Is NU a safety school?

Jen Wieczner

For Jena Merl, a senior at Ransom Everglades School in Miami, Northwestern University was a back-up. She applied early to Columbia University in the fall after falling in love with the Manhattan campus. And when she was deferred in December, she “didn’t take it personally.” She regrouped and applied to five other schools, which, in order of preference, were Brown, Georgetown, Barnard, Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania. “I was told these were schools I was qualified enough for,” says Merl, who is near the top of her class and a member of her school’s Cum Laude Society and the National Honor Society, as well as a varsity athlete and the president of her service club. “I have what they say they want.”

But after being rejected by her top three, Merl is deciding between Barnard and NU. Going by the rates, Merl was banking on acceptance from at least one of them. “Northwestern was kind of a school my counselors told me I would likely get in to,” she says. “I put it on there as a school that I’d never been to but knew that I would like. It was at the bottom of the list because I didn’t know that much about it.” Now, to decide between schools that weren’t her first, second, or even third choices, Merl is making “pro” and “con” lists and looking at the internship programs each school has before sending in a deposit in the coming weeks.

In 2006, the number of freshmen attending their first-choice school was at an all-time low since 1988, at 67.3 percent, according to The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2006, an annual report by the University of California, Los Angeles. Traditionally, NU’s student body has included people like Merl who really wanted to go to college elsewhere. While nearly seven out of 10 freshmen across the nation are still at their top pick according to the survey, that may not be true here. “For the kids applying to Northwestern, I’m sure that statistic is lower,” says Michael Mills, associate provost for undergraduate admission. “We’re still more of a safety school for certain types of kids, the nation’s best high school kids.”

As the baby boomers’ children, recent high school classes form a giant of a generation. And unlike their parents, they’ve grown up thinking that going to college is a given. This year’s high school graduating class is the country’s largest ever, and with heightened competition and the increased used of the Common Application, NU received a record 25,027 applications this year – 14 percent more than last year. Over the last three years, applications have increased 54 percent. With so many more applicants, it’s difficult for admissions offices to gauge whether students will accept their offer. In response, universities across the country are waitlisting more students. This way, institutions are able to increase the rate of accepted students who take their spot in a given class, and hopefully, increase their ranking in the vaunted U.S. News and World Report rankings. “More kids right now are on waitlists because the colleges don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Jim Conroy, chair of the post-high school counseling department at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka. “Some kids are going to deposit at more than one school, so they can have more time to make their decision. You’re paying $45,000 for these places, what’s 300 bucks more?”

At Northwestern, a record number of applicants was met with a record number of admissions letters. But due to the size of the pool, Northwestern’s admission rate dipped to 25 percent, an all-time low. Besides accepting more, NU waitlisted 300 more applicants than last year to adjust for this margin of unknown. “The game isn’t over yet,” Conroy says. “This is a saga that really isn’t going to end until June or July.”

Not everyone can wait. “I really wanted to go to NYU but I got waitlisted there, and I can’t make multiple deposits,” says Maxine Wally, a senior at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., who settled on the University of California, Irvine after Boston University denied her any financial aid. None of those schools were Wally’s first choice – Northwestern was. She applied here early decision but was rejected. “I was super bummed out at first,” she says. On paper, she was qualified. “I looked at the stuff they gave to Collegeboard.com, I compared my information, and I matched up pretty well,” says Wally, who had a 3.75 unweighted GPA and an SAT score of 2000. “I’m right there in the middle range,” she says, adding that the people NU ended up accepting from her school this year were in the top 4 percent of her class. “Basically they have perfect GPAs plus APs,” she says. “When I saw who was getting in and who was getting denied, I was like, ‘Wow, how am I going to run up against these people?’ They are just not on my level. I feel like their intellect is just on a different level.”

