Solving The College Admissions Puzzle

By Eliot Applestein
Special to The Washington Post
October 26, 2000


William Shain is not a witch doctor. But over a six-month period beginning Nov. 1, the dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University and his staff will work some magic to put together the freshman class of 2001. From more than 10,000 applicants, they will piece together a diverse patchwork of 1,500 enrollees out of the 4,500 students they admit. There will be some nerds wearing plastic pocket protectors mixed with a percentage of artsy rebels. There will be a contingent of international students along with athletes and poets. All will be measured by how well they meet admissions standards. br /

"We are seeking diversity in an increasingly conscious way," says Shain. "There are academic benefits. When you are reading a novel in class, it helps discussions. In science, it adds to the diversity of ideas such as in the area of ethics."

The challenge, according to Mary Backlund, director of admissions at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., "is to see if the pieces of the jigsaw come together and make sense," as she attempts to make a good fit between the candidate and the /

With more than 3,500 four-year colleges in the United States, the puzzle-piecer's job differs, depending on the competitive nature of the school and his tools of assessment. Admissions counselors at Muhlenburg, for example, don't require the SAT. A student essay isn't required at Indiana, but the essay at the Ivies can mean the difference between acceptance or rejection.

Though the tools differ, the process is similar. Regional college representatives generally read the applications first, since they have the best sense of each high school's academic reputation. Shain characterizes this reader as "the lawyer for the defense" whose role is "to try to get as many students in as possible." The initial read could last as little as 10 minutes.

If a second reader agrees with the first, a decision is made. If there is a disagreement between the two, a senior staff reader will step in, which may send the application into committee--a group of admissions staff who vote on the candidate even though some of them have not read the application.

At all schools, the most important variable is a student's academic record.

Says Shain, "We look at the curriculum and trends--are grades going up or down by subjects? We don't compute a masochism index. We want students to push themselves, but don't want them to be driven only by grades and nothing else. Still, the grade point average is the most important thing and the units of academic solids [English, math, history, science and foreign language]."

Most institutions disregard grades for electives when they re-calculate grade point averages. At Vanderbilt, a computer program generates a data sheet that summarizes the academic transcript minus a student's electives. SAT scores are also programmed into the equation.

Some schools, such as the University of Michigan, don't look at the freshman year on the transcript "since students maybe haven't had a chance to establish an academic record," says spokeswoman Julie Peterson. "If they haven't had access to AP courses or other courses we will take that into consideration. But we expect them to take the most challenging courses available and we expect them to do well."

Senior year grades are still important. "Even if a student is applying early decision, we'll look at the first-quarter grades of his or her senior year," says Christopher Gruber, director of admissions at the University of Richmond.

If senior grades plummet, says Peterson, "we will occasionally revoke admission."
It's no surprise that top colleges are looking for "well-rounded, highly talented students who can bring various talents to the university," says Gruber. "For example, a phenomenal cellist, or a phenomenal three-point shooter." Gruber is in search of those "who have committed themselves to important issues in their lives. Students with conviction."

From these, Gruber and his staff will look for candidates to fill endowed scholarships and positions on Richmond's Division I teams. Gruber insists admissions does not have a cork board listing the specific types of students they would like on campus.

"But there is a list of how satisfied we are in different areas," says Gruber. "We want outstanding performers and musicians. They are important to us. We are trying to shape a community. I haven't been in the situation where I have had enough cellists to say no to a student. But scholarships are areas where we may say no. We can't bring them all in."

Once past the academic numbers, ("There are many, many students who have the scores," says Gruber), how do admissions counselors decide whom to admit?

"It comes down to little issues," says Jason Honsel, associate dean of admissions at Lehigh. "Can they play cello for the orchestra? Can they play for the athletic teams? Is it a female? Are they from another area such as Hawaii? We may have 50 kids left and have 10 spots available. It may come down to a good essay or recommendation."

"For many, the essay gives us something new that's not found in the application," says Gruber. "It used to be a writing sample to see how well they will be able to write in the classroom. But now they get so much help that I use it to see what they can bring to campus. Is it in concert with the rest of the application? It's a way for us to get under a kid's skin."

"A great essay won't get you into a college," says William Conley, dean of admissions at Case Western Reserve University. "And a bad one won't keep you out. It gives us corroboration with the rest of the application."

While many large state schools look primarily at the hard numbers, Bard College looks at the biographical data first, "then we read the essays, transcript and recommendations," says admissions director Backlund. "This gives us a sense of the history of the person. A student's academic program carries the most weight. But background plays a part. If you are a first-generation college-bound student, your transcript may mean something different to me than if you came from the Cathedral School."

