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Inside the college admissions process

This is a nerve-wracking time of year for high school seniors, as they've submitted college admissions and are now just waiting to hear back. TODAY went behind the scenes of the college admissions process at Grinnell, a top-ranked, highly selective liberal arts college in Iowa.  Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, answers questions from a TODAY producer about wha
/ Source: TODAY

This is a nerve-wracking time of year for high school seniors, as they've submitted college admissions and are now just waiting to hear back. TODAY went behind the scenes of the college admissions process at Grinnell, a top-ranked, highly selective liberal arts college in Iowa.  Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, answers questions from a TODAY producer about what really goes on when admissions officers decide applicants' fate.

TODAY: Has anyone’s mind actually been changed in committee?

Seth Allen, Grinnell College: Oh, I think all the time. I think part of that is a function of discovering information about a student that didn't quite come on the radar in the reader's review of the applicant.

Give me a specific example. No names, but of a time when your mind was changed and what changed it.

I can remember very clearly last year talking about a student who I wasn't particularly impressed with. I felt that the application was flat; the writing wasn't compelling to me; the recommendations, while good, they weren't powerful, they didn’t support the student’s admission.

… And then one of the other committee members made the argument and said, look, this child is from a single-parent home, they spend a lot of time helping to support a younger sibling, they don't have as much time for the extracurricular activities. You could tell that the school didn’t really know the student, because the student couldn't stay after and participate in a lot of activities. And I think seeing through a different lens to some degree, slowing down and really looking at the student on her own individual merits, that made all the difference.

One of the examples we saw today is one kid didn't particularly interview well.  How do you factor it all together in making your decision?

The important thing about how Grinnell and many other selective colleges practice admissions is we don't just look at grades or rank in class or standardized test scores. Instead we look at a wide variety of factors: the kinds of courses students take, certainly how well they do in them, how they score on standardized tests, what their teachers have to say about them, what kind of an essay they write and the perspective they bring to their writing, the activities that they are involved in, their work history. All of those factors contribute to what's known as the holistic review of a candidate.  So it's not just one factor, it's a variety of factors.

Certainly one of the basic things we look for is a student be successful academically at the institution. Beyond that, though, it's little things in the process that surprise us, uncover something that we think, wow, this is someone who is different in our process, unusual, that we would like to include in the class. That might come from a letter of recommendation from a teacher or a guidance counselor, it might come from an unusual perspective that we find out through the essay, it may come from an alumni interview and that person gives us a sense of how that student has succeeded in his or her local community that we otherwise wouldn't have known about.

One of the admissions officers wanted to see the "cluster" of applicants all the time. Why did she want to see it, why is it important and what is the cluster and what role does it play in the decision making process?

I would love to say that the admission process is a very straightforward process where every student is considered on her own merits, but that simply isn't true, especially in highly selective admissions.

…First of all, as an applicant you're constantly being compared to every other applicant in the pool.  Secondly if you're applying from a high school where there's a large number of other applicants you're going to be compared against other students applying from that high school. Now that does not mean that if there are 20 applicants that we won't admit all 20 if they're all standout, interesting students that we would love to have in class. But it does mean that we pay particular attention to whether you come from a high school that has lots of other applicants, or maybe even the state that you live in, geography could play a part in this.

…We want to make sure we're helping our counselor colleagues that are on the other side of the desk by not admitting someone who maybe is middle of the high school class, and denying someone who's at the top of that class.

I like a sense of what is it that's attractive to the applicant about Grinnell. What are their actual reasons? I feel much more connected to an applicant if I feel that they've actually done their homework and they have substantive reasons for wanting to apply, be accepted and actually enroll here.

For the student in my mind where there's a toss-up -- I could trade this one student for another student who looks fairly similar -- that's a really important and differentiating question. Have you actually done the kind of research that will allow you to know if this is a good fit?

One question on your supplemental application was asking the applicant to choose another mascot for the school and explain the choice. What does a seemingly innocuous question like that tell you about a student?

Well, it's interesting the students who take on that question who actually believe that Grinnell is searching to replace its mascot. We're not. It's a purely rhetorical question. We ask students to actually 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.  This is a way to get them to parrot back what they learn in the view book and on the website. So this again is a little bit about why are you looking at Grinnell?

What are you favorite answers?

I think my favorite answers are the students who think a bit outside of the lines, who aren't constrained by thinking of some pithy mascot answer but are really expansive. And actually when they answer that question, what they're answering is a lot more about them than it is the college. 

What would be something to give you pause or concern in an application?

Certainly it's hard to see students who have a dip in their grades, especially later on. We're far more lenient early on in their high school career, if 9th grade is off to a rocky start, if a student is transitioning into an academic environment. We're much more prone to give that student a break in the process and discount their first year in high school.

Many of the students we see, they're taking progressively more challenging academic loads but as they take more challenging loads, as their grades start dipping, that worries us a little bit because college is a step up than high school. If they’re having a hard time taking a more difficult or more challenging curriculum and not doing as well, we wonder what the trajectory will be in college.

A second red flag which happens from time to time is students who reveal their disposition through their essay or another piece of writing that seems counter to what we look for here at Grinnell. I'll give you an example. It's a very international community here.  we've got lots of students form other countries.  we send over half our students abroad. So a student writing in their essay that they're not interested din getting a wider perspective on the world, they don't see the value of meeting people from other cultures, that student we would look at very very closely. That would be a huge red flag as whether that student culturally or socially would be a good fit for Grinnell.

What are the things that win you over?

Unusual activities, students who at the tender age of 17 have already accomplished so much. I personally have seen things like running political campaigns, certainly writing novels and getting published, writing money- making computer programs, coding software -- those are probably some of the more unusual things. We see lots of students who've had a significant national experience, they've been on committees, or been in programs that sent them around the country or around the world.

Beyond that, it's a couple of things. It's the adult, the high school guidance counselor or the teacher who makes particular notice of a student and gives us some context -- basically in so many words says this is an unusual 17 year old, this is someone who takes more risks or has a bigger picture or has broader ambitions.

It might be in the essay itself. I think plainly the essay is one of those things that often breaks the tie on an applicant and the student 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.

Reading (applications) takes place perhaps not 24 hours a day but it takes place very early in the morning and well into late at night. So at some point there's a bit of weariness that sets in reading one good applicant after another. The student that's able to cut through that, an interesting essay, an unusual topic, someone who makes us laugh, that's someone that stands out for us. 

Any words of wisdom for students applying: How personally should they take it?

I think that the right perspective on this is those letters that they receive in April are far more a reflection of the needs of the institution than they are a commentary on the student's ability to be successful in the future. 

I know that this is a process that basically pumps students up to a point or near point of hysteria and I don’t think, in my heart of hearts, that's what our intent is as an institution.  The selective college admissions game has put such a great premium on this idea of “you are where you get selected” that I feel it’s natural the families feel angst and students feel crushed if they're not admitted to the schools they want to be admitted to.

I will say having talked to students over the years that most of them, within their first semester or first year of college, most of them feel where they ended is a perfect fit.  They didn't realize it at the time.

What I would say to the families is if you were to give it a year you'll find out that things happen for the right reason, that if you take full advantage of the institution that you end up attending, it will be a fantastic experience and it really is at that point all about you and what you are able to get out of your environment.

So while seniors are waiting to hear back, what should they be doing now?

One of the great things a student could do now is to begin thinking about the end. OK, assuming I get admitted to these schools, how am I going to make this decision and not leave it until April when they don't have a lot of time to make these decisions. And of course they're seniors and have a lot going on second semester senior year. So it would be good to elongate that and spend several months trying to figure that out.