Admissions 101

January 31, 2006
Laboring in the galleries: Little with Pollock's TheShe-Wolf , 1943

So you've decided to apply to Duke. Ever wonder what happens to your application after you turn it in?

Once you submit part one of the application, which includes personal data such as name, address, and high school, admissions staff members create a file for you. All the parts of your application--high-school report, test scores, teacher recommendations, and essays--are assembled here as they are received. Duke also invites you to submit an additional, personal recommendation written by someone other than a teacher, such as a parent, coach, or friend. "The D," the admissions office's online communications system, allows you to see when each piece has been received and processed. You can also use it to send messages to admissions officers and receive information about Duke programs related to your interests.

After your file is created, you are invited to take part in an interview with an alumnus or alumna in or near your hometown. These are not required, but, according to admissions staff members, can help give the admissions committee additional insights into who you are. They say that, more often than not, the interviewer's comments about an applicant confirm what they have already seen in other parts of the application, but sometimes can provide important additional information. The interview also gives you an opportunity to ask the alumnus or alumna questions about Duke. On-campus interviews have been eliminated, in order to be fair to those unable to visit campus.

When complete, your admissions file is passed along to a "first reader" outside the admissions staff who is trained in reading applications. The reader goes over your application, then fills out an assessment form that includes a breakdown of your grades by year and level of difficulty (regular, honors, A.P./I.B.), important bits of information gleaned from teacher and counselor recommendations, and a "bottom line" assessment of your case for admission.

Using a five-point scale, he or she rates you in each of six areas: rigor of high-school academic program, academic performance, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and personal qualities, personal statement and essay, and standardized testing. The standards for receiving a five in each category are high. For instance, reaching the cut-off for a five in testing usually requires SAT scores in the mid-1500s; to receive a five in recommendations, a student must be recognized by teachers as one of the best they've ever had.

After your file is reviewed by the first reader, it is passed along to the admissions officer in charge of your region. There are sixteen in all; their work includes visiting high schools and staffing local college fairs. They have information about your school and your region and can put your grades and recommendations in context. They can also refer to historical records to see what types of students were accepted from your school in the past. They go over the reader response card, adding or tweaking insights about you, and determine their own set of rankings, which may vary slightly from those of the first reader.

Children of alumni are granted a third read to make certain that nothing important was missed. Admissions officers say that legacy status is taken into account in the process, because children of alumni bring a familiarity with and continuity of Duke traditions to the class. However, it is just one of the many factors that admissions officers consider in reviewing an application. Legacies are admitted at about twice the overall rate.

As the regional officers review their applicants, they designate some as clear admits or denies, sending those on to admissions dean Christoph Guttentag or one of his associate directors to be "auto-admitted" or "auto-denied." Guttentag estimates that the top 5 percent and the bottom third of the applicant pool are handled this way. The remainder moves on to admissions committee rounds, a succession of meetings in which staff members weigh each applicant's merits and deficiencies.

Your regional officer acts as an advocate for you, using notes from the assessment form to point out the highlights of your application to other officers. Though there are no exact regional quotas, officers have a general idea as to how many students will be admitted overall and from their respective regions, based on the formula used to determine the number of admits that will yield the desired class size.

By the end of all the rounds, admissions officers admit just under 4,000 applicants for about 1,600 spaces in the freshman class. If you apply early decision, you receive your notification letter in mid-December. Notifications for regular admissions arrive in early April. Decisions can also be accessed online the same day that letters are mailed, and if you're like most applicants, you'll choose to take advantage of this feature. Last year, 2,000 applicants logged on in the first five minutes after decisions became available; some 10,000 within the first twenty-four hours.