Q&A Session on College Admissions: Yale, Pomona College, Lawrence (Wisconsin), University of Texas, Austin

In light of this year's flood of applications received by the most selective schools: Harvard received a record 27,200 applications, an increase of 19% over last year, University of Chicago's application volume increased by 18%, Amherst College, 17%, Northwestern, 14%, and Dartmouth, 10%, gaining a clearer insight into how the admissions offices of the most selective schools operate is useful. What better way to do this than hearing what the key admissions officers have to say?

The New York Times provided an electronic roundtable, with four admissions officers from the following selective schools  (NYTimes.com, Q&A: College Admissions, 17 December 2009):

Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University (#3 US News and World Reports)
Bruce Poch, VP for Enrollment, and Dean of Admissions at Pomona College (#6 US News and World Reports)
Steven Syverson, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Lawrence University (WI) (#56 US News and World Report)
Bruce Walker, Vice Provost and Director of Admissions at University of Texas, Austin (#47 US News and World Report)

A full transcript can be found at http://questions.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/17/qa-college-admissions/.
For our purposes, I'm excerpting a very select portion of the questions and answers.

Q: "Do you really read all the essays submitted?"

  • Poch of Pomona: "We do at Pomona. ...Essays that reflect the applicant are read fully and appreciated."
  • Syverson of Lawrence: "At Lawrence University...all essays and recommendations are read carefully...we strive to gain reasonably complete picture of the student-strengths, achievements, and aspirations, as well as any challenges they may have overcome."
  • Brenzel of Yale: "We look at every essay from every applicant, and for the students who reach the level of serious consideration, essays may end up being read multiple times."

Q: "How do you encourage students to spend their summers?"

  • Syverson of Lawrence: "Students should follow their passions and develop [them] rather than package themselves to appear to be an ideal candidate for some hyper-selective college."
  • Brenzel of Yale: "Do what appeals strongly to them. Don't try to outthink or outguess the admissions committee by customizing some activity of tangential interest. It's a useless exercise...The best program is one you find most valuable for yourself."

Q: "To Mr. Brenzel of Yale: What is the purpose of deferring 2,644 students in this year's (2007-2008 admissions year) round of applications? "

  • Brenzel of Yale: "...each year we accept about the same percentage of the students deferred from the early round as we accept of the regular decision applicants. We are often looking to see how applicants perform in the first half of senior year, when many students are taking their most challenging schedules or seeing their primary activities outside the classroom bear fruit."

Q: "What part of the admissions process is most misunderstood?"

  • Brenzel of Yale: "...we look...for students who will bring something of particular value to the entering class...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."
  • Poch of Pomona: "Most of it!  An applicant needs to objectively determine what questions remain unanswered on the 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?"

While reviewing these various snippets from the New York Times blog, one thing became clear: apply your efforts and energies to activities that truly interest you. Trying to appeal to the perceived whims of the most selective admissions offices is folly. Getting the necessary grades and scores is essential, but to actually gain admission to many select schools requires a bold pursuit of a passion.