Admissions Dean: What Colleges Really Want

A tale circulating among my colleagues at other colleges tells of a student's taking a rather literal approach to these application instructions: "Ask yourself a question and give us the answer." The student wrote: "Do you play the tuba?" The answer: "No." In the anecdote, some of the admissions officers were irritated by the cryptic reply; others praised it as uniquely revealing. It certainly meshed with teacher recommendations, which described the student as a bright risk-taker who didn't worship at the altar of grades.

Colleagues who hear the story and who think the student's essay was smart, sassy and fun aren't surprised to learn he was accepted at a top school. But that same essay could have produced different results. If the teacher letters had described a pest who questioned authority just for the sake of questioning, or if he had poor grades or scores, he could've been read as a smart aleck. The integrity of the application would have dissolved.

Although it may seem mysterious, the admissions process is actually straightforward. It's about finding relationships that will work, just like dating and marriage. In this case, admissions officers are the matchmakers, looking for clues to prospective partners before committing. Perfect behavior on a first date (perhaps an interview or application papers) may lead to a second chance, but ultimately the real person is revealed, and that revelation indicates whether a happily-ever-after experience lies ahead.

Corey Brettschneider is a good example. When I met him at a college fair, he was clever and witty, but self-deprecating about his record. He became one of my favorite applicants that year. His record wasn't compelling, but his faculty references were impressive, and they were specific in their praise. The narrative of the application presented a growing, natural scholar. He was funny, and people were drawn to him, but there was more than charisma. He could make a remark that cut through all the noise of a discussion. He presented himself with no affectations. We could detect this because instead of handlers, he had a powerful cheering section of teachers and an interviewer persuaded by a very stimulating conversation. For the record, he was admitted and became an academic star. After earning a master's at Cambridge, a doctorate from Princeton and a law degree from Stanford, he became a tenured professor at Brown.

I worry that we as admissions officers may have unintentionally transmitted incorrect messages about what we hope to see. Students become supplicants, not applicants, doing the right things for the wrong reasons. When colleges began to mention social awareness to their students, some high schools made community service a requirement. A new industry was born to carry students to distant places for community service, presumably while learning another language or culture, although similar experiences might have been found at home. Admissions officers then had a new quandary: distinguishing a desire to serve from love of travel.

We've had to become personality detectives because so many students, like presidential candidates, seem to work under the management of handlers. Perhaps it's their parents who help to initially develop the college list. Then, a tutor works on test preparation while a consultant concocts the "perfect" extracurricular résumé. How do we sort out the genuine student from the image essentially manufactured for admissions purposes? It is a process that is part critical reading, part common sense and part intuition. We look for subplots and unexpected twists. Stories in applications told from multiple points of view (the student, the ACT or SAT, teachers, counselors and interviewer) are woven together. We look for credibility and, ultimately, genuineness.

Packaging the application doesn't result in the success one might expect. The odds are small of guessing exactly right about what any individual admissions office wants. Colleges seek students who have a learning style compatible with their ways of teaching. Personalities, both the candidate's and the reader's, also come into play. The admissions officer's job—to evaluate talents, background and skills in the context of what was available to a student—is subjective. Who we are and where we work does affect what we see. We trust our intuition, along with data.

Our job is to make sure the students who attend our institutions are really who they appear to be, and that they will give and take something of value in the college's educational environment. What we ask for in an application may seem like a lot, but students should know that we're acting in their best interests. In our hunt for the authentic, we are, after all, creating the academic and social environment that will shape the rest of their lives.