On the first period of the first day of his last year of high school, Jeff Sanders bounded up three steps at a time. It was 7:52 a.m., and he was two minutes late for his English elective, Essay Writing for College. Inside room 207, the pile of paperbacks atop a library cart included The College Board Book of Majors, and, on a nearby shelf, the College Handbook reviewed almost four thousand two- and four- year schools.
The essay class was taught by Jeff’s college counselor, Gwyeth Smith Jr., and a popular teacher, Ms. Kathi Reilly, and Mr. Smith wore a white shirt, blue tie, and navy jacket— he dressed up for school, just as he did on fall afternoons when he worked as the scorekeeper at Jeff’s football games. The seventeen seniors in the class settled into chairs around a long conference table.
“Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life,” Mr. Smith announced.
“It will be a roller coaster,” Ms. Reilly added. She was talking about the application process ahead. “You’ll have a lot of highs and lows.”
“And you’ll have fun,” Mr. Smith assured them.
Jeff wasn’t so sure about that. Mr. Smith explained that the course was meant not just to help kids with their essays but also with time management. He’d seen too many youngsters turn in bad applications because they waited until the last minute.
They’d started the course seven years ago to give kids one period a day to consider colleges and write their essays. At first it was a single class that attracted a few curious students; now it was Oyster Bay’s most popular elective, offered by two teachers and several counselors fi ve periods a day to 70 of the school’s 109 seniors. Smith felt the interest refl ected the times as well as the course itself. The college race had become more obsessive than ever.
A couple of air conditioners wheezed from the room’s tall windows, but it was still hot and stuffy. Ms. Reilly asked the kids why they’d decided to take this class when they could have opted for a free first period, and extra sleep.
“I need some guidance,” Jeff said simply.
“I don’t know if I have the diligence to do it on my own,” admitted Lee, a Korean- American boy who many assumed was headed to an Ivy.
“I want to spend quality time with you,” a girl told Ms. Reilly, a popular teacher, to laughter.
Ms. Reilly posed the next question. “How many of you have parentsm who are driving you crazy?” She meant about applications.
Most of the kids raised their hands.
“How many of you describe yourselves as procrastinators?”
This time, everybody raised a hand.
Mr. Smith asked if anyone was applying early to a college. A third of the kids said yes, including Jeff.
By now, the mood in the room had grown somber, so Ms. Reilly asked the kids what they’d done over the summer. Jeff had scooped ice cream, Chelsea had taught kids to sail, and Lee had attended a youth leadership conference that included a trip to Sing Sing prison. A few kids had traveled overseas. Some had been babysitters, camp counselors, and one was a short- order cook.
Mr. Smith liked those answers. He knew too many students who programmed their summers to look good on applications. It was fine to take courses in multivariable calculus, but he also believed in the benefits of busing tables— a bit of normalcy in overpressured young lives.
Ms. Reilly asked the students to describe their admissions hopes and fears. No one mentioned hopes.
“I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown,” said Dominique, an aspiring actress.
Others said they’d never make it through the next few months.
“Trust us,” Ms. Reilly assured them. “We haven’t lost one yet.”
Smitty chose not to tell the kids about all they faced. He knew, for example, that some would be accepted into their first choice, then learn they didn’t get enough aid to afford it. Most of Oyster Bay High’s families were working- and middle- class. Many couldn’t take on big loans or pay fifty- five thousand dollars a year in college costs. Every spring, just before deposits were due at colleges, several families abandoned private school hopes and sent their kids to SUNY, the State University of New York.
Smitty also knew that a few months after these kids at last went to college, he’d get some panicky e- mails from those convinced they’d made the wrong choice. It’s why he always pushed families to make sure of the fit. Switching schools was disruptive and sometimes costly, since colleges rarely awarded transfers as good a financial package.
Smitty realized that money was a big issue this year. He could predict a recession before some economists could. Recently, a father confided he was having trouble making the mortgage. Another canceled his school fund- raiser donations. A family with one son at a private college said the second son would have to go to a state school. These were hard times.
