Admission: Impossible?

Not quite—but in today’s hypercompetitive environment, it takes something special to stand out.
April 16, 2012

Anxiety is in the air. Or certainly in cyberspace.

 


In early February, the Duke thread on a popular website for college applicants, College Confidential, was active with expressions of uncertainty. Hey, someone posted, I have a high-school GPA around 4.3, performed in nine theater productions, won five awards for French, produced a documentary on homelessness, tutored in calculus, and swam on the varsity team for a year. “I know that Duke is very hard to get into and my chances aren’t great, but I was just wondering if you thought I could get in!”

 


A second prospect was drawn to Duke because “I loved their science labs, and one of the professors there influenced me to explore a new interest in a specific chemistry field. That, and the fact that their 3-D room is pretty awesome.” Another simply observed that “waiting till April”—the traditional time for notifying applicants—“is gonna kill me!”

 


In their earnestness, their nervousness, and their accomplishments, these would seem to be—as New York Times contributor James Atlas put it this past fall—“Super People.” He wondered, “Has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts?...My contemporaries love to talk about how they would have been turned down by the schools they attended if they were applying today. This is no illusion.”

 


The rampant anxiety around admission to Duke is grounded in some sobering numbers. Applications for the Class of 2016 reached yet another record—around 31,600, up 6 percent from the previous year, following three years when applications surged by a total of 46 percent. The percentage of regular-decision applicants accepted a year ago was about 13 percent; the figure for this year is bound to be even lower.

 


According to Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, a bigger applicant pool reflects a widely felt necessity: Students need to be hedging their bets. “When counselors could predict what colleges a student had a reasonable chance of being admitted to, a good chance of being admitted to, a slim chance of being admitted to—as long as they understood the landscape, they could feel confident. A student would apply to six or eight colleges and everything would work out well.”

 


Now, he says, for applicants aiming to scale the heights of higher education, the landscape is more uncertain. In recent years, most of the elite schools have seen application-pool increases that mirror Duke’s (though notably for schools in the Northeast, those numbers dropped or leveled off this year). “The more selective a college becomes, the harder it is to predict the particular combination of qualities that’s going to make someone competitive or appealing.”

 


Student anxiety is a theme that’s familiar to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. It’s a factor, he says, that helps explain the explosive growth of the profession of educational consultants, who work to guide high-school students through the college-admissions thickets. (Another factor, he says, is that high-school counselors are able to spend an average of just thirty-eight minutes a year with their assigned students.) He thinks the membership will double in the next five years from the current roster of 1,000 to meet a growing demand. According to a study by Lipman Hearne, a major marketing and communications firm, 26 percent of high-achieving students hire a consultant in their collegeapplication process.

 


“It’s absolutely true that it’s no longer painful to apply to colleges,” Sklarow says. “When I was going through the process, you had to worry about using Wite-Out on your form. Every college was asking for different applicant information. And an essay topic for one college wouldn’t work for another place. Buteven as it’s gotten easier to apply, the process seems more and more opaque. You just can’t figure out who is going to be accepted and who won’t be.” And that uncertainty, he says, has fed the phenomenon of multiple applications.

 

Echoing Guttentag’s observation, Sklarow says, “I’ve heard consultants talk about advising students to apply to five or six schools. And then they learn that the number is something like twenty. The attitude of the student or the parent is, ‘We thought we needed to apply everywhere that seems like a good match, because there’s no way of knowing what might happen in the competition.’ For a kid who gets just one shot as a college applicant, I can understand how anxiety takes over.”

 


One big contributor to the application surge at Duke is California, now the most-represented state in the current freshman class, with 191 students. Some of the California-based interest, in Guttentag’s view, has to do with California’s budget woes and the consequent decline in state support for the University of California system: Among other impacts, the cutbacks mean larger class sizes, fewer offerings, and higher tuition. (Guttentag earned his undergraduate degree from UC-Santa Barbara.)

 


Martin Walsh, a counselor at the Harker School in San Jose who formerly worked in admissions at Stanford University, points to one local indication of Duke’s popularity: In 2008, Harker, which draws many first-generation American children of Silicon Valley workers, produced eight applications for Duke. The number for last fall’s freshman class was fifty-seven—about one-third of the graduating class. Fifteen were admitted to Duke and three attended.

