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Inside the Rice admissions office: What do selective schools really value?
--by Ann Wright, vice president for the southwest region of the College Board. Wright has also served as dean of enrollment management at Smith College, director of admissions at the University of Rochester, and vice president for enrollment at Rice University.
Several years ago, Money magazine's cover featured a poor college applicant in the guise of a martyr-hands tied and body skewered by the arrows of his favorite colleges, a victim of the biggest competition of the twentieth century. Well, it might seem that the competition is even bloodier now-and in terms of sheer numbers battling for spots at top schools, it probably is. But there's no excuse for students allowing application panic to ruin their high school years. In reality, colleges are in fierce competition for students who fit their profile. The key to making yourself and attractive candidate is to educate yourself about how schools pick their next class, and then figure out which colleges are apt to want you.
Inside the back room
By definition, highly selective colleges receive many more applications than they have spots. If they want a class of 700 and usually enroll 41 percent of the people accepted, they must admit about 1,700 students. Last year 7,500 people applied to Rice, so only 23 percent could be admitted. And many more than that were qualified! To winnow their lists, colleges create evaluation systems that rank the people in the pool based on whatever qualities the schools value most highly.
At Rice, we rated each applicant on a scale if 1 to 5 in each of five categories: rigor of the highschool courseload; overall performance in the college-prep curriculum; recommendations; presentation (the clarity of the student's answers and the quality of the essay, for example); and personal qualities, like leadership, talent, and the potential to add something to college life. A total rating of close to 20 moves you into the next round. Readers also pull out students who may not approach 20 overall, but who are outstanding in one or two areas, and who have "flags"-special achievements such as publications or election to high office. Coursework, grades, and academic recommendations are most important.
Test scores matter, but at Rice they are thought of primarily as verification of a student's record-or sometimes as the sign of a "late bloomer" who might wake up in college. It's not unheard of to see an applicant who dozed through three years of high school, only to find herself in the top 1 percent of all performers on the SAT physics exam. Who doesn't want a top scoring female with a sudden intense interest in nanotechnology research, even if her extracurriculars and grades are on the modest side?
The top half of the Rice applicant pool is read at least three times by the members of the admission committee, which includes 43 staffers, professors, alumni, and students. The full-timers in the admissions office might work their way through 200 applications a week during the peak season. Each reader rates the application; then a second, more senior person makes another independent judgment.
Half of the applicants are selected to move on for another review, which narrows the group further. In the third round, where all applicants are academically qualified, a Decision Committee roundtable discusses how each applicant works in terms of "fit." Besides academic achievement, the committee looks for flags, life experiences, subtle warnings, and maturity and enthusiasm. Sometimes there's heat: "I'd rather have two linguists than five civil engineers!" "This is a bright premed who cares only about getting into med school, not about dealing with people!" "This is my 'one' student; I met him in Knoxville, and I'd sacrifice a week off to admit him!"
Admission by crook or by hook
Some students will go to astonishing lengths to get into a college. We've seen essays obviously written by a third party or plagiarized from the Internet, lists of accomplishments and honors that are clearly contradicted by school records, and outrageously egotistical responses. Don't even think about trying such maneuvers. Application readers are a savvy bunch, and it's the kiss of death to commit one of these sins-an automatic route to Rice's deny pile.
A bit of bragging and name-dropping is fine, however. Rice is obviously interested in great music students and wonderful athletes, and we have a special concern for those who have overcome a difficult situation like illness, family tragedy or discrimination. And it's OK to talk about family connections, as many colleges that value tradition give special consideration to "legacy" applicants. If you really are related to the governor, colleges may want to know, but don't bother getting recommendations from VIPs who never heard of you but once met your great-uncle at a fundraiser.
Otherwise, the qualities that come through on a successful application, beyond a strong academic record, are enthusiasm, personal pizzazz, and a genuine passion for learning. When I read an essay, I look for answers to these questions: "Can you write? Can you think? Do you care? What do you care about?" You don't have to have experienced a major earthquake to impress us! One of the best essays I've read came from a guy who wrote about how growing a beard changed all his relationships; another came from a girl who wrote wonderfully about the sights and smells of an early-morning bicycle ride. Then there was that disaster titled "dniW eht etouQ swodahS gnivoM," written entirely backward and sent in with a mirror so I could read it.
Remember that attention to details-or lack thereof-can create a big impression. We've heard from too many "candy strippers," members of the "drum and bagel corps," and members of the "honor role." And, a word to people filing multiple e-applications: it won't help your case to (accidentally) tell Rice that "Stanford is my dream school."
When all is said and done, you should feel good about your chances of getting in if you've applied to colleges whose values and standards match your strengths. And you'll be better able to take a rejection philosophically. Students who have chosen well can be pretty sure they were qualified to get in, if only there had been room.