An Interview with the Admissions Director from Grinnell College (Iowa)

Grinnell, since its inception in 1846, has been a leader of ‘progressive’ movements of many sorts: it was the first college west of the Mississippi River to grant degrees to women and blacks. Today Grinnell, which is located in the rural corn fields of Iowa about an hour from Des Moines and Iowa City, continues its progressive tradition by having few curriculum requirements; once students finish their first year tutorial (three terms of concentrated writing, discussion, and analysis of a range of literature and philosophy, with a capstone research paper) class selection firmly rests with the students.

Most take this freedom seriously, and fill to capacity math, science and foreign language courses. These Grinnell students, as part of an undergraduate institution with no graduate school—and, consequently, no teacher assistants, have a bounty of opportunities to work closely with their professors publishing papers and even, when their research proves to be of high caliber, presenting at conferences. As one of the wealthiest colleges in the country, with a $1.5 billion endowment to cover the needs of its 1700 students, Grinnell encourages the academic bonds among its elite faculty and students by sporting a 9 to 1 student to faculty ratio, and an average class size of 17.

Seth Allen, dean of admissions and financial aid at Grinnell, on a site called ‘’ offered candid comments about the admission process at Grinnell. The following are some of the more select morsels of his interview that give a sense of how Grinnell appraises its applicants.

The holistic review of candidates: Grinnell doesn’t merely review grades and test scores, “…but a variety of factors…courses students take, essays they write, the artworks that they [create], the work they do, [this] is a holistic review of a candidate.”   

It’s the little things: “…it’s the little things [an interpretive reading of Beowolf, or a comment on Einstein’s view of quantum physics] in the process that surprise us, uncover something that we think, wow, this is someone who is different…, unusual, that we would like to include in the class.”

The importance of knowing Grinnell: “I feel much more connected to applicants if I feel that they’ve actually done their homework and have substantive reasons for wanting to apply.” A follow up question to Seth Allen was, “One question on the supplemental application asked the applicant to choose another mascot for the school…” to which he replied, “In essence this question asks the student to ‘demonstrate to us what do they know about Grinnell, our past history, and where we’re going in the future, and in a creative way.”

Activities a student might have done that win over the admissions office: “…running political campaigns, certainly writing novels and getting published, writing money-making computer programs, coding software…”

The importance of the essay: “…the essay is one of those things that often breaks the tie on applicants and students who can, in their own words, paint an effective picture of themselves through demonstrating to us what matters to them, because of the topic they choose to write on and how they choose to write about it and the risks they take in setting up their subject.”

Grades, strength of curriculum, standardized test scores, the essay, and the little things all mix into the admissions process. Knowing a school well—its resources, its capabilities, its departments—is also quite important. Seth Allen has supplied us with a decent blueprint of what his office is after. In all likelihood it bears similarities to what might be of interest to Swarthmore, Pomona College, and Amherst as well. If you know who you are, and you’ve taken the time to get to know what Grinnell can do to propel your learning and life forward, you both probably are well matched. Then you’re just a step away from the corn fields of Iowa.