College Hunt Starts Earlier at New Breed of Schools

At Avenues, a for-profit school scheduled to open this fall in Chelsea, college counseling will begin with students in ninth grade. Similarly, Léman Manhattan, a for-profit school downtown, starts the formal college search process with its freshmen; in addition, seventh- and eighth-grade students can visit campuses on a three-day trip in the spring.

But at the Trinity School and Ethical Culture Fieldston School, two elite private schools, the college planning process does not get under way until 11th grade, a tradition administrators actively work to preserve. To begin any earlier, they say, would put undue pressure on students.

Established nonprofit private schools and new for-profit ones are taking divergent approaches to a question that vexes almost every parent and student headed into the college admissions thicket: Is it better to get a jump on the process but risk turning high school into a staging ground for college admission? Or is it preferable to start later, when students are more developmentally prepared but perhaps missing opportunities to plan hobbies, choose classes and secure summer internships?

That question has special importance for current juniors, as they begin to narrow their list of top choices and plan for college admissions testing.

Gardner P. Dunnan, head of the upper school at Avenues and the former head of the Dalton School and the School at Columbia University, is a proponent of beginning early. “I believe the process should start in the ninth grade in terms of really thoughtful planning of the high school career,” he said. An early start, he said, allows students to focus on an area of mastery — a critical tenet of the Avenues curriculum — and showcase that for colleges.

“In addition to being good education, it’s the best way to capture the interest of colleges,” he said.

Larry Momo, head of college counseling at Trinity, said his school took a different approach. “We don’t want to turn high school into a staging ground for the college admission process,” he said. High school should not be about résumé building, he said, but rather “allowing kids to develop their natural talents and inclinations and support those inclinations.”

Laura Clark, director of college counseling at the Fieldston School, is in the same camp. “If you start talking to freshmen or sophomores about college, they are not ready to leave home yet, and so will concentrate on the selectivity of the process and issues of competition rather than on actually going to college,” she said.

Competition for seats at elite institutions has never been higher. Nearly 35,000 students applied to Harvard in 2011, for example, up 15 percent from 2010, and only 6.2 percent were accepted.

The pressure students feel when confronted with such statistics, and the college prep industry that has sprung up around the process, has resulted in a toxic cocktail — teenagers, frequent deadlines and multiple sets of high expectations. Many families turn to independent college counselors to act as a go-between and ease the tension.

Some use them because they feel the schools wait too long. One Fieldston parent hired an independent counselor when her daughter was in ninth grade. “I don’t want to find out she should have taken a certain class after it’s too late,” she said, asking that her name be withheld lest her daughter get less attention from the college counselors.

Mark Speyer, head of college counseling at Columbia Grammar and Prep, said he got some good advice from his predecessor when he started in the college counseling business 25 years ago. “People go crazy with the process from the middle of junior year to the middle of senior year,” the mentor told him. “You will be under pressure to lengthen the process and increase the torment by starting earlier. Resist it.”

For the most part, Mr. Speyer has stuck to the advice. But about seven years ago, Columbia Grammar initiated a meeting in April with parents of 10th graders to talk about testing. Then the process formally begins in the spring of junior year, when all of the students — 120 this year — board a bus for a two-day visit to several college campuses.

Last year, Brooklyn Friends School also moved the process back to 10th grade, but with meetings with students and parents that include the head of college counseling, the head of the upper school and the head of school, Larry Weiss.

Mr. Weiss said the meeting was a midpoint assessment to look at a student’s academics and extracurricular activities. But they also talk about the school’s timeline for the college process.

The impetus, he said, came from colleges’ increasing focus on summer activities. “If you wait until junior year, the chance is past,” Mr. Weiss said. He also noticed that in 10th grade, students and their parents still tended to be on good terms; less so by junior year.

If some of the city’s traditional schools are reluctant to move the starting line back significantly, the new schools popping up throughout Manhattan — almost all for-profit ventures — embrace the opportunity to start early.

Léman Manhattan, for example, is owned by Meritas, a group of for-profit kindergarten-to-12th-grade schools. The Meritas approach, said Drew Alexander, head of Léman, is to start as early as sixth grade.


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