JOHN MERROW: Amherst College, nestled in the hills of western Massachusetts, was founded in 1821. It's one of the nation's most prestigious colleges. This year, more than 5,400 of the best and brightest students competed for just 423 places in the freshman class. Among the applicants this year is Sharlene Brown, a senior at Dewitt Clinton High School in New York City.
SHARLENE BROWN: Amherst is my first choice. They accept the best students, and I feel I want to be a part of those best students that they accept.
JOHN MERROW: Sharlene, who has a straight-A average and high SAT scores, hopes to be the first member of her family to graduate from college. Ruben Harris, another Amherst applicant, is also at Dewitt Clinton. He's a straight-A student and starting quarterback on the football team.
JOHN MERROW: Do you have an advantage applying because you're an athlete?
RUBIN HARRIS: When you go to school, you can contribute academically. But if you can contribute both academically and athletically, it's a big advantage.
JOHN MERROW: And Aiden Redmond is a senior at Fordham Prep, a private school in New York City. Aidan is what colleges call a legacy. His mother is a graduate of Amherst, and also served on the board of trustees.
AIDEN REDMOND: Amherst is the one I really want to go to.
JOHN MERROW: First choice?
AIDEN REDMOND: Yeah.
JOHN MERROW: The competition to get into elite private colleges like Amherst is fierce. Amherst has been ranked the best small liberal arts college in the country nine times in the last 20 years. It turns down more than 80 percent of applicants. So who gets into Amherst, and why?
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: We start with Sharlene Brown, who is number two in the class. She has a 97.2 unweighted GPA. Her senior grades are excellent.
JOHN MERROW: Amherst let us look inside the admissions process to find out how it weighs grades, SAT scores, athletics, family connections and other factors. The process began in the fall. Every application was read at least twice. By the time the 11-member admissions committee met in March, they'd already eliminated half the applicants.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: He plays the alto sax. He plays the baritone sax. He's in the wind ensemble.
JOHN MERROW: They discussed the remaining 2,700 candidates in these two rooms.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Julie has had an interesting taste of consensus governing.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: His drive is astonishing, but in a wonderful way.
JOHN MERROW: It's around this table that Tom Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid, and several of his colleagues make the tough decisions.
How difficult is it to put together a freshman class?
TOM PARKER: It's enormously difficult. We're a small school. There are going to be 423 people entering. And we have the ambitions of a large university.
JOHN MERROW: After review, an applicant's future comes down to a simple vote.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Any more questions? We're going to vote. Accept?
JOHN MERROW: The community considers each applicant's situation.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: He's a National Merit semi-finalist, AP scholar, class president, managing editor for the Classics Magazine.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: The reading essay is easily the best I've read this year. He may also be a finalist for the classics scholarship here.
JOHN MERROW: Just when things were looking up, the committee came across a problem. The student's grades had slipped in one semester back in tenth grade.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: When I was reading it, I saw, you know, okay, so he had a slump. I was thinking a "B" or two, or, you know, even just "B" pluses. But it's pretty much he went down as far as "B- minuses." I think there were three of them.
TOM PARKER: I spoke with the counselor, and he just said that he was under tremendous parental pressure.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Okay. Questions? Anything else you want to know? Accept? Two? Hover? One, two, three.
JOHN MERROW: By voting "hover," the committee was electing to revisit this student's application. In the end, he was wait-listed.
TOM PARKER: I think that was a bad decision. I do. And I bet that there are some that maybe I didn't vote for, and some people could say, well, he didn't vote the way I would have.
JOHN MERROW: Is there one characteristic that would make a student a shoo-in at Amherst?
TOM PARKER: Yes. I think where you just say, I can see the kid sitting in the seminar with his hand up, just shining.
JOHN MERROW: Is there one characteristic that would make a student an automatic rejection?
TOM PARKER: It would be bad grades. I think that's the killer.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: 94.4 weighted GPA. She got a 67 in math for the second semester.
JOHN MERROW: How important are extracurricular activities?
TOM PARKER: At a small residential college like this, very. The life of the place, in many respects, springs from the willingness of students to do things other than study.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: She plays the violin. She was a model U.N. at Eunice. She was -- or she is in student government. She's on the editorial board for the lit mag. She's editor of the newspaper. She's founder and president of the community service club.
JOHN MERROW: So extracurricular activities are essential. What about SAT scores?
