Picking between students on a whim and a prayer

Educated guesses are big part of admissions

March 04, 2001|By Michael Ollove | By Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

For the thousands of American high school seniors waiting in jittery anticipation for those letters that will determine which college they will attend next year, here is a notion that will bring little comfort:

It isn't fair.

That's right. Whatever the contents of those letters, the discomfiting reality of college admissions is that the results aren't reached through some logarithm or formula. Instead, deciding who gets in can come down to hunches, to gut feelings, to impressions as ephemeral as a warm breeze in March.

Many applicants may regard the outcome of their college quest in nearly life-and-death terms - after all, these are still teen-agers - but admissions officers are themselves sometimes hard-pressed to explain what they've done.

"As proud as we are of the kids we've accepted," says Dan Lundquist, dean of admissions at Union College in New York, "there's still a sense of heartache and heartbreak for the ones we can't take. I know that sounds phony, but because we are making subjective, inherently unfair decisions, we're going to have that heartburn."

Unfair? That is not what applicants want to hear after pouring their lifeblood into their applications, not to mention SAT preparation. And neither is this frank confession from Gail Berson, admissions dean at Wheaton College in Massachusetts: "Part of me says `Why don't we just pull names out of a hat?'"

A few years ago, Princeton admissions dean Fred Hargadon had hats made up for his staff that captured the spirit of admissions decisions: "We Do Precision Guesswork."

Too few slots

At selective schools, there are just too many worthy candidates for too few slots.

"For every one we take ... there are two or three equally qualified kids that we can't take," says Lundquist. "I can't justify that to you."

Admissions decisions have always been a matter of making distinctions, but today, when applications are at an all-time high, those distinctions are finer than ever. Colleges say their decisions are not arbitrary, but they are subjective - an art, not a science.

For two of the three high school seniors The Sun has been following through college admissions this year, the process has already ended.

Andy Spatz of Severna Park High School was accepted in a round of early decisions at the University of Virginia in early December. Likewise, Kelly Kopeikin, student body president at the McDonogh School, got into Davidson College last month during its second round of early decisions.

That leaves Candace Lunn, a City College senior. She's still waiting to hear from New York University, Brown and Johns Hopkins, but has already been accepted by the University of Maryland, College Park, Goucher and Drexel.

So how do schools make their decisions when there is such a surplus of qualified applicants? Every college and university is guided by a sense of the types of kids who would contribute the most to the school. They also know what talents and attributes they want on campus.

It is painstaking work. During the weeks from mid-January to the end of March when the last letters go out, admissions officers put in grueling seven-day weeks reading and evaluating application files. To relieve the stress, some schools, such as Hopkins and Bryn Mawr, are considering bringing in masseuses.

The first task in admissions is to quickly identify "outliers" - those either so qualified or unqualified as to merit little more consideration.

Stuck in the middle

Those two groups together typically make up 20 percent to 40 percent of the total applications. That leaves a sizable majority who merit further deliberation. "That middle group is the one that you really have to spend your time on," says Ann Wright, director of enrollment at Rice University.

Hargadon agrees. "One of the reminders I keep on my bulletin board is something Earl Weaver once said about making his final selections after spring training," he says. "`The 23rd, 24th and 25th choices are the most difficult. Stars are important, but balance wins ballgames.'"

In the middle group, the SAT scores and grade point averages are similar. So admissions officers try to distinguish among the candidates by combing through recommendations, personal essays, extracurricular activities and evaluations of interviews at the colleges where they are still conducted.

There are no sure-fire formulas for who will get in, no particular set of skills, no must-have activities. Admissions officers often say they are searching for those candidates with a "spark." They look for kids with a passion for some activity or subject, no matter what it is. They seek evidence that students have pushed themselves in high school, that they have taken the hardest courses available and not settled for the easy route. They look for commitment.

"We don't want to see just breadth, but depth," Wright says. "We also want to see leadership and people who will contribute to society, not just make money."

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