Tanner McArdle earned a perfect 36 on his ACT college entrance exam. His grade-point average exceeds 4.1. He ran varsity cross county and plays in the orchestra at Anoka High School. He volunteers for two food shelves. He's "the complete package," his principal says.

But it wasn't enough to get him into his first college choice: Stanford.

"It floored me," Anoka High Principal Mike Farley said. "He's at the top of his class and can't get in? Are you joking me?"

It's no joke. Record numbers of applicants at many colleges have raised the bar for admissions and forced high school counselors and students to re-evaluate the application process. This year's high school seniors — many still deciding where they will attend college — have learned that a powerful personal essay may trump outstanding Advanced Placement grades, that strong character may be as impressive as eye-popping college-board scores. It's about aptitude plus attitude.

Across the Twin Cities and beyond, college admissions are a source of confusion, frustration and, sometimes, pleasant surprises for students, parents and high school guidance counselors. But this much seems clear: There are few guarantees for even the most promising high school seniors and fewer experts who can explain why Stanford says no and Yale says yes to the same student.

A Stanford admissions official said the university considers college board scores, grades, the difficulty of courses, extracurricular activities and achievement outside of school. But it's the personal essay that differentiates one top student from the next, she said. Princeton asks applicants to "tell us your story. Show us what's special about you."

"What's the hook?" asks Phil Trout, the college counselor at Minnetonka High School and former president of the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling.

"What is the compelling piece that is going to push this student's folder right off the desk and into a pile labeled 'admit?' "

St. Louis Park senior Sarah Brandt, who achieved a 34 on her ACT and a 4.0 GPA, was rejected by Stanford but is convinced that two essays helped get her into Yale, where she will enroll this fall. Brandt literally put a lot of sweat into one essay — writing humorously about "how I have a perspiration problem." A second essay dealt with the emotional pain of having written obituaries about personal acquaintances for her high school newspaper.

"One essay showed my serious side, and the other was a silly topic," she said. "I'm guessing Yale doesn't get a lot of essays about perspiration."

Kangqiao Peng, the top-ranked student in Bloomington Jefferson's senior class, says the essay he wrote for the University of Chicago was by far his best, and that's where he's headed this fall. But Yale was his top choice, and he thinks a "rushed" essay doomed his application.

"I kind of forgot about it until the deadline, and I paid the price," said Peng, who says he also was accepted at Dartmouth, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was rejected by Harvard and wait-listed at Duke.

"It's a crapshoot, and I lucked out because I got into some pretty good schools," he said. "But everyone applying to top schools has pretty good grades and pretty ridiculous standardized scores. So what's the determining factor? I think what they look for is character. How do you define that?"

Keeping tabs on colleges

How, Trout asks, do you explain to parents who graduated from the University of Minnesota that their son or daughter needed at least a grade-point average of 3.5, maybe a 3.7, to be considered for certain colleges within the university? A guidance counselor needs to closely monitor what are historically the most popular colleges and universities among applicants — from Minnesota and Wisconsin to Normandale Community College to the Ivy League schools.

Trout recently visited the University of Chicago, which had 24,000 applicants two years ago. This year, it had 30,000, Trout said. But not every high school is able to relay that kind of information to its students. Minnesota ranks 47th in the ratio of high school students to counselors, Trout said.

Stanford had a school record 38,828 applications this year and will admit 1,700 freshmen, including legacy applicants and scholarship athletes. Minneapolis attorney Fred Bruno, a Stanford alumnus and local recruiter for the school, said Stanford could completely fill its freshman class with valedictorians.

"When I meet with an applicant, I look for interaction, for presence," Bruno said. "We assume they have huge credentials. I don't even ask them about grades. We're looking at the human side of these kids."

Joan O'Connell, guidance counselor at Cretin-Derham Hall, tells top students, "You have the numbers, credentials, activities and scores to be a viable applicant. What about community service?" Jonny Nicholson, director of college counseling at the Breck School, urges students interested in elite colleges to seek early admission — because that's where he says some admittance offices find half of their class selections, with the wait-list earning most of the remaining openings.

When parents ask how they can enhance their children's chances of landing at an Ivy League school, Hopkins counselor Jean Davidson tells them jokingly to "move to South Dakota or Wyoming, where there are fewer people and less competition to possibly fill a quota." She tells them that some elite colleges, which recruit internationally, will take only so many students from Minnesota.

In Tanner McArdle's case, he appeared to do everything right. He applied to Stanford early. He took the right courses — earning perfect 5's in his four Advance Placement class exams. When he earned a 34 on the ACT exam, he heeded the suggestion of Colleen Neary, career and college specialist at Anoka High School, and took the ACT again — earning his perfect score. Last summer, he attended Boys State, the prestigious educational and governmental instruction program. And he's personable.

"He's well-rounded," Neary said. "He's not a nerd."

McArdle, wait-listed at Brown and Washington University in St. Louis, said despite strong letters of recommendation he knew admittance to Stanford "would be a crapshoot." On Dec. 15, his dream evaporated via e-mail.

He was admitted to Vanderbilt and offered a substantial scholarship, but one that he said won't cover enough of his bills. He also was accepted at Wisconsin but plans to attend the University of Minnesota and major in biomedical engineering — unless Brown calls with an irresistible offer.

"I'm happy," he said. "If I had it to do all over again, maybe I would have gotten more involved in projects outside of school earlier, like ninth grade.

"My grades and test scores? There's not much I could have done about those."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419