Thursday, December 18, 2008

Interviews with Admissions Deans from Yale, Pomona, Lawrence and Texas Austin

Thanks a lot to Mark for sharing this very useful article. To all of you who are applying, this is a great article to read.

December 17, 2008, 4:19 pm

Q&A: College Admissions

For high school seniors scrambling to complete essays, collect recommendation letters and construct well-rounded packages, college application deadlines are looming, in a seemingly inscrutable admissions process.

To get an inside perspective, we solicited advice from some gatekeepers. This week, a panel of admissions deans from Yale University, Pomona College, Lawrence University and the University of Texas at Austin will answer selected reader questions.

But first they answered a set of questions from Times editors, discussing common misperceptions, standardized tests, financial aid, essay writing, fairness and what not to do when trying to make a good impression.

Need more answers? Use the form at the bottom of the page to submit questions or comments.

The Panelists:

Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., which in 2007 had 5,275 undergraduates and 6,083 graduate and professional students.

Bruce Poch, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., which has an enrollment of 1,520 students.

Steven Syverson, Vice President for Enrollment and the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., which has 1,429 full-time undergraduates.

Bruce Walker, Vice Provost and Director of Admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, a public university with 11,000 graduate and 39,000 undergraduate students.

What part of the admissions process is most misunderstood?

Jeff Brenzel of Yale University: It is not well understood that we are not aiming to pick out the best candidate in a particular school or from a particular area, as measured by some predetermined criteria. Rather, we are trying to assemble the most varied and most interesting class we can from an extremely diverse group of close to 25,000 outstanding applicants. We do not aim to compare a student primarily with other students from his or her school; we look instead for students who will bring something of particular value to the entering class.

Second, few people seem to grasp the weight given to various aspects of the application, though this can vary considerably by institution. For us at Yale, for instance, standardized test scores generally do little to differentiate applicants, because virtually all our applicants score very well. Most important to us are the transcript and the school and teacher recommendations, which students can do little to influence once it comes time for an application. We also look closely to see where and how a student has developed talents or engaged the school or community outside the classroom. Essays and interviews round out an application, and we look here mostly to see whether they convey information that enlarges or enhances, while remaining consistent with what we hear from counselors and teachers.

Bruce Poch of Pomona College: Most of it!

As I read admissions-related Web sites and blogs, I am often struck by the mistaken and sometimes troublesome counsel about what matters. Sometimes that advice comes from counselors, sometimes from parents of other students and sometimes from peers rather than from the individual college. Some of that bad counsel relates to questions about what to report or what to conceal.

Grades and scores, the core if not sole basis of decisions at some institutions, may be a much smaller part of an ultimate decision for students applying to a very highly selective institution where most applicants clearly enough "can do the work." Why students chose a particular course of study may matter a great deal to an admissions officer. How they approach a classroom or learning environment may mean more than just the letter grade received in a class.

Students should objectively look at what they have submitted and ask themselves if questions remain unanswered for a reader of that application. Do the essays reflect ideas and personality or just present a report of involvement? Does it sound like the student wrote the essay? Was a change of schools midyear explained or left to the wild imagination of an admissions officer who may read an unanswered question as a signal of danger? Why was a particular extracurricular activity the most important involvement?

Bruce Walker of the University of Texas at Austin: The most misunderstood part of the proces is that colleges have different missions and goals when selecting a class, and that an acceptance or denial will likely be for different reasons across multiple colleges.

Steven Syverson of Lawrence University: We all have our own institutionally idiosyncratic ways of making admission decisions. But the common perception tends to be that all colleges are difficult to get into. The reality is that nearly 90 percent of America's four-year colleges admit more than half their applicants, and with the exception of students who apply only to hyper-selective institutions, most applicants are admitted to one or more of their top choices.

Another misconception is that colleges admit students from the top down, academically, and stop when they have filled their class. The academically outstanding applicants will likely be offered admission, but a substantial portion of the class will be filled with students who are academically qualified, but also have some other characteristic that is attractive to the college (e.g., athletic or musical talent, a parent who attended the college, or a personal or cultural background that is unusual at the college).

And, when a student is denied admission to a college, there is often the presumption that they were not qualified. At highly selective colleges, the reality is that many (perhaps most?) of the denied applicants meet the academic standards for admission, but were not offered admission simply because there was not sufficient capacity to accommodate all academically qualified candidates.

