Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Dog Days of Admissions

Borrowing that phrase from my favorite sport, baseball, I refer to this time of year in our and many other admissions offices across the country, where we are spending everyday reading and reading applications.  In baseball, the phrase, "dog days" refers to the summer months of July and August, when the long season grinds on with games everyday in the hot summer weather.  For admission officers, it refers to the months of January and February, where every day seems the same - stacks of applications to read and make decisions on.  Not that I'm complaining - not at all.  Here at the University of San Diego we are blessed with over 13,650 applications, a 15% increase over last year's record total.  Once again, my staff and I are privileged to read these applications and we are so impressed with the academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities and overall excellence that you demonstrate.

These are challenging days, however.  Like many schools, USD is way up in the number and quality of applications it has received.  The size of our staff and the number of days we have to read hasn't changed, and so the math gets harder and harder to manage each year.  Last week, we sent out the last of our early action decisions and are now focused on the regular pool.  In my last posting I wrote about the process of making each of those applications complete - the work that goes into managing all those documents.  Today, I'd like to spend a bit of time on how my staff read all those applications - what we are looking for, how we make decisions, and the context in which those decisions are made. 

At USD, like at most schools, we start each admissions cycle with a set of goals.  The first goal, of course, is how many students we would like to enroll.  This is a function of our size and capacity and for us this year, we would like to enroll approximately 1100 new freshman.  Within that overall goal, however, are many other goals that reflect the composition of those 1100 students.  We expect the class to be academically excellent and therefore have some overall grade point average and test score goals.  It is important for us to have the class be a diverse mix of students - ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically and religiously.  Having a broadly defined diverse mix of students is one of the qualities that enhance the educational experience and provide our students with such a welcoming and inclusive community.  We would like to make sure that our 1100 students are reasonably distributed across our many outstanding academic programs.  In addition, we want to fill our Division I sport teams with student athletes and provide our performing arts programs with talented singers and dancers. 

As you can see, we have a lot of goals, not just a single number of students we want to enroll.  Similarly, most colleges and universities have many goals and they will differ based on each school's mission, values, and objectives.  These goals are important, because as my staff begins to review these 13,650 applications, these goals provide the framework for our decisions.  Let me try and illustrate this by taking you through the process my team takes with each application.

First, we are looking to enroll students who are academically strong.  We define that by the academic success and challenge a student has demonstrated in high school.  Therefore we spend the most time on the high school transcript.  With applications from thousands of high schools around the world, the first thing we do is try and understand the academic context of the high school.  Each school sends us valuable information about their academic environment - the grading scale, courses offered, how and if a rank is calculated, grade distributions - and these provide us with a local context in which to evaluate each student.  The staff may recalculate the grade point average, since many schools calculate this very differently.  We look at trends a student may have, how much they have challenged themselves, and overall academic performance.  This is the most important factor in our admissions decisions and, studies have shown, the best indicator of how successful a student will be in our competitive academic environment. 

The second factor we look at is the standardized test.  As the name implies, this provides us with a standard measure of how well students have done across the many different school environments we are looking at.  While there is no absolute score a student needs - no minimums or cutoffs - we know that students within a broad range of scores are likely to do well at USD.  There are reasons to not like standardized tests, but used properly, in conjunction with a student's grades, they do help predict student success in college.

The grades and the test scores provide us with an academic picture of each of our applicants, but like most highly selective schools, many of our students are academically qualified.  Here's where the institutional goals and objectives I mentioned earlier come into play.  Within the large group of academically qualified students, the staff now reads the application trying to identify the students who we feel make the best match - who has the mix of personal and extracurricular qualities that will help us enroll the best class.

These qualities are a little harder to identify than simply grades and test scores, and our staff spends a lot of time reading the applications to get this information.  We identify "match" by reading the essay, reviewing the list of activities and interests a student has, reading the letters of recommendation, and overlaying our goals for the class.  For USD, we place a high value on community service and it is an activity that the majority of our students participate in.  As we look at a student's application, we are going to look at how much community service has been a part of their life and to what degree they have shown a commitment to it.  Similarly, we value leadership experiences, international experiences, athletic accomplishments, and a record of employment. 

This doesn't mean that students that list lots of activities are going to get in over someone who may only be involved in one or two things.  There is no one activity that gets more favor over another.  Instead, the staff is looking for students who have shown a balance of academic success and extracurricular involvement.  We read the application to get a sense of personal situations and circumstances that may have affected a student's ability to get involved. And finally, we look to see how a student's interests and involvement might contribute to the community that we have on our campus.

Each college and university engages in some form of the above process based on their own goals and priorities.  My staff goes through a lot of training on how to measure these qualities, how to dig through the application to find the information, and ultimately, how to make decisions that allow us to meet our goals.  It is hard work, and each member of my team is reading 25 - 30 applications a day, every day, for the months of January and February.  It is exhausting and tiring work, but as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, it is incredibly rewarding.

The final thing I will say about our decisions is that as you can see, there are a lot of factors involved.  Shortly, we are going to be sending these decisions to students and some will be admitted, others offered a place on the wait list, and others denied admission.  There will be students who are incredibly excited and lots of disappointment.  One of things I emphasized to my own son, and to many parents, is that being denied admission to a school is not a reflection on the student (or the parent).  Because colleges - certainly selective colleges - are looking to enroll relatively small classes from very large applicant pools, not being selective simply means that at that point in time, a school felt that there were other students who were a better fit.  This is, after all, about finding the right match, and while USD might not end up the right match for you, there are schools out there that will.  As we get through these "dog days of admissions", I wish you all the best of luck in finding the right one for you.

Next time we will talk about affording college and how financial aid works.  In the meantime, please remember that a very important deadline is coming, and that is the date to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).   Our priority deadline is March 2, so if you haven't started yet, please do so.  You can access the form at

Until then, good luck.  I have files to read in the meantime!

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