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.
"In high school you read Plato and the teacher tells you what it means. In General Studies, you interpret Plato for yourself," Ms. Newhouse says, sitting on a park bench reading about Latin America for a course that broadens the curriculum by focusing on non-Western civilizations.
The students' first year at NYU is spent completing liberal-arts requirements. GSP classes are kept small, and are all taught by faculty rather than graduate assistants.
The sophomore year is more flexible, with the option of taking classes from different colleges before declaring a major.
"It's important for undergrads to be able to try different things," Curry says.
Because GSP students often have to work harder to prove themselves, many believe they have a leg up on other students when they transfer for their last two years. Anthropology major Marc Kissel says he was shocked to find his workload lessened when he entered the College of Arts and Sciences.
For some, it's not so much the curriculum that makes them choose NYU's program over regular admission to another university, but simply the school itself, and its location.
Tiffany Bagster, now an NYU senior, was accepted to Boston University, Holy Cross, and Vassar, but still accepted NYU's GSP offer.
"In the end, it was the city," she says. "Coming from a small town in Massachusetts and a graduating class of 90 students, I knew NYU would mean a complete lifestyle change, not just an education."
But once she got into the program, its approach won her heart. Ms. Bagster took to the curriculum so much that an instructor encouraged her to continue along the same lines by transferring to the Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, where she's now studying English and creative writing. When she graduates this spring, she plans to pursue television writing in Los Angeles.
The only gripe students seem to have with the program is that they are limited to four courses each semester for the first year. But even that perspective can shift.
"At first, I didn't like general studies," Mr. Kissel says, "I didn't think it was flexible, but in the end it gave me the flexibility to choose anthropology, which I hadn't even considered before."