Student-guided tours: gathering outside Perkins-Bostock library nexus Photo: Les Todd
Student-guided tours: gathering outside Perkins-Bostock library nexus Photo: Les Todd

Top of the Crop

As the applicant pool expands in size and quality, Duke is on the lookout for a new kind of student.
Writer: 
January 31, 2006

A bearded man in a smart blue suit is perched on a stool at the front of the main auditorium in The Nightingale-Bamford School on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Behind him is a flowing, black curtain framed by a vine of red and gold leaves. For over an hour, he and his colleagues have held the rapt attention of a crowd of more than 100. Offering an interactive presentation, they have garnered both laughter and applause. And now, as they finish, and as the theater lights shine brightly down on him, audience members leave their seats and make a beeline for the stage.

He is a star of sorts, but he's not an actor--the set pieces around him belong to an upcoming school play. Rather, he is Duke's dean of undergraduate admissions. Christoph Guttentag has spent the day visiting city schools; it is the second day of four that he will log on this trip canvassing the city for would-be Duke students. Tonight, as happens after most Discover Duke admissions presentations around the country, many of the students have stuck around for some face time. They approach Guttentag, one or two at a time, engaging him with a firm handshake and a clear introduction. Some have questions: How does he distinguish between someone who is truly dedicated to his or her activities and someone who is just resume-building? How much will the Pratt School of Engineering be expanded? Others just want to introduce themselves.

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

 

What they are all seeking, and what Guttentag ostensibly holds, is the secret to getting into what has become one of the nation's most selective universities--and continues to become more and more selective with each passing year.

Duke has long been considered an elite university. In 1984, The New York Times Magazine ran a story about "hot colleges" that featured Duke on the cover, and the following year, in the second edition of its Best Colleges guide, U.S. News & World Report ranked Duke sixth among national universities. (This year, Duke was ranked fifth.) Every year, admissions staff members tell the incoming class that it is the smartest and most accomplished yet; and alumni are often heard to say, if partly in jest, that they doubt they would be admitted to Duke today. But those familiar with Duke's admissions process say that, beyond gradual improvement, the past few years have seen a dramatic jump in the university's selectivity. Part of that can be attributed to increased visibility and naturally evolving public perceptions, and part to intensified recruiting efforts and a conscious shift in admissions standards.

Kathy Phillips, associate director of admissions, recalls a point about three years ago when she realized that the university was rejecting, or, at best, wait-listing, students who would have been accepted the year before. "I actually felt a physical change from year to year" that coincided with a large jump in board scores, she says. After nine years of reading applications and taking part in admissions judgments, "it was the first time where I felt like I could actually define that difference."

The shift has also been evident to those on "the other side of the desk." Steven Singer, who has worked at Manhattan's hyper-competitive Horace Mann School for twenty-one years and is currently director of college counseling there, says that, while Duke's standards have been on the rise for years, he has noticed more pronounced changes over the last four, in particular. "When I first came, a kid who was in the middle of the class or just below it, with SAT scores that these days would translate into the 600s per exam, and [with] a reasonable amount of school involvement, could get in to Duke from Horace Mann. Now, you can have 750s, all A's, push all the right extracurricular buttons, and if you do not have an interesting mind, or do not enjoy intellectual discourse, you could still be in trouble.

"Duke is in an orbit now that it was not a decade ago. And it's probably two orbits above where it was two decades ago."

Duke's latest admissions figures are impressive. In the fall of 2004, the university received 18,089 applications, setting a university record for the fourth straight year. That total included the highest number of applicants to both Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Pratt School of Engineering. (Pratt, in particular, saw large jumps in both the number of applications and matriculation rate, a shift administrators attribute to the draw of new state-of-the-art facilities such as the Fitzpatrick Center.) Duke's acceptance rate fell for the eighth straight year, to 22.1 percent, the second lowest rate ever.

What's especially notable, Guttentag and his colleagues point out, is that the recent applicant pools have not only been larger but also stronger than ever by many measures. Though they are careful to note that SAT scores are but one of several criteria considered, those scores do provide an idea of the strength of the new applicant pool. Admissions data show that Duke has received a relatively consistent number of applications over the past ten years from students who scored 1400 or below on the SAT. Meanwhile, applications boasting scores above 1400 have taken off, increasing markedly from 1996 to 2002 to 2004, and again this year.