TOM PARKER: SAT scores are important if you are a person who has had a lot of opportunities in your life. For people who have had fewer opportunities, SAT's are going to be less important for that person.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: His home language is Spanish. His mother is a housewife. His father is a handyman. Brian has used his failure to be admitted to two other independent schools because of low testing and the constant vision of his father working himself to death to drive himself to achieve.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: He's doing everything he can.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: He's doing everything he can. I mean, clearly testing is not his strength, but...
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Okay. Any more questions?
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Let's vote. Accept?
TOM PARKER: If you tie admission strictly to S.A.T. scores, you're going to end up with a very wealthy student body.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: They live in a tiny studio apartment, and Victoria must wake up in the middle of the night sometimes to have any peace to do her homework. What an amazing girl.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: That's amazing that some of these kids can do so well, coming from such a limited background. You know?
JOHN MERROW: How important is race in getting into Amherst?
TOM PARKER: We would love to be not conscious of race for a whole number of reasons, but we are conscious of race -- race in the context of other factors.
JOHN MERROW: Up until 1975, Amherst was all-male and virtually all-white. Today the school is half female, and one-third of its students are non-white. Amherst is expensive, about $40,000 a year, but half the students receive financial aid. The average financial aid package is $28,000 a year.
TOM PARKER: We give out, you know, tens of millions of dollars of financial aid a year. All of that comes out of the generosity of our alumni. We have an endowment of close to $1 billion that allows us to have half of our kids on financial aid.
JOHN MERROW: Does the alumni office tell you, hey, this candidate's mother or father has given a lot of money to Amherst?
TOM PARKER: Sure. I mean, I think that's something that's going to be the case anywhere. Yeah.
JOHN MERROW: Is that a factor in your decision?
TOM PARKER: Yeah, it's one of several.
JOHN MERROW: It also helps to be a legacy. This year, 3 percent of the applicants had close relatives who graduated from Amherst.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: The reason we're discussing her, with those scores, is because her sister Christina is a student here.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Is wonderful.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: And is wonderful.
JOHN MERROW: In the end, Amherst accepted half the legacies. That's 6 percent of next year's freshman class. Other applicants have an advantage, as well. Amherst reserves 15 percent of the spots in the incoming class for athletes. You set aside places for athletes.
TOM PARKER: We do.
JOHN MERROW: How many?
TOM PARKER: 65 in each class.
JOHN MERROW: Does an athlete have to meet the same standards that other candidates do?
TOM PARKER: Sure. I mean, if you look at the average S.A.T. Scores of our athletes, of our varsity athletes, they're over 1400.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Angela is an accomplished lacrosse player, and so, that may prove a hook.
JOHN MERROW: Would you say that this is a fair process?
TOM PARKER: It's as far fair as we can make it, but we're thoroughly aware of the flaws in it and the degree to which we're making judgments that are open to interpretation.
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Accept? Hover? Wait list?
TOM PARKER: Sometimes those decisions that you make are based on such tiny distinctions that you wonder if somebody had presented a candidate slightly differently, whether your vote, your hand would have gone up or remained down.
JOHN MERROW: At the end of March, Amherst sent out 1,034 acceptance letters. And then the tables turned. All of a sudden, Amherst finds itself competing for students. What colleges do you lose students to?
TOM PARKER: It's a relatively small group, and it's Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Swarthmore, Williams, Dartmouth, Duke, Colombia. Those are the schools with whom we compete.
JOHN MERROW: Is it frustrating that you accept 1,000, and more than half of them are going to say no to you?
TOM PARKER: Oh, sure. Yeah, I mean, I have to laugh about it. In a certain sense, I call it the day of the great reversal, which is, you've been judging people, you know, for all these years, and now it's your turn to be judged.
JOHN MERROW: Remember Sharlene Brown?
SHARLENE BROWN: Yeah!
JOHN MERROW: Amherst accepted her, but so did Harvard, where she'll be going in the fall. As for Aiden Redmond, despite his family connection, he was wait listed, and will be going to Providence College. And Ruben Harris, the star quarterback?
TOM PARKER: And we missed out on Ruben Harris, who was my favorite. He's going to Yale.
JOHN MERROW: Of the 1,034 accepted by Amherst, 393 said yes. Amherst then took 30 more applicants from the waiting list.