Given that colleges need to admit a certain balance of athletes, legacies, artists, musicians and development-office selections, is it reasonable for people to expect the process to be fair?

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: This really depends upon what is defined as fair. Colleges don't admit all their students just based upon their academic prowess. Each college strives to enroll a class that meets a number of objectives for the college — provide enough athletes to have competitive teams, provide enough musicians who play the right instruments to round out the needs of the orchestra, maintain good relations with alumni donors by enrolling their children, etc. These needs and objectives vary by college and by year. If this year we really need a bassoonist for the orchestra and a point guard for the basketball team, then bassoonists and point guards have an advantage. If next year we need a baseball pitcher and a violist, but have plenty of point guards and bassoonists, then bassoonists and point guards no longer have an advantage. It can be argued that it would be unfair to other members of the orchestra if the admissions office did not enroll a qualified bassoonist if they had the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Walker of Texas: We try to keep the process fair but you have identified some situations where the public believes the process is not fair. This is an extension of the question about what part of the admissions process is most misunderstood.

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Every college aims at putting together a diverse and interesting class, and colleges differ greatly in their institutional priorities. Accomplished students with high aspirations will find a welcome at a broad range and a large number of excellent colleges. Further, it matters far less exactly which of those colleges they attend than it matters how prepared they are to engage the world of opportunities available at any strong college. The fairness issue that concerns me most is not whether well-prepared students will be admitted into good colleges. In this country, they will. The real fairness question is whether poor students have anything like an equal chance to obtain good preparation for college, not to mention access to a means for bearing the cost.

Mr. Poch of Pomona: I reject the conclusion that some of the things on this list are quantifiable or even a "given." At some institutions, legacy interests are specifically excluded from consideration. At some, "development-office selections" do not exist (at Pomona, for example!). At some, coaches get their picks and let the admissions offices know whom to take, and at others, the coach may simply communicate interest in an athlete but will have no direct control over the choices made by the admissions officers.

I know of no place with a specific quota on legacies, artists, musicians or any of the categories listed. In a larger university with a Division I athletic program, typically the size of the institution translates into the athlete entering without displacing the possibility of another student enrolling.

How has the recession affected the admissions process and the availability of financial aid?

Mr. Poch of Pomona: This remains to be seen and there are crosscurrents and contradictory stories coming from across the country and which vary from public to private and large to small institutions. Many colleges are writing to alumni and friends reporting new assumptions for budget planning. Many apparently will freeze hiring or hold salaries to a current level or expect only very modest salary changes. Most conversations I have been privy to reflect serious concern about maintaining student access to their institutions and universities to students across the economic spectrum, whether those institutions are large or small, private or public, well endowed or more modestly endowed. Some colleges made very significant commitments to loan-free aid programs, which are being maintained this year. Many will work to ensure the continuing availability of aid even if other areas of the budget may have to be constrained.

I hope not to hear about colleges cutting need-based aid while preserving merit aid, but acknowledge that's a personal bias, and that some may see this as a survival tool.

What does worry me is some early reporting of smaller numbers of middle- and low-income students submitting applications or submitting aid applications. I do think it will be critically important for students to submit their aid applications before deadlines this year and NOT wait until after an admission offer has been extended. In a year many colleges and universities experiencing a budget crunch, there may be nothing left at the end of an admissions cycle to actually meet their need if it has already been fully committed to those who got things in on time.

Mr. Walker of Texas: We are seeing higher numbers of applicants to public universities than in past years. We will not know the real impact of the recession until families have to pay a deposit and commit to a known cost.

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The support that colleges receive from their endowments is likely to decrease because the values of their endowments have dropped. This may cause some colleges to reduce the level of funding they can provide for financial aid. Other colleges may maintain their commitment to financial aid, or even increase it to assist those families who are in distress. Although it might be difficult to increase the commitment to financial aid at this time, it might be even more problematic for a college to lose enrollment. I suspect that families who can pay the full cost of education will be even more attractive to colleges now than in the past.

There are a number of plausible—and perhaps competing—impacts of these financial uncertainties. For example, it is probably prudent for private colleges (at least) to anticipate a drop in their yield rates, which will mean they need to offer admission to a larger number of students to fill their class. At the same time, some of the private colleges, particularly less selective ones, may see an increase in applications and enrollments as a result of public institutions reducing their enrollments of new students due to cuts in funding from their states. It is likely that we will see an increase in the number of students enrolling at community colleges, though at least one state is discussing reducing its community college enrollment. Typically when the economy is bad, the number of students enrolling in college actually increases because there aren't many jobs available. It is very likely that graduate school enrollments will increase for the same reason. And colleges that offer programs to retrain workers who have been displaced from their jobs are likely to see demand for those programs burgeon.

