Making the grade at Johns Hopkins Admissions: 16-month process whittles 8,503 applicants to 3,450 students offered places in the Class of 2000

March 31, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

This weekend, most of the nation's campuses are sending out the thick packets of acceptance and thin letters of rejection that will determine where approximately 1.6 million American college-bound high schoolers will spend the next several years.

For students, it is a time of anxiety. For colleges and universities, it is near the end of 16 months of travail that will define the flavor of their campuses.

At the Johns Hopkins University, that means whittling a record 8,503 applicants to a pool of 3,450 students from 41 states and two dozen countries offered places to make the Class of 2000. It means not only going after high-achieving students, but building a class of 915 students with diverse interests -- including, among others, roughly 275 engineers, about 45 black students and a few good midfielders for the men's lacrosse team.

"It's not easy because you want to take all these kids," said Dr. Robert J. Massa, the university's dean of enrollment management, who oversees the school's undergraduate admissions and financial aid offices. "I don't mean to be flippant about it, but that's what selective admissions is all about."

While the process resembles those at other selective universities, there is a single, simple truth that undergirds the toughest admissions decisions at Hopkins: Would-be physicians make up the largest single group of applicants and about one-third of all undergraduates. The university looks hard for a reason to deny students who intend to become physicians. And Hopkins looks equally hard for a reason to accept qualified students who do not.

"Everything else in terms of numbers is secondary," Dr. Massa said. "These [the aspiring doctors] are in many ways our bread and butter at Hopkins." But, he added, Hopkins rejects "kids that you just don't want to turn down because they're so good."

More than a year ago, Hopkins officials began to brace for this year's applicants. They paid for a list of high school juniors who scored well on the PSAT the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test. They sent 72,000 small brochures with glossy photographs and glowing descriptions of the campus. About 2,000 of these targeted students applied.

By a mid-November deadline last fall, more than 500 students had applied for early decision, a process that binds student and campus in something like a contract. More than 53 percent of students applying early were accepted this winter, a significantly higher rate than for the total pool. By Jan. 1, nearly 8,000 more applications had rolled in.

Each applicant was reviewed in a three-stage process. First, one of 10 admissions officers reviewed each student's files, looking at the notes of an interview, reading grades and board scores and essays and recommendations. Then, a small group of admissions officers met in "committee," to review the recommended verdict as they sorted through applicants. Finally, Massa and admissions director Paul T. White looked at the big picture of what kind of freshman class would be created, and they fine-tuned it, adding a student here, cutting a student there.

A Sun reporter was permitted to sit in on several "committee" sessions, with the agreement that applicants not be identified by name.

Round One

During the first round this winter, every student was marked on a 20-point index, using categories that mix what can be measured with gut reaction.

Grade point average was not the sole barometer of academic record. How tough was the high school? Counselors also looked at the number of college-level courses a student took in high school, compared with the number offered.

The admissions officers scanned the extracurricular activities and tried to sort the meaningful from the meandering. Did someone briefly join three clubs and assume no leadership in any of them? Did a death in the family or a part-time job affect a student's record? Mr. White has tried to encourage a newer breed of Hopkins students to help dispel the school's image as a haven only for "grinds" and workaholics, so he has encouraged his staffers to look for applicants showing creativity.

The admissions officers were highly sensitive to what they call a "school group" problem. If the university accepted a student with significantly a lower grade point average and academic rank than a classmate who applied unsuccessfully. other students would question whether Hopkins acted fairly.

In general, a student with lower than a 10 on the index was unlikely to be considered seriously. For premeds, the barrier was typically 15.

Round Two

During the second round of the process, in February and early to mid-March, the committee met to review the first recommendations. Those sessions were held on the first floor of Garland Hall, the university's administration building, in a room set up like a small lecture classroom.

Some of next year's crop of applicants waiting for campus tours were seated on couches and chairs in Garland's foyer outside, unaware of the decisions being made a thick pane of glass away.

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