Many seniors are facing that reality. Barred by their dream schools, waitlisted at their second choices, students are finding that getting into college is becoming increasingly uncertain. Adam Sege, a senior at Brookline High School in Massachusetts, only got into three of the 10 schools to which he applied. With a high GPA, SAT scores above 700 across the board, and a position as editor in chief of his high school newspaper, he applied early to Columbia and was deferred. NU and Brown were close seconds on his list, and after being rejected by the Ivies, Sege signed up to be a Wildcat. “I feel pretty lucky to get into Northwestern, so I can’t really complain at all,” Sege says.

As the most elite schools close out more high schoolers than ever, statistics have already started to change for NU. The highest-ranking Ivies all had record-low admission rates this year, the most selective in the history of those institutions. Harvard took only 7.1 percent of applicants, while Yale accepted 8.3 percent and Princeton admitted 9.25 percent. While NU may enroll some of the leftovers – especially because Harvard, Yale and others got rid of their early admission programs, driving applicants here – scooping up the best of the spillover starts a sequence of events that leads to positive results for the school. “All of our faith is in the notion that stronger students will equal lots of good outcomes for Northwestern,” Mills says. “It’s just a win-win all the way around.” By the numbers, NU is already getting smarter. With the class of 2011, NU’s average SAT score jumped 21 points to 1422. The entering class averages will probably be even higher, Mills says. These higher scores attract more students wanting to go to an elite school. And more students applying lowers admissions rates, which, in turn, makes NU seem more elite.

This is no coincidence – the staff in the admissions office has been working to effect this change for years. When Mills took his post in the admissions office three years ago, he wanted to know “exactly who our competition was.” He looked at data from the National Student Clearinghouse that tracks where individuals enroll and found that students were regularly turning down NU for Duke and UPenn.

Then, Mills set about making NU harder to get into. “That’s the one yard stick (that is used) more than any other to gauge how good a school is,” he says. “The higher your acceptance rate, the more difficult it is to persuade a really top students and her parents that this is the school for them.” To attract more applicants, the school has been trying to increase name recognition and reaching out to high school guidance counselors by bringing them to campus. The greatest increase in applications, though, came when NU switched to the Common Application for freshmen entering in Fall 2007. With this came an unexpected influx of more elite applicants. “We had so many more of these highly qualified students in our admitted pool than we ever had before,” Mills says. “There was this group of kids around the country that weren’t applying to Northwestern for no other reason than we weren’t using the Common App.”

So far, the changes seem to be working. Since 200
0, NU has seen its admission rate drop from 35 percent to just over 25 now. “It’s an improvement,” Mills says. “If you call rejecting more kids an improvement.” But not all schools are getting harder to get into, and changes in acceptance rates can influence perceptions dramatically. “There is a relatively small group of schools that are really at the high-end academically,” says Todd Johnson, owner of College Admissions Partners, a company that counsels students in the application process based in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “The odds are better at Northwestern because it’s got a little more admissions acceptance.” When you lower those odds, applicants eligible to shoot for the best flock in.

As far as acceptance rates go, it is hard to pin down what tier NU is on. On the list of America’s Best Colleges published annually by U.S. News & World Report, it has dropped farther from the top ten in recent years, bobbing with some of the Ivies, this year tying with Brown and Johns Hopkins in 14th place. “The biggest problem Northwestern has is the same problem that the other top Midwestern schools have, and that is location,” says Johnson, who says he still considers NU to be top-tier. “Kids won’t consider the Midwest.”

But for some, the fact that NU isn’t an elite coastal school adds to its appeal. Lauren Sachar, a senior at Newton South High School in Massachusetts, never really wanted to go to an Ivy League school. She applied to a few to appease her parents, then looked elsewhere to make her list. “There were a lot of Northwestern level-ish places,” says Sachar, who was also accepted by Wesleyan, Tufts, Emory and Washington University. “I didn’t half-ass anything,” she says of filling out all the applications. “There was absolutely no guarantee that I would get in.” As the rates continue to drop, more students applying to NU will have to learn what Sachar knew. “When you get below 30 percent you see some strange things happen,” Johnson says of acceptance rates. “Do you get Ivy League rejects? Absolutely. Do you get kids who would have done well in the Ivy League? Absolutely … or they wouldn’t have gotten into Northwestern.”