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Thankfully, it has not affected us at Yale, and President Richard Levin has just reaffirmed in an open letter to the Yale community that preserving our extraordinary financial aid initiatives is our first priority for the immediate future.

In an environment where so many applicants have good grades and test scores, what's the most innovative thing an applicant has done to be appealingly memorable?

Mr. Walker of Texas: Students are being told (my perception that it is mostly by hired counselors) that they need to do something to stand out in the applicant pool. Clever promotional gimmicks will be talked about around the office but seldom, if ever, will the clever promotional gimmick be why a student gets admitted. The best self-promotion is to be an outstanding student.

Mr. Poch of Pomona: What works best is what best and most fully and consistently represents the applicant. Tricks that don't fit the person end up looking like gimmicks, without real substance. The student who years ago sent in a life-size doll who was her "best friend," equipped with a recorded endorsement of the applicant, left the admissions staff feeling like it was in a Twilight Zone episode. Creepy. Don't send brownies, T-shirts or love notes. Just write a good application, choose recommenders well, write a thoughtful, personality-infused essay and if an interview is offered, do it.

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: I resist answering this question directly, because many of us are striving to help make the college search and admission process less stressful for students. Every year the media publish some amusing stories about unusual strategies employed by individual applicants, but I fear this prompts more students to believe that doing some bizarre thing is an appropriate strategy to gain admission to their favored college. We should avoid encouraging that behavior.

Jeff Brenzel of Yale University: We're much less interested in innovative applications than we are in innovative students, who have shown over time the spark of real intellectual curiosity and a real enthusiasm for engaging with peers, schools and communities.

How have you seen applicants shoot themselves in the foot?

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Few of our applicants shoot themselves in the foot. What concerns me more are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission to this or that particular school. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other.

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: It is reasonably common for students to try to impress us with how much they love our particular college, by incorporating a mention of our college into their essay. (For example: "For the past four years, every time I was ready to give up on math, the thought of gaining admission to Lawrence University inspired me to redouble my efforts.") But it is also a not-infrequent experience for them to forget to replace all the mentions of some other college in their essay. Though I doubt that many students are denied admission over such a faux pas, the current ability to "cut and paste" so easily can sometimes come back to haunt students.

It is also particularly imprudent to plagiarize an application essay.

But the most frequent form of self-inflicted damage is careless preparation of the application. In the days of handwritten applications, it might have been poor handwriting. Currently it is simply that they waited until the deadline to finish their essay and complete the remainder of their application, so they are hurried and don't proofread carefully. A poorly presented application can, in fact, have a negative affect on the admission decision.

Mr. Walker of Texas: By creating inconsistencies within the application file. When students attempt to make themselves sound better than they are, the admission officer has to wonder where else the student has stretched the truth.

Mr. Poch of Pomona: See my answer to the previous question!

Do you have any way of getting beyond the persona that a student presents, on paper or in an interview?

Mr. Walker of Texas: A public flagship university with a large applicant pool, and limited time, rarely has the opportunity to get beyond the surface with an applicant's persona. But there will be opportunities for getting to know the student better, such as scholarship competitions, on campus interviews, etc., that can help with this problem.

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: All aspects of the application say something to us. We try to add those things together to see whether we can picture a real, living person, with interesting talents and authentic interests. The information we have is imperfect, our judgments are imperfect, and the time we can spend on evaluation is short. But the process works well enough in general that the great majority of talented, hard-working students find a college where they can thrive.

Mr. Poch of Pomona: A complete application really does reveal a pretty full picture which does penetrate a manufactured persona. If teachers describe what a student is like in their classroom rather than just reporting the grade the student received, we may well get a glimpse into a student's learning style or how they have used and contributed to a classroom. If a student provides a multi-page resume of activities and the teachers barely mention any of the leadership claimed in the activity roster, surely that may raise a question about actual involvement. Transcript performance will be reflected in teacher comments, too. Interviews likely will pick up on themes in the application and may amplify "why" a student has chosen some paths rather than just repeating "what" is on the list. It should all come together.

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We do get beyond the persona that a student presents, but we're not interested in digging into Facebook to do so.

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