For now, Smitty was focused on a more immediate problem: Jeff Sander’s grades. When they’d discussed colleges in August, Jeff said he liked George Mason University in Virginia, Sacred Heart in Connecticut, and Seton Hall in New Jersey. Most of all, he liked Fordham, and wanted to apply there early.
Smitty was close with Fordham’s vice president for enrollment management, but he knew that wouldn’t help in this case. Jeff’s GPA was 78.1. C- plus. That would not get him in.
Jeff was a jock, but there was a twist that set him apart. As good as he was, as much as he lived for sports, Jeff recognized that getting recruited to play in college is tough, and that many high school stars don’t make the cut. He was able to accept that he wouldn’t, at last not at the highest level, Division I. His main sport was basketball, and he’d worked his heart out at it, but he knew he didn’t have the height or top- tier talent for D- I. Plenty of players are equally thrilled to play at the D- III level, which is highly competitive, but those are mostly smaller schools, like Colorado College, Middlebury, and Denison.
Jeff wanted to major in sports management at a big university, and felt it would help him more to be, say, a manager for a Division I team than a player on D-III. Smitty was impressed that Jeff could put his athlete’s ego second by supporting others from the sidelines instead of being on the court.
But it posed a problem. Now that Jeff wasn’t going to college as an athlete, there would be no coach helping open doors for him at admissions. Jeff would have to rely ever more on his grades and board scores. Pushing them higher would take a superhuman effort in the first two quarters of senior year. Some teachers doubted he could do it. He was known for being distracted in class.
Still, Smitty saw a sign of hope. The boy had taken the SATs with no preparation and gotten 1150— which correlated to a B- plus average at many schools. Jeff was a typical underachiever, strong in activities, weak in class. Smitty had a soft spot for such kids, and he wanted to know why Jeff’s grades didn’t reflect his ability.
As a little boy, Jeff had been known as “the mayor” in his neighborhood because of his ability to win over strangers. In middle school, he began to watch and interview high school basketball players, then write profiles about them for a Web site that tracked athletes. Coaches started to e- mail Jeff with questions about recruits, and a few even called to invite him to dinner, assuming he was a professional sportswriter. His father would take the phone and ask, “Do you know that Jeff is fifteen?” then wait for the silence.
By senior year, Jeff had become a force on campus. He was co-captain of the varsity football and basketball teams, and he played on the tennis team in the spring. Evenings, Jeff worked at an ice cream parlor. Some nights, he volunteered with the fire department, and he was training to become an emergency medical technician.
At one point, he’d even helped get a kid into college. Jeff played basketball on a community team, facing off against a six- feet- six- inch senior who was a standout rebounder. Jeff learned that the boy’s father had died and his mom was addicted to crack. The two became friends, and because of his Web site work, Jeff knew of a Florida community college looking for a player with his skills. Jeff took it upon himself to call the school’s coach, and soon the team had a newly recruited rebounder.
Smitty had come to admire Jeff’s even temper as much as his big heart. mMonths before, Jeff’s beloved seventeen- year- old Buick LeSabre was stolen while he was playing in a basketball tournament. When the police found it on a highway, it had been stripped clean. Even the steering wheel was gone; the only thing left was a basketball trophy in the trunk. Smitty asked Jeff what he planned to do.
“Same as everyone else, I guess. I’m making money to buy another car.”
Like many teenagers, Jeff didn’t talk about everything going on in his life. Smitty had to ask around to learn there was drama in Jeff’s home. An aunt in another state had a drug problem, so her three kids had moved into the house. It was an enormous distraction. Smitty had a feeling it explained the gap between the youngster’s SAT scores and his grades. Jeff could focus on a test in a hushed site, but not on homework in a chaotic house.
Not every college counselor delved into such details, but Smitty felt that learning these secrets, and helping kids cope with them, was the essence of his job at Oyster Bay High.