Talk with the Dean

Back in December I had a phone conversation with Christine Bowman, the Dean of Admission and Enrollment Services at Southwestern University. [See full disclosure below.] I originally reached out to her to ask about admissions essays and how they're analyzed, but over an hour we talked about a number of things. Here are the three main ideas that came up.

Many people don't understand the process. I began with a statement that went something like "most students applying to college grasp the basics of how the application process works and know that there are admissions committees who read over things, but beyond that I think a lot of the details are not really clear to any of us, whether we're students or parents or teachers." But Bowman corrected me immediately. She says that a lot of students really don't understand the process or the terminology. For example, she said, there's a pretty large percentage of students who apply Early Decision, but then come to realize that Early Decision isn't actually what they thought it is. From her vantage point as the head of admissions at a university, she sees way too many students learning about how the process works as they go along. And really this makes sense: applying for college as a freshman is something most people do once at most, so there's very little practice. But Bowman strongly urges people to have an understanding of the process and vocabulary before getting deep into applications. 

Think of it this way. Are you a person who reads the instructions before trying to put something together? Or do you like to just figure it out as you go?

If you like to read the instructions first, then before undertaking your college applications take some time to go over the NACAC Guide. Bowman recommends visiting the "College Search" page at the Colleges that Change Lives website. 

If you're not an instructions reader, then please become one for college admissions! This isn't IKEA furniture or a new piece of electronics. It's one of the most important relationships of your life. Take an hour or two to go over the NACAC Guide or the CtCL web page.

The admissions essays are really important. When I reached out to Bowman, how admissions counselors deal with essays was really on my mind. Do admissions departments run analytics on essays? Do they try to determine Lexile or readability scores to compare students? Are there key terms or phrases that a search program scans for? What exactly do colleges do with the admissions essays other than just read them?

Bowman says that for the most part the essays are just read by a few people, not turned into quantitative data. But that doesn't mean the essays aren't really important. Because, as Bowman points out, the essays are the one part of the admissions process that you have complete control over. It gives you a chance to tell your story and connect as a human. "There's a grammatical component," Bowman said, "and there's a life component." The grammatical component mainly involves assuring the college that you can write clear and articulate paragraphs. Students must be able to write well, "because that's what they're going to do, not just a little but a lot." But on top of that, and just as importantly, the essays let the college know who you are, what your story is, and gives them a way to decide they really want you to be a part of their community. Nobody has perfect grades and perfect test scores. A strong personal essay, says Bowman, helps "convince the admissions officers to defend your grades."

Bowman and I commiserated on the fact that essays are what seem to trip students up the most. I think a lot of it has to do with the mindset of the applicants. You're busy with high school, you're working through lots of applications, you're not sure what the essays are for, and so you just answer the question and move on. Bowman agrees, and she also says that many students are also not taught to write well, which takes a lot of practice and guidance. Instead, they're taught "how to write to the test." 

Not only are essays the only portion of the application you have complete control over, but they're also the easiest to improve. Spend a lot more time working on yours to show the colleges who you really are and what they get if they decide to bring you into their world.

The admissions professionals at colleges are very active. By far the most fascinating part of our conversation had to do with what the admissions officers do. I encourage high school students to not think of themselves as passive products to be judged, and it's important not to think of the people on the college side as passive, either.

This is how admissions counselors are usually thought about, if they're thought about at all. They spend a few months of the year looking over applications and judging them. They spend a few more months of the year going to college fairs and sadistically encouraging more high school students to apply to their school so they can judge and reject even more people. And they probably spend the rest of the year sitting around and laughing about all the people they rejected. 

But this isn't reality. First, they have to spend a lot of time doing research to make sure they admit exactly the right number of students. Say a college has room in the classrooms and dorms for 500 first-year students. If 501 show up, then you've got some poor freshman without a dorm bed. If 510 show up, then you have 10 freshmen with nowhere to sleep and also overcrowded classrooms in popular freshman courses. But if only 490 show up, then you've got professors and dorms being paid for, but not enough people in the classes and dorms to pay for them. So you have to know exactly how many people to admit, knowing that not all of them are going to show up. That's hard to do. Imagine you're hosting a party, and you need exactly 50 people to attend, no more or less. Knowing how many invitations to send, and when, is tricky. Admissions deans have to deal with that.

How do they decide what kind of student they want? When the admissions committee sits in a room together and decides who to accept, what are they looking for? Sure, they want people who demonstrate that they can graduate, but what else? It turns out that this works differently at different times for different schools. Beyond a vague idea of "good students who will graduate," each college's president and board of trustees will have long-term goals for the school and need the admissions and financial aid departments to help with that goal. Bowman gave the example of a college in Texas that was going through a major rebranding, trying to increase their reputation from local commuter school to top-tier research university. That takes a major investment in labs, buildings, and professors. It also takes an admissions department to work much harder to recruit students from around the nation, and to increase the caliber of students even before the school is able to change the caliber of their reputation.

Bowman told me there are any number of ways these things work. Some presidents will choose one or two goals per year--"we need a higher percentage of students who can pay the full tuition while we try to fix our budget," for example, or "we want to reach out to more second-generation immigrants to expand the variety of students and alumni we have." Some boards will have a more "this is our vision, now go and find the students who will make it happen" approach, leaving the admissions departments to decide the details. 

But the important thing for you is to understand that colleges are actively looking for you, not just sitting and waiting for you to apply. They're thinking about their cultural, financial, and social needs and trying to wade through the literally millions of high school graduates each year. They think of the process like a relationship, and they're trying to find the right match. Bowman compared their process to Moneyball, using sophisticated tools and strategies to make their limited time and money find more of the right-fit students. For example, colleges "buy names" (she used this phrase several times) from the testing companies and other data collectors to get a sense of who to recruit and how to recruit them. She told me that schools used to do this once a year, and now many will update their list of potential recruits four or five times a year.

So the school that really wants you--and is likely willing to pay to have you--is out there, sifting through millions of other high school students trying to find you. Here are a few things you can do to help them:

  * Remember to be a human and not just a resume. Go to college fairs or school visits and talk to the recruiters. Ask them about what kind of student they're looking for, and let them know what you're looking for.

  * Spend more time on your essays. This is the one piece of the puzzle that you have the most control over, and the piece that best lets schools know who you really are. Don't think about saying what you think they want you to say; think about how to best say what you really want to say.

  * Pay attention to the recruiting brochures and information that schools send you. They sent you that because they think you may be a good match for them. Don't ignore schools just because you haven't heard of them.

  * Make sure you understand the admissions process and deadlines. Ask questions, and look up anything you're unsure about.


Please share this with someone who would like to read it. Ask me any questions you have in the comments section, or send me a note.

*Full disclosure: I have a number of relationships with Southwestern University. I went there for two years, and my wife graduated from there, as did a number of my friends. One of my brothers graduated from there. My wife is now on the board of trustees. So that's how I was able to set up a phone call with their Dean of Admissions. S.U. did not approach me about this post or coordinate with me. It's not an advertisement for Southwestern. I think they're a great school, but only you know if they're a great school for you.