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April 12, 2009

So you want to go to Harvard?

In today's paper, I write about the saga of a group of talented, ambitious kids at Pikesville High School trying to get into the nation's best colleges. Educators give struggling students a lot of attention and so do newspapers, but I wanted to take a look at the students who are our best and brightest.

In some inner-city schools, we aren't expecting much from students. They graduate barely able to meet minimal standards. Just a few miles away, students are expected to be nearly perfect. It is quite a contrast.

Besides the story, there's a lot of additional material here on the Web site, including a video, a sample SAT quiz and information on getting into the nation's top colleges. Five of the Pikesville seniors write about their experiences here. Please use this blog to comment on what they had to say. I would like to start a conversation among other teenagers and the Pikesville students about the travails of the college admissions process. Parents and teachers, too.   

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:02 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Around the Region


Hi Liz,
This is truly encouraging reporting--thank you for the refreshingly good news.

I do have one concern and a subsequent question: I noticed that none of the profiled students were African American. Is this because the paper did not obtain permission to interview and publish their stories or is it due to something else?

I know there are bright, motivated and hard-working students of color who are also being accepted into prestigious colleges and universities.

It would have been nice to see them represented here as well.

Liz, you fail to mention in your article that many of of these students are "legacy" admits. That is a critical factor in their admission. You have to read their profiles to figure it out.

Dear Liz,
Thanks for your article. As someone who has been through the college process with my kids twice in the last 4 years, I can attest to the stress and hard work that many put into the process. I would however, loved to haveseen a different approach to what is a "Top College." By using almost all Ivy League schools as examples and as measures of swuccess you feed into the narrow and (I believe Flawed perception) that excellent schools are only those few. To paint Tufts as a 'step down' and to have this yopung man feel that he is not completely successful because he has not tested his metal at such an institution perpetuates false perceptions about what are "top schools." At our school some of the top srtudents choose not to apply to the Ivies because they feel they want a smaller liberal art institution or find other selection criteria more compelling. They do not regret not applying nor do they feel they are settling. What I learned personally through our families investigation is that all schools have fabulous things to offer. Many small liberal arts institutions have the same "quality" of applicants and admittees as the Ivies and are considered top schools.
I hope you will consider a future article that will help erducate the public and the students that will support these choices and have them not get sucked into stereotypes.

Wow, right off the bat with the race thing. Don't we all understand at this point that any good story MUST have a white male, white female, black male or female, asian male or female (if no asian male or female available, add another black male or female but the opposite gender or the original black male or female previously mentioned), and one disabled individual (preferably a disabled individual of a minority group not already included), and finally a latino. That is the only way a story should be written or it is just not a story. This writer obviouly did not do their due diligence and should subsequently be terminated after Jesse Jackson leads a march down the streets of Baltimore.

I agree that teachers and newspapers give struggling students a lot of attention and that recognition must be awarded to other students as well.

However, I can't let this go unsaid: ALL of the students are our best and brightest. Some of us--students and adults alike--just haven't recognized it yet, and haven't treated the students accordingly.

This article just underscores how ridiculous this entire process has become. There are hundreds of wonderful schools that are great fits for the vast majority of our students. Enough with the crazy pressure - on the part of the colleges (and their slick marketing machinery), high schools (pushing AP classes), parents (SAT prep classes at 11??) and the students themselves (studying until midnight on a Friday?). And then there's the impact of paying for these elite schools down the road - imagine what the monthly payments on $60K or more of student loans will be (then multiply it times two, and imagine how the young couples of the future will buy houses and raise families). Why not profile some "normal" kids? There are plenty of them around who will be doing the yeoman's work of lifting this country back on its feet. Let's celebrate some of them.

The one thing that these students have in common was a family unit that placed value on education and saw to it that the student had the emotional, physical, and financial support to pursue their goals. How many of the inner city students Liz referred to would be successful with similar support? Quite a few more than one might suppose. I agree that all students are deserving of the best but I also agree that the idea of being accepted to Tufts is a "come down" is ridiculous. I don't think that getting into Yale or Harvard should be the standard for everyone and not going there should not be a black mark on the rest of your life.

Roger E: Thanks for missing my point entirely. Nowhere in my post did I attack the merits of either the article or the author. I was asking a clarifying question.

My point is that Baltimore County Public Schools is now a majority minority school district. At the same time, it has the highest graduation percentage for African American males in the country. Clearly these students attend college as well, right? Surely you can see the benefit of mentioning them as well. Or maybe you can't.

