect A average wanted to go to Yale. He worked in a Johns Hopkins lab after school, fenced and was a member of two school clubs.

Moments later, Nataniel texted. The result was a blow: He had been deferred. Andrew was incredulous. "Maybe they had some rock star who was really smart. Maybe they had some kid who invented Crocs ... helped cure something in Africa," he said.

In an e-mail later, Nataniel wrote: "Not the end of the world. ... I'll get another shot at it March 31st, and besides, no one has a good shot at a school like Yale."

He would apply to 13 others, including Princeton, Harvard and Stanford, and some more likely to offer him scholarships. He would have to write six to eight long essays and more than a dozen short ones.

A week later, Andrew arrived home from school, flipped open the mailbox and found an envelope from Case Western. At the kitchen counter, he opened it expecting nothing more than a written confirmation of his admission. But the letter began: "Congratulations on your acceptance award of $22,000 a year." He made a mental calculation. His first choice might cost his parents $88,000 more over four years. How could he not reconsider?

On a night with hours of homework and tennis ahead, his real thought was, "Why can't it be winter break already?"

Andrew considered his life. "Sometimes I think to myself. We are missing out on so much of our childhood. Is that really how I want to live my life?" If he didn't have so many activities and so much homework, life might be different. "Maybe I could go out and play that neighborhood football game. When was the last time I played a video game? ... Free time is such an abstract word now."

Andrew's brother, Evan, just one year behind him, decided to take it easier. He makes time to shoot hoops and have fun. "I get by with A's and B's. I am in the top 10th percentile of my class," he said. "I don't think getting into college should be your life."

For those in the high-pressure admissions game, the burden goes beyond classwork. Even well-organized Rebecca Suldan was daunted by the demands of applying to 11 colleges and writing essays intended to reveal a student's cleverness or depth. "There is pressure to create this persona," she said. "You know that you are so much more than your application, and they see this little snapshot."

Will Dix, a former admissions officer at Amherst, is critical of a process that can tempt teenagers to adopt identities too soon. "I felt I kept seeing more and more kids who were consciously constructing selves ... before they knew or had a sense of who they were," he said. "Almost every college admission person will say: 'Just be yourself.' What they really mean is 'Just be someone I would want you to be.' "

Shortly before winter break, Tufts notified the Lutz family that it would offer no financial aid. Helene Lutz was frustrated by what colleges expect. "The value of an education is a very subjective thing, and to be told that you ought to spend everything you have put away on a bachelor's degree is quite a statement."

But she talked about how she felt that Andrew deserved to go where in his heart he wanted to be, even if it meant sacrifices big and small. She and her husband would have to continue working for more years than they expected. She had given up her Starbucks and was avoiding the mall.

By Jan. 15, the deposit was mailed to Tufts, leaving Andrew trying to land a scholarship to ease his feelings of guilt.

The pressure on his friends wouldn't ease until teachers logged in first-semester grades. On Feb. 8, as Rebecca and Andrew opened their report cards, Rebecca gave her friend a high-five. It was the last time perfect grades mattered. "She was ecstatic," Andrew said.

Andrew sometimes second-guessed his decision to narrow the choice to Tufts. "Part of me would like to know whether I could have gotten into a Harvard or a Princeton."

At 5 p.m. March 31, several Ivy League schools simultaneously posted acceptances online. At their home computers, Nataniel and Rebecca messaged Andrew on Facebook, a social networking Web site. As they read the decisions, messages flew back and forth.

Andrew first learned that Yale and Harvard had rejected Nataniel, but Penn and Princeton had said yes. His friend's head was in the clouds, Andrew said.

Rebecca was accepted by Yale and Princeton and wait-listed by Harvard. But there were other rejections and wait-lists, and one Andrew relished. Rebecca had been wait-listed at Tufts. "I feel much better about myself."

The group of eight had gained acceptance to half a dozen elite schools and just as many selective colleges such as Washington University, Carnegie Mellon, Duke and Emory. But financial aid might well determine their September destinations.

Andrew had the fleeting thought of suggesting that they cut school and celebrate their acceptances. But no, the last AP chemistry lab was the next day. They would be synthesizing aspirin. They couldn't miss that.

pikesville high
One of the smallest high schools in Baltimore County, Pikesville has an enrollment of 921, just under 50 percent minority. About 70 percent of seniors enter a four-year college. SAT scores are above the state average, and 36.9 percent of seniors last year had passed one or more AP tests.