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An alternative route into a top-pick school

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Katie Newhouse didn't know quite what she was looking at when she opened the envelope from New York University last spring. Was it a rejection letter, or an invitation?

The Bostonian had her heart set on NYU, her mother's alma mater. And when its College of Arts and Sciences rejected her application, all was not lost. She'd be welcome, the letter said, to enter NYU's General Studies Program (GSP) instead.

The challenging two-year, liberal-arts program is centered on a "great books" curriculum and on writing instruction. If students do well in this proving ground (earning at least a 2.5 grade-point average), they can automatically transfer into the College of Arts and Sciences, or reapply to one of NYU's 11 other colleges.

For a university that receives about 30,000 applications a year, it's a convenient way to maintain a pool of well-qualified students to fill the spaces left by those who inevitably drop out. Tuition for the program is the same as for the colleges.

Though they sometimes feel as if they're battling a second-class stigma among their university peers, the 650 students admitted into GSP each year have strong academic records and represent the top 3 percent of the 21,000 applicants who are denied regular admission. Their average SAT score is about 1240, and most were A-minus or B-plus students in high school.

"You're looking at a very good student," says Steve Curry, GSP's associate dean. "Students who are admitted to hundreds of other universities, but who pick NYU as their first choice."

When universities began experiencing overwhelming growth 30 years ago, many responded by developing general-studies programs as a form of alternative admissions.

At NYU, the program originated in the 1970s, when the School of Continuing and Professional Studies decided to extend its adult-ed "great books" curriculum to include the traditional 18-year-old cohort.

Focusing on Western civilization's classics (according to a list published by the University of Chicago), it "gets students thinking about large-scale social and personal issues," Mr. Curry says. The curriculum gives students a familiarity with the building blocks of modern culture.

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