In response to RA's question,

As a student, I know many African American students at Pikesville who were admitted to great schools, including Deep Springs, Dartmouth, Rice etc.

The reason they were not profiled in the article is only because they do not take AP Chemistry.

Eric: Please don't undermine the work that these students have put into this process. As a student who has grown beside this group of five and the rest of the graduating class at Pikesville High School, I can say with complete honesty that a harder-working, more devoted, more intelligent group of students cannot be found. The only real impact that their parents' educations had on their acceptances is the students' drive to reach that same academic level. One of these students has parents who were educated in a different country, and he is now deciding between Ivy League schools. What's his legacy? Had these students not succeeded through the years, these top colleges would have turned the other cheek. They did well on their own, and deserve all the credit that this article gives.

RA: The author chose to profile five students from the very difficult, college-level AP Chemistry course offered at Pikesville. It just so happens that none are African American. Had one or two or all been, they would have been mentioned with no regard to race. As stated, there are African American students who were accepted into top schools such as Dartmouth and Deep Springs (perhaps the most impressive of all), and we are all aware of this. The author did not purposefully exclude any set of students: the African American ones, the Hispanic ones, the ones like me who are going to less prestigious colleges. She did not go around the school saying "find me the smartest white kids." She chose this class, with these students, for reasons as obvious as their notable drive and their level of college admittance. The class would clearly accept African American students, but none chose to take it, and subsequently none were profiled. Don't take everything as an attack; barely anything truly is.

There is more than that ONE admittance window...

Do the majority of your lower division courses and TRANSFER to the "DREAM SCHOOL."

It's not always where you started but who issues the degree in some fields. I've known people that "shopped" for the instructor" over the location as well. Others shop for the program or connections to the "real world."

As far as the "ratings" go... Remember that those are only "snapshots" in time. What worked a year or two ago does not hold water today.

There are a few truths, if you WANT a career in presidential politics there is the need to go to a couple select schools from the start - since it is the "connections" made there, not the classes attended or the grades earned that will make or break.

In response to Eric's legacy comment:

Yes, three of the students were accepted where their parents went. (Stanford, Yale, Penn).
However, no one had family members at Princeton, WashU, Tufts, Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Hopkins, Emory, Barnard, and for another AP Chem student not pictured, Rice...

Perhaps schools do place some weight on legacy, but due to the incredible number of applications submitted this year, I think schools just wanted the top students who will thrive at their schools. The students Ms. Bowie profiled represent that.

Besides, doesn't everyone know that kid whose family back to the colonial times had gone to Harvard and they didn't get in?

I personally feel bad for these kids. We can't blame Liz completely for giving off the idea that Tufts is a "step-down." Andrew says himself that, "Part of me would like to know whether I could have gotten into a Harvard or a Princeton." And then later he says after learning that his friend who had been accepted by Yale and Princeton but had been wait-listed at Tufts that he felt better about himself. Why was he feeling bad in the first place?! Tufts is an absolutely amazing school. It appears to me that Andrew was giving off the idea that Tufts was a step-down, not the author, she just didn't refute it.

Even more, it amazes me how much pressure these kids are put under just to achieve what they appear to be a success. And then how some who end up at a school such as Tufts feel unfilled. High schoolers in general (not profiling these 8 students at all) need to stop letting college dictate their lives and just enjoy high school. Joining twelve clubs is b.s. unless you can legitimately say that you are passionate about all twelve. I think that every college should look at a kid like that and just say, "Well they were in that many clubs just to get into our school." Not, "Gee wiz! This kid is amazing, he is twelve clubs!"

I would take passion over insincerity any day.

Lastly, while kids need to stop letting college dictate their high school careers, colleges need to stop letting the rankings dictate their acceptances. Trends I have seen indicate that colleges are interested only in their rankings no matter what they say. Therefore, they will do anything to paint themselves a better picture. Accept a minority applicant to boost the diversity ranking, accept a genius with no life to boost the schools overall ranking.

Pretty soon all the normal people in the world will be attending community college and realizing the value of an unpretentious education. Some day college is going to be so hard to get into that parents and students alike will realize that the level of education from community college to Harvard is smaller than most people think.

College Bored - I agree with your sentiments. I couldn't have worded it better.

Here here, A BCPSS Senior. Let's be honest. Undergrad is undergrad for 90% of the colleges in the country. You get what you put in. If you want to have a good time, you can do it. If you want to do amazing research, you can do it. Sometimes it takes more effort, but, generally, college is college. I applied to one school, Davidson College, and that's where I went. There were times when I thought that I wondered whether I could have gotten in elsewhere. Those times of wondering, though, are long past as I realize that it just doesn't really matter. Sure there are opportunities and connections to be made, but for the normal college student, you get what you put into the experience.