"In this year's applicant pool, we had 1,300 students apply who had a 1550 or above on the SAT," Guttentag says. "Four years ago, in 2001, that number was 640. And there's been no re-centering." As a result, mean SAT scores for applicants have risen by forty over the last decade (compared with forty-eight for admitted students and fifty-five for matriculants). This year alone, applicant SAT scores rose by nine points, matriculants' by twenty.

The improvement in the pool is evident in other areas, as well. Over the past several decades, high-school students nationwide have become savvier in the ways they prepare for the college-admissions process. Students are counseled to seek out and showcase community service and leadership experiences. It's not uncommon for parents of students bound for selective colleges to hire private educational consultants to aid in the application process. More recently, many colleges have begun to request that applicants submit a resume with application materials.

More college-level courses are being offered to high-school students through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, and more Duke applicants are taking advantage of them, Phillips says. "Being in the top 10 percent [of an applicant's high-school class] is now virtually a given." Though fewer schools officially rank their students these days, "most admits [who are ranked] are in the top 5 percent of their class, if not in the top five graduates. We see few grades in the applicant pool below a B." This year, Duke admitted just 41 percent of the nearly 1,500 valedictorians who applied.

"The numbers are coming at the top as opposed to the bottom," Phillips says. "The bottom is dropping out, is how I'd put it."

"That's why we can find ourselves not admitting students this year that we would have admitted ten years ago, five years ago, two years ago, or even last year, for that matter," adds Guttentag. "Not because of anything that the students have done wrong."

More students are applying in part because more students know about Duke than they did, say, ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Sandra Foyil, the mother of Duke senior Larissa Goodwin and a member of the Parents Advisory Council for Duke's division of student affairs, says she does not recall having any knowledge of Duke when she was growing up in New Jersey in the Seventies. "If I did," she says, "I probably thought it was just a small Southern school." (She applied primarily to colleges in the Northeast, ultimately choosing Rutgers University.)

By the time she was helping her daughter explore colleges, Duke was no longer an unknown. Like many parents of high-achieving high-school students across the nation, she planned college trips not just to Boston and other traditional Northeastern college hotspots, but also to North Carolina to see Duke, as well as Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says her daughter was drawn to Duke by the competitive academics and the warm climate.

She recalls sitting at the table in her New Jersey home one day last year with her younger son, Tyler, then in eighth grade, and a friend of his. Somehow, the discussion had swung to where the boys wanted to attend college. The friend said he would likely stay in the Philadelphia area, but, "Tyler said, 'I'm going to Duke.' His friend--without skipping a beat--said, 'you better start studying, then.' "

"I don't think you have to explain to people anymore who Duke is, where Duke is, who it competes against for students," says Kathy Cleaver, who worked as a Duke admissions officer from 1984 to 1988, and is now in her fourteenth year as a college counselor at Durham Academy, a prep school just down the road from Duke's West Campus. "Where I spent a great deal of time talking about that, it's not necessary anymore."

In fact, Foyil recalls that her daughter's guidance counselor did not "super encourage" applying to Duke, in part because of how competitive it was. "Duke is considered right up there with the Ivies in South Jersey," says Foyil.

According to Guttentag, Duke both suffers and benefits from not being part of the Ivy League. "On the one hand," he says, "it's an easy shorthand for quality and prestige." Especially among students at the most prestigious Northeastern prep schools, he says that "Ivy League" still has a special ring to it. And Phyllis Supple, Duke's associate director of admissions for Asia, Africa, Australia, and Canada, notes that even among foreign students the long-established dominance of the Ivies in public perception is hard to break. "Even outside the Northeast," says Guttentag, "I think the notion of going 'back East' for college is still a more typical thing to think about than to head South."