Some of the most controversial students, according to Backlund, are those whose academic strengths are not revealed through their transcripts, but who are spoken highly of by teachers and counselors.

"There are always candidates for whom the academic record does not predict academic success but whose recommendations talk of great strides and hope. There is a distance between what has been realized and what could be realized and we take a chance."

Bard's unique Immediate Decision Plan (IDP) allows students to submit applications a week before coming to campus, take a campus tour, participate in a two-hour seminar, and meet with an admissions counselor. By day's end, students will learn whether they have been accepted.
More than 300 students opt for this approach, with half being admitted. But according to Backlund,

"There is no greater chance that you will get in using the IDP than if you go the regular way."
When Backlund suggested to her staff that they consider ceasing the program due to the lengthy time commitment, they dissented.

"For them, to critique an application with a candidate one-on-one is the most meaningful conversation they can have."

If your mother or father went to the school, does that make any difference?

"There is no question that an alumni child who can do well will be looked at differently than another applicant," says Vanderbilt's Shain. "As we get more competitive, I suppose we will not drop alumni children as quickly as others. It is very important."

Females who apply to traditionally male-dominated programs such as engineering also may have an advantage. At Lehigh, for example, where 80 percent of the engineering class is male, a woman has, "a slight edge," according to Honsel. "It's a buzz," he says, "if it's a female engineer--something we'd like more of."

But at liberal arts colleges, it may be a different story.

"Students applying to the University of Richmond are applying to the school of Arts and Sciences, but they are also applying to Richmond (male) and Westhampton (female) Colleges," says Gruber.

"We want half of the students men and the other half women. So gender is important in the review process. If you have a man and woman applicant from Walt Whitman High School, they will not be reviewed in the same way. The men are competing against the men and the women against the women. There are more women applying here and more women at most colleges in the U.S. and women are achieving at a slightly higher rate, making it more competitive for female applicants."

The most attractive applicants are often those who can articulate through their high school record how much they love learning. For Backlund, "They see that schooling is about finding answers to the questions they wonder about. Wonderment is important, and a passion and fascination with how we interpret the world."

But the puzzle piecers have a tough job.

"It is intimidating," says Gruber, "to see what some of these students have done in 17 years, which is more than I have done in twice that number of years, and I have to come back and say, 'We can't bring everyone in.' It's humbling."

Eliot Applestein is an independent college counselor in North Bethesda. Comments and questions to

Plan Ahead and Achieve Your Goal

There are a number of things you can do to improve your odds. They include:

* Ninth Grade: Meet with your guidance counselor to develop an overview of your high school curriculum. While many school systems require two years of a foreign language, colleges like more. Attempt as many college prep courses as possible. Emphasize math and science courses so you can master the prerequisites for Advanced Placement courses in 11th and 12th grade. Join clubs and plan interesting summer activities. Regularly meet with your guidance counselor to review your choices. Make friends with your counselor, since he will have to write a recommendation to all of your colleges once you are a senior.

* 10th Grade: Take the PSAT as a practice. Increase your vocabulary by reading as much as you can. A good SAT preparation book is Elster and Elliot's "Tooth and Nail: A Novel Approach to the New SAT" (Harcourt Brace). Join school clubs or extracurricular activities that demonstrate your commitment and initiative.

* 11th Grade: This is the most important academic year. In the fall, take the PSAT. Your results are used for the National Merit Scholarships. Continue to build your vocabulary in preparation for the spring SAT and ACT. The ACT may suit students strong in science since it includes a science reasoning section. Unlike the SAT, it doesn't penalize students for guessing. Some colleges will accept the ACT in lieu of both the SAT I and SAT II combined (e.g., Johns Hopkins, Duke, Brown, William & Mary and others). Purchase the "10 Real SATs" published by the College Board and start taking practice tests. Consider taking the SAT II at the time you are preparing for your second semester final exams. Choose Score Choice when you take the SAT II. The results will be sent to you and not the colleges. This allows you to control which colleges see these results. Begin formal college tours and sit in on group information sessions. Continue extra-curricular activities.

* 12th Grade: Most colleges will not see your first semester grades at the time they make a decision, but they will see whether you have burned out. Take rigorous courses; let them know you're taking this year seriously. Consider retaking SAT/ACT tests. Whenever possible, visit with college representatives who come to your high school. One of them will most likely read your application. Get his name, if possible. Finalize your college list. Ask teachers for recommendations early since many of them are overwhelmed by requests. Start soon on gathering your applications and please yourself and your parents by getting them to the school registrar with time to spare.