The College Admissions Process II

As I continue my tour through college Admissions Offices, I thought I would add some more insights to my last post.

During my two hours with members of Duke’s Admissions Office, I asked questions like these:

  • How do you decide whom to admit between so many outstanding applicants?
  • What’s your decision-making rubric for early decisions and how does it differ from general acceptances?
  • What components carry the most weight in an application?
  • How do the different student demographics (such as nationality, geography of their schooling, gender, etc.) play into admission decisions?
  • What are the myths that you would most like to bust?

Duke University

What follows are accurate (albeit paraphrased) excerpts from the insights I have gleaned:

An officer said, “Our selection process is all about finding the best fit for our university.” I pressed them to further define what they meant by best fit. To which one of them said, “Since almost all of our applicants are amazing kids, their standardized documents will obviously all look very similar. I mean, they’ve basically taken the same courses, they have the same grades, their standardized test scores are within a band, and for the most part they’ve all done the same kinds of co-curriculars. So, on the objective criteria, they are often hard to tell apart or are almost identical. Therefore, the decision on best fit boils down to our assessment of the subjective components of the application.” I asked them to be more specific about how they evaluate the subjective components. They told me they assessed the subjective elements by asking themselves these two guiding questions:

  • How well do we see the applicant taking advantage of the opportunities we offer at our university?
  • What value will the applicant add to the culture of our community?

Naturally, my follow-up question was, “So, what is it in the subjective documents that allows you to answer these two questions?” Here are snippets of what they said:

  • “Students reflect their differences through the intentionality of the work they are doing. Why are they doing what they are doing and what impact has it made on themselves and others.”
  • “The recommendation letters and the students’ reflections on the activities they have engaged in are huge differentiators. Given that so many applicants are doing the same things, we as readers of applications need to be inspired by the how and why of what they are doing. The applications need to answer our ‘So What?’ question.”
  • “When we are reading an application, we ask ourselves: Do I want to get to know this person? Are they interesting? Am I compelled to get them to join Duke? And if the answer is not a resounding YES…well, enough said.”

I then asked them what they considered red flags in applications. They said: “Applications need to reflect the students’ sense of self, their authentic self. So many great kids applying to Duke – or any university for that matter – try to convince us that they are the best fit by sending us a profile of what they think we want to see rather than one that illustrates who they really are. In other words they craft the infamous robo-Duke-profile…and well, that’s not a good idea. We see too many applicants that sound like someone else did the writing and reflection for them. This comes through when there is a disconnect or an inconsistency between what the student is saying (particularly how they are saying it) and what the recommendation letters are saying. As you can imagine, we are experts at identifying these types of applications and an disingenuous application will always lose to an application that has an authentic and original student voice.”

I pressed to know more about what students should and should not be doing. Here’s more of what they said:

“Don’t just tell us your passions and interests (no lists please)…show them to us. We need to see the passions and interests of an applicant reflected throughout the documentation. Don’t suddenly become an interesting person in 11th grade. We want to see the entire high school journey. Most importantly we need to see how students have learned and grown through experiences other than academics. If you take a physics class and you meet the standard or get an A+ we know what that means and we know that you grew and learned. If you score a 7 on an IB exam we know you have mastered the skills and content in that area. However, when you are part of a club or get the opportunity to have an internship…well, we don’t really know what that means. An entrepreneurship club in one school means something very different in another school. An internship in one country is not at all what it is in another. The applicants need to show us how their non-academic engagements have impacted them as learners and as human beings.”

I ended our time together with this last question: “What can schools do so that university admissions offices consider our students more competitive?” At first the panel struggled to find an answer, but in the end this is what they said (and again, I am paraphrasing off of my very accurate notes):

“So many of the great schools, like the great candidates, are doing the same things. Everything looks and sounds the same. So, I guess, a school, like an applicant, needs to show us what they are doing that’s unique and powerful. What is the school trying to accomplish that is different and important for their students.” Then they paused, and said, “We prefer applicants from schools that have a strong institutional sense of what they stand for. Schools where the students can talk about what the school stands for.”

This weekend has given me a lot to think about and to take home to share with our community. One question, at the core of my reflection, is this: what can we do, as a school, to clearly and more effectively communicate to universities around the globe that our graduates are, hands-down, the best fit for the schools they dream of attending? If you have ideas or opinions on this question, please send them my way.

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