Admissions dean Guttentag: the ultimate decision maker

Admissions dean Guttentag: the ultimate decision maker. Photo: Les Todd

On the other hand, having worked for nine years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he faced constant comparisons with the rest of the Ivies, Guttentag says he finds that being outside the Ivy League can work in Duke's favor. "It makes it easier for us to say, 'We are who we are.' Obviously, we always judge ourselves by comparing Duke to other schools--including the Ivies--but there is still a strong feeling of, 'We are Duke, not someone else.' "

In some circles, Duke is now mentioned in the same breath as those schools that it has long targeted. John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, cites a recent New York Times article that leads with a comment about local students' "admission to elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Duke." Still, administrators do not dispute that one of Duke's biggest challenges in recruiting both prospective applicants and admitted students is facing up to the Ivies, especially the top-tier Ivies--Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. College counselors confirm Duke's standing at what Provost Peter Lange calls "the bottom of the very, very top schools in this country." And, while many are quick with specific examples of recent students turning down Harvard or Princeton for a spot at Duke--choices that were much rarer ten years ago, they say--that is still far from the norm.

Based on acceptance rates, Duke continues to fall behind a few choice schools in terms of selectivity. Against five of those schools in particular, Duke faces substantial recruiting obstacles. According to matriculation data, Duke is successful in wooing to campus only about 15 percent of those admitted students who are also accepted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, or Stanford. Against the next group--Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Penn--Duke does better, enrolling about 50 percent. In recruiting battles against the third five--Georgetown, Chicago, Washington University, Northwestern, and Cornell--Duke is successful about 80 percent of the time.

Those percentages, Lange and Guttentag say, have not changed much over the years. Guttentag explains that although some of the numbers against individual competitors vary year to year, it is tough to make significant progress because the rest of the schools are all getting better, too. "There are few schools," he says, "that recruit more aggressively than Harvard."

Christoph Guttentag thinks, and speaks, in broad strokes. He's courteous and frank. And what people quickly come to realize about him is that he'll answer just about any question--and appear to love doing it. On his trip to New York, Guttentag visits the Trinity School, a private school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He sets up shop in the college counselor's office, a briefcase packed with Duke literature at his feet. Across the coffee table, three young men have arranged themselves on one overstuffed brown leather sofa; four young women have squeezed onto another. Most of the students present already have Duke brochures; most have visited the campus. After breaking the ice with a story about his own college search and an explanation of how he was assigned to this region--"As the boss, I get to decide, and lo and behold, I choose Manhattan"--he offers to conduct the presentation as an informal question-and-answer session.

Early questions address a range of issues that, to Guttentag, clearly seem interrelated: Duke and Durham, the attitude of students on campus, what one of the Trinity students, Rachel Berkowitz, refers to as "the Southern thing." These questions--veiled references to concerns that include Duke's location in a small city in the South and the amount of diversity on campus--are posed in almost every Duke information session, by visitors to campus, as well as prospective students at schools like this across the country. They are questions Guttentag and his staff know they must be prepared for.

There is a positive side to "the Southern thing," including good weather and a laid-back atmosphere, that represent areas where admissions officers believe they can gain traction in the race to distinguish Duke from the host of competing elite universities. Duke students "are ambitious and have high expectations," Guttentag says, "but it's also okay to camp out for basketball games, to paint yourself blue, to really care whether the team wins or loses." He stresses the sense of community that he sees at Duke, the value put on collaboration that is evident not only in that team spirit, but also ingrained in the curriculum itself through Duke's many interdisciplinary centers and programs.

He treats the students to his own impressions of the South, having moved to Durham from Philadelphia thirteen years ago. "To some extent, interactions are simpler, nicer, calmer." He acknowledges that cultural opportunities available in a small city like Durham are less rich than those in New York City, but points out a variety of activities that do exist.

But the crux of the answer to questions about "the Southern thing" is this: "There are so many people from so many places that that just doesn't dominate the culture," he says. "It doesn't feel like a Southern school. It feels like a national or international university that happens to be in North Carolina."

About 13 percent of Duke students come from North Carolina and about 35 percent from the South. In addition to North Carolina, the top two suppliers of Duke students have long been New York and Florida, with substantial numbers coming from states throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as California.

The applicant pool--and as a result the student body--has benefited of late from an influx of international students, a shift that Guttentag attributes largely to more aggressive recruiting. In the late Eighties, the number of international students in each entering class hovered in the teens and twenties. This year, Duke welcomed to campus 134 freshmen representing forty-five foreign countries of origin.

Racial diversity has also grown at an impressive pace, say admissions officials. Since it became an integrated campus just forty-two years ago, Duke has seen minority recruitment as an educational imperative, a recognition of America's shifting demographic makeup, and a responsibility in light of the South's troubled racial history. Minorities made up just 15.2 percent of the class that entered in 1987. By 1998, that number had cracked 30 percent. This year's entering class was 37.1 percent minority.

