Community college student Colby Seymore has gone online 26 times in the last three weeks, begging other students to rate his chances of transfer to UCLA or UC Berkeley.
With admission decisions from top institutions due in coming weeks, Seymore’s chat room postings have become increasingly panicked: “I am antsy and have to know!! HELP?” and “I have the right grades . . . right?”
In a twist on the college admissions frenzy, thousands of students like Seymore are putting their test scores, grade-point averages and other stats on college discussion websites, hoping their peers will reassure them they’re on their way to their dream schools. Many students already get most of their admissions tips online and say these “chance me” postings are a good way to blow off steam and to connect with other people in the same state of anticipatory freak-out.
But college counselors and admissions officers say some of the odds-making is laughably wrong. And some students are so tough on each other, they end up hurting instead of helping their peers at a particularly vulnerable time.
“It reminds me of the bar scene in the first ‘Star Wars’ movie,” said Richard H.Shaw, director of admissions at Stanford University. “It’s uncontrollable.”
Websites where students can test their college chances include Yahoo Answers, City-Data.com and Mychances.net.
The most popular place for students to post their credentials is a discussion board called “What Are My Chances?” on the for-profit website CollegeConfidential. Roger Dooley, who co-founded the website in 2001, said it helps talented students without much support learn the ropes. Many on the site are trying to learn the secrets of getting into such elite universities as Harvard, MIT and Stanford, which draw enough “perfect” applicants to fill several classes of freshmen, he said.
“It’s really unfortunate, but every year students apply to four or five Ivy Leagues after their teachers tell them, ‘You’re the best student we’ve had in years,’ ” Dooley said. “And at the end of the process, they have no admissions.”
Students’ postings are written in a ritualized vernacular: “Chance me, I’ll chance you back.” Clubs, sports, volunteer work and leadership positions are “ECs” -- extracurricular activities. A “match” is a good bet, a “safety” is a fallback, a “reach” is a stretch -- but a “hook” could get you in.
The biggest rap against the “chance me” game is its over-reliance on numbers: test scores, grade-point averages and Advanced Placement course totals.
Stanford’s Shaw, like others, said college admission is an art, with a holistic approach that takes into account the whole student.
“With highly selective colleges, they’re making decisions in the context of all the applicants and the entire application,” said Timothy Brunold, director of undergraduate admissions at USC.
Some students who ask for a chance exaggerate their credentials. Others offer precise numerical predictions that no one could possibly know.
“The thing that worries me is that they are more frequently turning to each other and less frequently turning to someone who can actually answer the question,” said Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College. “Some of them are getting false encouragement, some are getting a little ego massage, [but] they aren’t necessarily getting an answer.”
Michael Tubbs, 18, the son of a teenage mother and a father who is in prison, racked up top grades and test scores -- except for a relatively low SAT math mark -- at a Stockton high school that pointed good students mainly toward UC schools. He was also student body president, a motivational speaker and chairman of a youth advisory commission.
He began using the CollegeConfidential site 18 months ago as a way to determine if he was on the right track to a top school. He was sorely discouraged by other students; a couple basically told him his only hope lay in the fact that he is black.
Carolyn Lawrence, an independent-college counselor based in San Diego County, spotted the Tubbs thread on CollegeConfidential and helped steer him to several exclusive universities, including Stanford, where he is now a freshman.
“I talked to my admissions officer, she said almost no one had ever come from my school -- white, black or purple,” Tubbs said. “Coming from such a low-income background, she was impressed by how I used the resources available to me.”
Some Asian students are told they’ll have to work harder because so many of them are high achievers; one Latino student was applauded for his ethnic “hook.”
“The ethnicity thing is a big firebomb,” said Karl Bunday, a volunteer moderator on CollegeConfidential.
Brunold and Shaw said college officials occasionally go on “chance me” sites or e-mail students to correct egregious errors. But the task is Sisyphean.
Though many students offer encouragement on the sites, others are dripping with scorn. Grades and scores that would make the average admissions officer pant are dismissed peremptorily.
“Whoa, whoa,” a person using the screen name “Beef Supreme” said last week. “The two above posters think this guy has a chance? He’s top 30% of his class, that won’t cut it for Stanford. You have a better chance of being struck by a meteorite than getting in, unless you have some ridiculous hook.”
He also dismissed 16-year-old Jimmy Blanchard’s chances at MIT, Berkeley and Caltech, despite the Michigan student’s six Advanced Placement courses, 3.8 grade-point average and top 20% class ranking.
“Your GPA is way too low, especially considering your class rank, your scores aren’t there, I see nothing in your ECs,” he said. (Beef Supreme, in an e-mail, declined to give his real name but said he was being realistic rather than overly harsh.)
Bunday, a home-school advocate in Minnesota, said he became a moderator on CollegeConfidential largely to counter posters’ negativity. He also screens for spam and taste violations and disruptive posters.
“The posts are too pessimistic. People seem to enjoy running down a student’s chances,” he said. “It’s like trash-talking before the basketball game, to psych the guy out. . . . Most people are going to get their egos bruised if they go on there.”
Most students, however, say they take the negative pronouncements in stride.
“It really does help relieve some of the stress, at least for me,” Blanchard said.
“Honestly, it’s definitely one more way to obsess about things,” said Seymore, a 19-year-old Orange Coast College student. “I am going crazy lately waiting.”
Even as members of the high school class of 2009 await their fate, other college aspirants are pouring out their hopes and fears online.
“It provides really good information,” said Rehan Bholat, a junior at North High School in Torrance whose goal is to attend USC or Dartmouth. Bholat said he has seen some of the attack postings, “but if you say you have a 3.2 GPA and below-average SATs, you’re asking for it.”
For the high-flying students who play “chance me,” it’s not always the criticism that rubs. Phi Nguyen, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, posted SATs of 2100, a 3.85 grade-point average and such extracurricular activities as Boy Scouts, wrestling and badminton. His peers responded that he was the typical Ivy League applicant.
“To be considered typical, you’re not, like, amazing, well . . . " Nguyen said. “You strive to be unique and special. Typical is, like, you’re just average.”