"I can say with complete honesty that a harder-working, more devoted, more intelligent group of students cannot be found." You have got to be kidding. Kids like this exist in other schools around Maryland. AP chemistry,please. Check out the schools with kids on an IB diploma track.
Admittance to colleges this year was a crap shoot. The same stories could be found at other high schools. I applaud your efforts but you are not "more...harder-working, more devoted, more intelligent group of students" in this state

Bill, it is funny that you went to Davidson College, as that is where I will be attending in the fall. Like Andrew in the article probably feels about Tufts, Davidson is just one of those schools that the average Joe hasn't heard of. It really is too bad. I am sure Andrew has experienced this too, but when telling people where I am going to school next year, a lot of reactions are like, "Huh?! You're going where?" Although Tufts and Davidson don't have the names that the ivies do, they are still amazing schools. And like you said, you all end up in the same place after four years, it is what you make of the experience as a whole. I survived the college process by the motto that a Tulane admissions counselor told me, "There is no such thing as a bad college where you will receive a bad education, there are only bad fits." I believe that to be very true. What we can learn about this whole process is to ignore the name and ranking of the school that you read in periodicals like Newsweek, go in and get your hands a little wet, and find out if the school is really the right school for you. It sounds like Andrew may have done that with Tufts, but has suffered from the lack of name recognition. But in the end he will be better off than those kids that go to Harvard just because of the name, not because it is the right fit.

First, hats off to the commenting students (or those who have identified themselves as such), first for caring enough about education to read this blog, and second, for setting a tone of reason and civility that some other commenters have lacked.

Prestige levels between one school and the next may be a debatable concept, but one thing that I hope we can agree on is that the perceived level of prestige affects the sheer volume of applications. That aspect alone makes the 'prestigious' colleges difficult to get into. The big-name schools have both the luxury and the obligation to be more selective in their acceptances because of this.

That said, prestige doesn't mean to much in my post-high school experience. I've never seen someone get a job because they went to a certain "good" school (though I have seen alumni networking put to good use). Friends that went to the bigger name schools out of high school are no more or less happy with their lives than their peers.

In working for my college's admissions department at college fairs and off-campus interviews, I've found over and over again that what defines success is more about the fit of the student with the culture of the college and FAR less about the name on the sign when you drive up the main path.

BCPSS Senior - That is incredible! Davidson is an awesome place. I couldn't be more satisfied with my college experience. Feel free to email me if you have any questions whatsoever at