In administrative terms, one key to further expanding Duke's reach has been a substantial increase in the recruiting budget. During their deliberations over Duke's last five-year strategic plan, called "Building on Excellence," university administrators consulted a study that found Duke's admissions office did not have the funding to recruit competitively alongside its peer institutions, Guttentag says. To remedy the situation, they approved an annual recruiting-budget increase of $450,000, which went into effect in July 2001. Beyond expanding the staff and allowing for more recruiting trips, that money was used to maintain and improve the department's publications and its website, both of which have undergone a major revamping since that time. One noticeable difference between the new viewbook and the old--which Guttentag confirms is neither accident nor sheer coincidence--is expanded emphasis on the arts, research, and Duke's Program II, which allows students to create their own curricula, integrating courses from a variety of departments.

In some ways, the secret to being admitted to Duke is a fairly simple one. It's an answer that Guttentag volunteers freely. The applicants that stand out, Guttentag says, "are the students that are fortunate enough to have a passion. Not all students do, and not all good students do; nor do we expect all students to have a real passion. But students who have been fortunate enough to discover what they really enjoy--and who are willing to put the time and effort into pursuing that with enthusiasm--stand out."

This represents a relatively new way of doing things, one that reflects, in part, Duke's participation in a national trend and, in part, discussions that have taken place among administrators involving Duke's educational mission.

For the admissions community nationwide, the Nineties brought a redefinition of the ideal candidate. Increasing numbers of well- but similarly qualified applicants forced admissions officers to look for new ways to identify standout applicants. As a result, competitive colleges shifted from looking primarily for "bright, well-rounded" individuals to seeking "angular" students, those with special, highly developed interests and talents--musical composition, say, or lacrosse or string theory--who, en masse, would create a bright, well-rounded class.

Guttentag stresses that, at Duke, the move to identify and actively recruit such individuals does not mean that the university no longer seeks students who are bright and well-rounded: "It was not so much a paradigm shift as it was an attempt to create a broader appeal, to cast a wider net." Lange explains that in discussions about admissions and recruiting, one question administrators always ask themselves is, "Are there communities of talented kids who still aren't coming to Duke?" Over the years, those discussions have played a key role in efforts to expand the recruitment of minorities and international students. But in the early Nineties, they focused in on a particular type of angular student--the intellectual.

Some university officials point to English professor Reynolds Price's fiery 1992 Founders' Day speech as one of the impetuses for change. In his address, Price '55 bemoaned the lack of intellectualism at Duke. He described a body of students enthusiastic about partying but seemingly disinterested in class, and lamented "the prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life."

Soon afterwards, on assignment from top administrators, William Willimon, then Dean of the Chapel, spent four months immersing himself in the lives of the students, putting together what ultimately became a fifty-one-page report, "We Work Hard, We Play Hard." It painted a picture of Duke that, while likely reflective of a larger college culture nationwide, was not pretty in the view of administrators who were trying to cement Duke's reputation as one of the top universities in the nation.

Among those Willimon spoke to was a student who posed the question, "We work hard, and we play hard, but do we think hard?" Students who had been offered scholarships in anticipation of what they could bring to campus intellectually--A.B. Duke and B.N. Duke Scholars--expressed frustration at the lack of intellectual outlets. Their peers, they told Willimon, saw work and play as two entirely separate spheres, not to be intermixed. Brains, it seemed to them, were approved for use in the classroom only.

In fact, Cleaver, who worked in Duke's admissions office in the 1980s, recalls having conversations with fellow admissions officers about specific applicants who seemed "too intellectual." Would they fit in? Would they be able to find a peer group on campus and truly be satisfied with the Duke experience? Those students, she says, were probably less likely to apply in the first place. On a personal level, "they needed to find other lopsided students. So they would head off to Harvard or MIT, a school that created a place for those students."

Admissions stamps: 'admit', 'deny', 'defer'

Soon after the Willimon report was released, Lange convened the Den of Ten, a board of advisers consisting of various university administrators that he consults on admissions issues. The group agreed upon the importance of fostering a climate where all students--intellectuals, especially--could be happy and fulfilled. Part of that commitment involved seeking out more such students and encouraging them to apply and attend.