 

UC-Berkeley, about a forty-five minute drive from Harker, exerts a significant pull; despite its deepening California connection, Duke often loses out to Stanford University, along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. It does well against Cornell, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, and Georgetown. Guttentag notes that a higher percentage of Duke applicants now than in the past are looking at Stanford and MIT along with the Ivies, particularly the familiar “HYP” threesome. Duke’s yield rate— the rate at which accepted students attend Duke—has remained fairly steady, meaning, he says, that “we are holding our own against tougher and tougher competition.”

 


Walsh says the growth in student interest testifies in part to the efforts of Duke’s regional admissions officer, Samuel Carpenter, and his ability to “make it clear to our students and their parents what Duke has to offer.” On a visit to Duke last spring, Walsh looked up the Duke-attending alumni of Harker to learn about those offerings more directly. “To a person, they were all enjoying their experience. They present Duke as a place with outstanding academic programs coupled with a vibrant student life,” he says. “They haven’t been watching Duke forever. They haven’t been wearing Duke T-shirts since the eighth grade.” Once on campus, though, they’re drawn into a sort of Duke energy field. Among the Dukebased Harker graduates he tracked down was a pre-med student. She was “thrilled” with her academic experience, Walsh recalls, and also talked about painting her face blue and white for a men’s basketball game.

 


Even as the numbers from California and elsewhere have changed in recent years, the The majority of applications are read twice, initially by a so-called first reader, an outsider hired and trained by the admissions office. Applicants are rated on a scale of one to five on six factors: the student’s course selection in high school, grades earned, standardized test scores, school-based recommendations and the alumni interview report, extracurricular activities and accomplishments, and the application essay.

 


One of Guttentag’s veteran readers, now in her fifteenth year, is Lynn Tocci; during the height of the reading period, in January and February, she’s sifting through application materials thirty to thirty-five hours a week. “The qualities that I look for in a potential Duke student have remained essentially the same,” she says. “That is, intellectual curiosity, a willingness to step out of the comfort zone and try interesting things. Increasingly, kids are presenting a rigorous curriculum and high test scores, so I want to see those intangible qualities that make a Duke student: What are the signs of the quality of their character, what will they do with the enormous academic opportunities at Duke, what kind of impact are they likely to make at Duke?”

 


She adds, “I’m a softie for kids in tough circumstances, kids who are overcoming adversity and who are reaching far from where they began in setting their sights on to Duke.”


Tocci and her fellow first readers will hand over applications to an admissions staff member responsible for some section of the country (or the world). The regional officers—who spend much of the fall on the road—have a good sense of a particular region, the high schools that fall within it, and individual school counselors. They’ll go through the reader evaluations, assign their own set of ratings, and designate some as clear admits or denies, sending those on to Guttentag or his associate dean to be “autoadmitted” or “auto-denied.”

 


Guttentag estimates that the top 5 percent and the bottom half of the applicant pool are handled this way. “The strongest applicants and the less competitive or the less compelling ones are relatively easy to identify,” he says. “Almost all of the students who apply to Duke are qualified [to be admitted]. Almost all of the students who apply to Duke, if we admitted them, could move through this institution—academically, socially, and in all of the ways that a person is part of this community—with ease.”

 


When the decision is not simple or straightforward, “you have multiple reads,” he says. “That’s when we talk about them in Admissions Committee,” the group of admissions officers assembled to make the fine-tuned distinctions among strong candidates. “Sometimes we talk about them after Admissions Committee and review them again.”

 


For the current admissions cycle, Guttentag and his colleagues have recalibrated the ratings system. That’s because the pool has become stronger and not just larger: In the current freshman class, a third of the students who took the SAT scored between 1500 and 1600. For that same class, 1,914 high-school valedictorians applied; Duke admitted just 29 percent. “We were at the point where over half of the applicants received our highest rating in terms of the strength of the curriculum,” Guttentag says.

 


The top strength-of-curriculum rating now hinges on “a particularly strong group of courses over several years, a curriculum that is unusually challenging even among students applying to Duke,” Guttentag says. “The kind of curriculum most applicants have is completely adequate. We just felt the need to make a further distinction at the top of the range.” He and his colleagues made a similar adjustment to recognize which applicants clearly have the strongest grades in their class. (More than half of the applicants aren’t assigned a rank in class by their schools.) Getting the top rating isn’t a requirement to be admitted—far from it—but, says Guttentag, “we wanted to understand our applicants better within the context of their schools and the pool as a whole.”