I know both some of the kids (by reputation and personally) who both contributed to the article and to the discussion, so I'll try to choose my words prudently, even though there are quite a few of them here.
There are a few "college stories" that I have both experienced and seen with my friends that come to mind when I think about this article. All of them differ in the process, but have the same results… in a way.
My own story lines up pretty well with the ones described in the article. Even though I went to a school where getting into ANY college was considered a success story, because of my privilege (or winning the birth lottery) I had it relatively easy.
I have parents and grandparents with postdoctorate degrees. A number of my friends come from similar families. I have two sisters who are in college. I had the requirements and looks of a good application in mind since I was a freshman. And ultimately, it was expected of me that I would go to college—like the rest of my family. To us, that’s just how the world works. Coming as an IB Diploma Candidate, leader of lots of activities, and an unconventional minority as a White student in a majority Black school, I was told that I had the right qualifications to apply to the Ivies if my scores were good enough. They were, since my parents had forked over the cash to enroll me in BOTH ACT and private SAT tutoring. When it came down to considering schools, I knew that I had as good a shot as any at getting into an Ivy. However, I found that my priorities in a school were forging strong connections with professors, small class sizes and individual attention, intense and noncompetitive pursuit of knowledge, and a socially conscious and active student body committed to putting intellectualism to use in alleviating societal harms. I ended up applying to Swarthmore early decision. Swarthmore's acceptance rates are pretty much as low as the Ivies, but luckily enough, I ended up here at Swat, and so far I’ve been engaged, active, challenged, but most of all, really happy. Do I get as much “credit” as the other students in the article for having the chance at a strong application at the schools they applied to, but eschewing that for a school with the same rigor (our tongue-in-cheek motto is “anywhere else it would have been an A”) but less name recognition?
I have a good friend, a Black male coming from a lower-class neighborhood. His parents never went to college. He studied for the SATs out of the books that our school gave out free. He had to apply for sponsored fly-in trips to visit college campuses. He got the same IB Diploma I got, while working two jobs. And on top of that, he had to factor in financial aid and the prospect of graduating from college in debt, which simply isn’t a problem for me. Despite all of that, he’s at one of the colleges on your list of 14 “top schools”, studying hard, and using the school’s resources for all their worth in order to climb the socioeconomic ladder. He had similar success, but with none of the expectations I had. Is his story “worth” more than mine, because he had less than I did to begin with? Maybe. Does he “win more” at the college game, or get a higher “college success score” than I do?
How about another good friend of mine, who came more dire circumstances? She was kicked out of her house and bounced around different friends’ and family members’ homes all the while having to work two jobs to cover her own expenses. Understandably, her grades weren’t as “competitive” as mine. Until a teacher helped her fill out the applications, she didn’t even consider college a possibility. She was accepted to a local university, certainly one that you wouldn’t call prestigious, and is now engaged in her classes and on track to get a degree in a field of study that interests her immensely. She wasn’t supposed to be in college at all. Does she score higher on the college success scale? Or is her achievement less because she’s not going to Hopkins, but a “lesser” school up the road? What is her “story” worth?
In my mind, I kind of saw the whole college application as one of those boxy video games you find in arcades. Once you get your acceptance letter, the screen flashes “CONGRATULATIONS! GAME OVER!”, and the screen fades to black. Then, there’s a high scores page, with the students you outlined, or at least the three-letter iterations of their names as the top scorers. Will my high admissions score help me get through the 200-page linguistics reading I have for tomorrow? Well, at this point, I’ll use all the help I can get no matter how unlikely.
Here’s the bottom line: going to college and getting into college are entirely different things. The former is a life-altering experience that is an expectation for some and a dream for others, the latter is something that my friends and I giggle about when we shout, “I WIN LIFE!” after comparing SAT scores. If I had’ve thought more about going to college and less about getting in, I would have been much less anxious and a lot more happy.

In reality all any of us really needs is food, shelter, clothing, and health care. We need more individuals to complete trade school instead of college. We need farmers, seamstresses, builders, doctors and nurses, energy efficiency workers, mechanics, plumbers.
Aside from the medical professions, colleges do not provide useful knowledge in order to sustain life. Majors such as accounting, business, history, philosophy, financial services, mathematics, etc. serve no purpose except to perpetuate the false notion that they carry some meaning in a sustainable society.
This notion is false as is being witnessed by the current recession. It was created based on the false premise of a stable and prospering economy.
We need to aspire to meaningful and helpful careers, not selfish and useless ones obtained through the ridiculous fallacy of a college degree.

Certainly don't need engineers and computer scientist to allow people to preach the "simplicity" of life while banging away a computer hooked to the internet with technology that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. While we're at it, let's get rid of the math needed as a basis for the basis of safe electronic transfers on the web (you don't do any on-line banking, bill paying, you?). I could go on, but I've got work to do related to my non-medical college degree - guess it's a waste of time, but it pays the bills.

@NotableM- I concede that the man/woman who invented the wheel- or struck a splint to discover fire- did not need a degree from Yale or Harvard, but you must admit that meaningful and helpful careers can be attained through a college degree.

@a parent and @alrighty then
Mea Culpa. I must sound like such a fool. A college educated one though.


As someone that is constantly caught in the college applications process I cannot help but Identify with these students on the level of stress they feel. However, I do think that there are other schools other than Pikesville High that have students facing more adversity and have less opportunity than those listed in your piece.

I went to Baltimore City College class of 2008, I graduated 12th in my class with straight A's in a Full Honors program. I didn't have the best SATs, but I was involved in the same type of community activities as the pikesville students, while working a part time job since i was 15. I was rejected from every college you can name and wait listed at Davidson College and JHU.

Some of my friends had similar responsibilities towards their family, either working from 5pm-1am and then doing homework, or watching their siblings while their parents went to work. I think the students you highlight in your story have obviously a great deal of pressure on themselves to succeed, but there are students that I know and students that are enduring this process for the first time that truly have a harder time than the featured Pikesville students.

With that said I sincerely hope that the students featured have a great time in college and I wish that they experience a great deal of success. They have worked hard and this is their reward.

Nathan Dize

Good Stuff! Doesn't This looks like an awesome place to begin your academic program! The True Blue Campus at St. Georges University.

yeah thanks for the info but i need to know what degrees i need to get in harvard

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