"What we were talking about was making room for students who were perhaps less well-rounded and more angular, but no less talented, whose talents were evident in a more focused way," says Guttentag. "What it came down to was making it clear that Duke was a great place for more than one kind of student. It will always be a great place for the well-rounded student, but it is also a great place for someone whose focus is on research, on the arts, on creativity." (Most recently, with the opening of the Nasher Museum of Art and a campuswide focus on improving the arts, admissions officials have begun speaking more in terms of "making room for the artist.")

This new focus was part of Duke's natural growth, according to Lange. "Looking for bright, well-rounded kids is a safe strategy, but it's not necessarily the best strategy," he says. "As you mature, you are able to take more risks. You are able to take the unusual kid who maybe doesn't have a perfect record," but has demonstrated a real drive, and proved he can succeed.

For her part, Phillips, the associate admissions director, remembers early in her career being inspired by the potential of one student, even though his grades and SATs weren't quite good enough. Knowing the high standards of the admissions committee, "I couldn't even pitch him. It was sort of like, 'Here is what we are looking for in terms of academics, here is what we are looking for in terms of extracurriculars. If they have it, let them in.' Whereas now there is more room for us to say, 'Let's look more deeply at what it says in the recommendations.' "

So would he get in today? "No," she says with a laugh, "not considering the quality of today's applicants. But if we had used the criteria from today, in terms of a more qualitative assessment, I think we would have probably found space for him."

With this new focus, Duke has been able to continue to attract "the student who is also excellent in ten areas, but the atmosphere now is more open for the lopsided student, and probably the more intellectually lopsided student," Cleaver says. "Duke has been able to compete for those students, and build a critical mass of those students on campus, but somehow not lose the ability to have that playfulness."

The irony is that, despite a culture of playfulness and exuberance valued by admissions officers, college counselors, and prospective students alike, the descriptor "work hard, play hard"--popular among Duke alumni describing their alma mater to prospective students--actually fell out of favor with the admissions office more than ten years ago. Guttentag says he's fairly certain that the term was never explicitly used in the admissions office's printed materials, and if so, not prominently. But he also says the university did not discourage its use until the mid-Nineties.

Around the time of the Price speech and the Willimon report, Guttentag began to examine the term, he says, and was struck by two things. First was the number of other schools that were using the very same phrase to describe their undergraduate atmosphere. "Our goal is always defining what makes Duke unique," he says. "Work hard, play hard just wasn't a defining characteristic."

Perhaps more striking, he says, was the way that the term had become a prism for applicants, students, and other members of the university community to view the undergraduate experience. "It gave the impression that everything had to be either one or the other, when what I had learned from my time here was that there is so much more to the Duke experience than working hard or playing hard, so much stuff that doesn't fit neatly into either one. I felt like it was completely ignoring all those things.

"It's like tasting a fine wine, and saying, 'It's a little tart.' That doesn't allow you to distinguish it from Fresca. It's not false, but it's far from the whole truth."

On the second day of his admissions foray in New York, Guttentag is sitting in a taxi on the way to his hotel to prepare for the night's event and reflecting on his own college search--an experience that, in a roundabout way, has brought him to where he is today.

Guttentag grew up in Oakland, and, he says, only really considered schools in the University of California system, ultimately settling on Santa Barbara. It was later, while attending graduate school in music theory at the University of Pennsylvania, that he realized the vast differences that can exist, campus to campus. "I definitely had more choices than I realized," he says. "I should have looked at private colleges, at small schools." It was that realization, as well as the realization that music theory wasn't his career of choice, that led him to find what he describes as his "niche in admissions." It has given him insight into the importance of the college search from the applicant's point of view.

He also discusses how shepherding his daughter's application to daycare a few years ago affected the way he views the college admissions process. "The process of getting her into daycare was very stressful," he says. "I thought my decades of work with college admissions would help me out with kindergarten, but I was stressed. I came out of it with a much greater appreciation for parents and what they go through. All they want is what's best for their child."

For admissions staff, the tough part is that they can't possibly make everyone happy. "There are thousands and thousands of students that we don't admit who would be great Duke students," Guttentag says. "But we don't have room for 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 first-year students. We have room for 1,660 or 1,700."