Colleges that used to be considered “safety” schools have become more selective as Washington-area schools push and prepare more students to pursue higher education.

“With a certain transcript, kids applying 10 years ago to Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, [University of Virginia], George Mason — they would’ve been safe,” said Jane Strauss, a longtime Fairfax County School Board member.

But now, she said, when she talks to college admissions counselors she asks, “Are you getting more applications? ‘Yes.’ Are the kids better prepared for college? ‘Yes.’ Are you able to be more selective? ‘Yes.’ ”

The competition has helped fuel the awards culture rampant in area schools, where students are seeking out anything to add prestige to their applications.
“Students are looking for ways to distinguish themselves, and high schools seem happy to help because they’re invested in getting their kids into the best colleges and universities,” said Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford University’s education school.

Applications to Stanford are up 20 percent this year, Stipek said, adding that she worries awards have become a part of the admissions numbers game.
It’s a game that most students seem to understand.

“You’re cognizant of the fact that everyone around you is trying to pad his or her resume and trying to get recognition for things that will help them stand out,” said Ben Moskowitz, a 2008 graduate of Montgomery County’s Walter Johnson High School, who just finished his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s really the pressure of knowing that everyone around you is doing it, too.”

But while striving for recognition has ratcheted up stress, Strauss said the increased competition isn’t altogether bad.

“We expect a tremendous amount of these kids, but at the same time, we’ve raised them in an environment where they generally have more confidence in themselves and what they’re capable of, and we probably need that right now,” she said.