 


November is a traditional time for some sessions of the Admissions Committee. The November gatherings are geared to earlydecision candidates, those who commit themselves to attending Duke if they’re accepted. Regular-decision candidates go before the committee in early March. Guttentag and about a half-dozen colleagues gather over bagels, muffins, and endless coffee. The conference room is assaulted by the inevitable autumnal leaf-blowing, leading Guttentag to joke, “Thank goodness no one is going to overhear us.”

 


One thing that’s clear is that the admissions staff members bore down deeply into the applications. With one of the first they’re considering, Guttentag remarks, “Why did she hit the ball out of the park earlier in high school, and then get nothing but Bs and B-pluses? She either maxed out with her ability or the work has gotten harder.” With a second candidate, the conversation moves on to the significance of a student’s invitation to the junior nationals of a performance competition—essentially “the junior-varsity equivalent,” as an admissions officer comments—and not the senior nationals (“the competition for grown-ups”). There’s discussion around some of the application essay phrasing—for example, “My school is as heterogeneous as milk.” Guttentag observes, “I read a lot of essays that are polished to within an inch of their lives. I always smile when I read an essay that’s a little less polished, and a little more insightful.”
The admissions group also engages with a few cases of disciplinary problems in high school. There are issues having to do with alcohol and drugs and one with misrepresenting himself online. Did the student learn from the experience, they ask, or is he trying to escape responsibility?

 


Guttentag and his colleagues spend a lot of conversation time on unusual paths taken. One applicant gets attention for having worked as a volunteer at an injured-horse ranch. Another draws the comment, “A nice kid, but there’s little impact”; a third is described as “balanced but bland.” A fourth is treated with enthusiasm for having bounced back from family hardship at “a school with lots of privilege,” as the regional officer describes it. As someone else’s transcript and recommendations are projected from Guttentag’s laptop onto a conference- room screen, he comments, “Something that Duke students like in their classmates is that they all do interesting things. They all bring different things to the table.” That metaphorical table comes up a lot in their deliberations.

 


Widely distributed honors, such as National Honor Society membership and National Merit Semifinalist status, are generally passed over without comment. So are the usual leadership roles. “Every yearbook needs an editor-in-chief, every team needs a captain, every organization needs a president,” Guttentag says. “But who has been a mover and shaker? Who has made a difference? And you can have leadership and impact without being in a leadership position. We sometimes use the term ‘bridge builder,’ a person who does a great job of bringing people together, of creating a community. And there’s the student who’s fully engaged in an enterprise, the student who’s run with an idea, who’s really sunk his teeth into something.”

 


In their November discussions, Guttentag and his colleagues are sensitive both to what’s in the application and what isn’t there. Teacher recommendations can be especially revealing in that regard. “I love reading between the lines,” Guttentag remarks over a discussion around one applicant. It may be that a teacher is too pressed for time to say much about a student. Or it may be that there’s not much to be said. The committee looks at someone from a competitive high school where 90 percent go on to college. But her recommenders have little to offer on her behalf, beyond the statement that she’s a hard worker. Did she change the tone of the classroom, show herself to be intellectually ambitious, leave a mark on her school that signals her being a high-impact student? She’s deemed solid but not exciting.

 


Guttentag says that when he started in admissions, the model for the desirable student was the well-rounded student. “And then somehow in the last thirty years, the focus shifted. Everybody in admissions stopped talking about the well-rounded student and started talking about the wellrounded class.” For some reason, he says, playing the oboe took on the symbolic status as the particular gap in a class that a college looks to fill—a sought-after quality that is unknowable outside the committee room. “While we always have our eyes open for students who do one thing exceptionally or unusually well, the overwhelming majority of students at colleges like Duke are well-rounded. The energy of a place like Duke has to do with the ability and the inclination of the students not just to do one thing well, but to do many things well. And the truth is that most students applying to—and admitted to— schools like Duke are well-rounded. There just aren’t enough angular students out there to fill our classes.”

 


The “high-impact student” is a favorite Guttentag phrase; another is “distance traveled.” When he talks with guidance counselors, he sometimes mentions the example of two students from different schools, each of whom had taken six AP courses and had done well academically. Should you assume that they represent the same level of achievement? “In fact, one student was the first in her family who was planning to go to college. She was attending a school that offered only six AP courses. And the other student was attending a school that offered twenty AP courses. Not to diminish the accomplishment of the second, but in fact the same curriculum represented two different levels of accomplishment. All these things gain their meaning not in isolation but in the particular context of where a student is coming from.”

 


To those on the outside, “admissions is a black box,” Guttentag says. “People see the input, and people see the output. But they don’t see the process. Generally speaking, the academic credentials make a candidate competitive. But what makes a candidate compelling is a combination of the academic credentials and the rest of the application. And every case is different. In one case it might be an essay that’s the compelling part. In another case, it might be the extracurricular activities. In a third, it might be the letters of recommendation. What it comes down to is figuring out what the student has accomplished within the context of the opportunities and the challenges that he or she has faced.”
People are always asking, says Guttentag, if the size of the Duke pool will eventually stabilize. But increased selectivity doesn’t seem to be discouraging applications. Nor does economic uncertainty. “I remember early on in my career, when college costs were approaching $25,000 and people were saying, ‘Nobody’s going to pay $25,000.’ We don’t seem to have reached the magic number, in terms of costs. I was wondering when the economy went south whether that would affect applications in a negative way. And exactly the opposite happened.” To prospective students and their parents, he says, it seemed clear that the credential of an elite institution would play better in the job market—a variation on “the flight to quality.”

 


Guttentag muses that at some point, maybe the point of a single-digit admit rate, students will conclude, “Why bother?” He says, “In theory that might be the case. But I have a contradictory theory. When admit rates become so low that nobody fully expects to be admitted, the potential psychological cost of being denied diminishes. Then students feel freer to tell themselves, ‘What the heck? Why not apply? Maybe I’ll hit the lottery.’ ”

 


Guttentag says it may take a behavioral economist like Duke’s Dan Ariely to sort out the seeming paradox—why applicants vie for a place at Duke even as the competition intensifies. For his part, Ariely Ph.D. ’98 refers to the coolness factor, or the perceived value of a Duke affiliation. “It’s very natural to gravitate toward a group that we want to be part of,” he says. “If I have any choice in the matter, I want to pick only the smartest, best-looking, and most interesting people I can find.” The Duke “balance of academic and social life” speaks to the wellrounded student, he says. And that’s a cohort that’s easy to identify with. Beyond that, he adds, exclusivity is automatically appealing. “If something is seen as more and more exclusive, the desire to be part of that gets higher and higher.”

 


Guttentag says if the university had infinite resources, he would be sure that every applicant was part of the alumni-interviewing network. And he would be sure that every applicant had no obstacles to making a campus visit: As deeply as candidates can probe Web resources, and as avidly as they can join online discussion groups around campus issues, there’s still no substitute for actually experiencing the place.

 


On an unseasonably and even unreasonably warm February afternoon, 150 Duke prospects and parents fill every seat in McClendon Auditorium next to the admissions office. Admissions officer Morgan Kirkland ’11, who covers South Carolina, Georgia, and Northern Florida, says that after being sequestered for weeks reading applications, she’s grateful for the “human contact.” She asks her audience to shout out where they come from: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Arizona, Alaska, Taiwan, Switzerland.

 


Then she talks about Duke’s unusual opportunities— undergraduate research, DukeEngage, the freshman Focus program, semesters in New York and Los Angeles, a self-designed curriculum as an option. She moves on to Duke’s unusual features—the Lemur Center, the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment, the Smart House, the Marine Lab, the Duke Farm. She sprinkles in her own experiences as an art history major, a resident assistant on East Campus, a curatorial intern at the Nasher Museum, and a member of the tenting community in Kville. Her stress is on Duke as a “spirited community.”

 


The students and parents spill out of the hall, all of them identifiable with their “I visited Duke” blue-and-white stickers. They align themselves with one of several student guides. A good-natured Duke sophomore from New York, wearing a “Lin 17” jersey, introduces himself as Jesse and attracts an instant following. As he leads his group down Chapel Drive, he gets the attention of one particularly engaged prospect, a high-school senior from Virginia Beach, Virginia. He’s overdressed for the long stroll through campus with a heavy black-and-white striped sweater. His current interests—subject, of course, to constant revision—are economics and political science. He says he’s waiting to hear from Stanford and Columbia along with Duke.

 


Might Duke be his first choice? “I’m liking what I see,” he says. And what about his chances? “I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”