Who Gets In?
It is exactly 3 p.m. on a sunny, clear day in March. In a small room on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston, eleven people sit around an oak conference table covered with piles of legal-sized paper. Scattered across the table is sustenance for the several long days of meetings ahead: a ceramic bowl filled with apples and oranges, a bag of dried cranberries, several packages of Austin's peanut butter crackers. Marylyn Scott, Bates College's director of multicultural recruitment, stands in front of a cardboard box full of manila folders. In a torrent of jargon and abbreviations, she reads from the notes on a cover sheet attached to the folder in her hand: "Multicultural, yieldable, good match, fan, geo, from a school we should have more of."
The conversation that follows is direct. "I think she's very yieldable," offers Jared Cash, a 2004 Bates alum who is an assistant dean of admissions.
"She meets goals," adds dark-haired Karen Kothe, the associate dean of admissions.
"It's really her personality," says Cash. "I think she's a wonderful person."
There is a show of hands around the table and at 3:03 p.m. the decision is final: this high school senior from Colorado has been admitted to the Bates College class of 2011.
And that is how it ends, the years-long process by which high school students search for, apply to, agonize over, and ultimately attend college. All the hard work, the hours at practice for the swim team or the a cappella choir or the Save Darfur group, the weekends in SAT prep classes, the vacations spent driving through New England and beyond - it all comes down to 180 seconds in Lindholm House.
For the admissions staff, the Colorado student is just one of the 4,650 students who applied to Bates this year. While applicants are rarely, if ever, pitted directly against one another, as the afternoon wears on the Bates staff does turn down some excellent students. A "legacy" from Connecticut - someone closely related to a Bates alumnus - is waitlisted; a B student from Rhode Island is denied. Meanwhile, another legacy is admitted, as is a male minority student from California.
Like many elite schools, Bates experienced a record number of applications this year, making admissions more competitive and staffers' jobs more difficult. To anxious students (and their even more anxious parents), the process can seem random and arbitrary, as if their futures were being determined via a Magic Eight-Ball. But a year spent observing Kothe, Cash, and the nine other members of Bates' admissions staff proves just the opposite. In meetings, in admissions interviews, in casual moments at events, Bates staffers are passionate about individual students and about the class they're creating. And as much as the process seems shrouded in mystery to students, it turns out that Bates staffers could not be any more clear about what they're looking for from prospective students.
On a brisk morning the previous October, the Muskie Archives at Bates are vibrating with nervous energy. It's Maine Day, Bates' annual open house for in-state students, and admissions staffers are patiently answering questions about campus tours and SAT scores. (Bates has received national attention for its decision not to require standardized test scores, but some students and parents still find this fact hard to believe.)
While Maine Day is a notable occasion for the families sitting in neat rows under the Muskie Archives' chandelier, it's simply one more recruiting event for the admissions staff. You wouldn't know it from their preternaturally upbeat demeanor, but these people have been run ragged in the preceding weeks. The life of an admissions officer is spent largely on the road, staffing college fairs and visiting high schools in order to drum up the annual crop of applicants. It's a litany of long lines at the airport, scorched hotel coffee, and meals wolfed down in a rental car between appointments.
Early in the cycle, the job is all about getting students intrigued enough about Bates' rigorous academics, its small class size, and its location in the unlikely college town that is Lewiston that they'll schedule an interview with an alum or come to Maine for a visit. At open houses like Maine Day - five of which happen throughout the year - the goal is to fan that flame, to draw a high number of extremely talented students who will put forth the time and money necessary to apply to Bates.
As for what draws a particular student to a particular school, sometimes even the parents are without a clue. "It's a mysterious process," says Bob Goodby, an anthropology professor at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, whose daughter, Sarah, considered Bates. "We bring her to places and it's just a matter of whether sparks fly. She knows halfway through the tour if it's someplace she wants to go."
A senior from Cape Elizabeth, Pat Murphy is sure that Bates is his first choice. He and his mom, Joanne, have driven up to Lewiston this morning for their third official visit to campus. A pitcher and centerfielder - not to mention a National Honor Society member - who's been recruited by Bates' baseball coach, Murphy seems like a shoo-in for admission. But he's not ready to see it that way, perhaps because he wants it so badly. "I wanted to buy something at the bookstore, but I didn't want to jinx it," he confides as a group of current Bates students begin to gather at the front of the room. "I don't want to buy a Bates T-shirt and look down at it and feel sad because I didn't get in."
And make no mistake: getting in is what it's all about. One of the first sessions of the day is a section-by-section review of the Bates supplement to the Common Application. (More than three hundred colleges use the Common App, a standardized form complete with essay questions. Most participating schools also require students to provide some supplemental information that's specific to their institution.) During the session, Kothe and Cash emphasize that the admission process at Bates is all about making the best match between student and school. The "why Bates" essay question - "Why, in particular, do you want to attend Bates?" - is extremely important, notes Kothe. "It's not an invitation to flatter us; we don't need convincing about our wonderfulness," she says to knowing chuckles around the room. "It's an opportunity for you to give us a sense that when you see yourself as an enrolled student at Bates, it equals extraordinary things - even if you can't yet imagine what those things are concretely."
Although rows of gritty tenements and the many empty storefronts of Lisbon Street are just blocks away, Bates is set apart from downtown Lewiston just enough that it feels like a separate community - so much so that students speak of life within the "Bates bubble." Indeed, at Maine Day prospective students seem to have few questions about Lewiston itself, focusing instead on nearly obsessive concerns about GPAs and class ranks.
Later that afternoon, Assistant Dean of Admissions Johie Farrar, a 2003 alum, interviews a student whom Bates has flown in from Seattle. He's one of a group of minority students Bates has brought to campus for a few days as part of the school's ongoing effort to recruit a more diverse student body. Rather than an inquisition, Farrar conducts the interview as a genial conversation, asking low-key questions about the young man's college search. She follows his lead as he mentions a class called "Theory of Knowledge," asking whether he made any recommendations at the end of his research paper and what he thought of the instructor. "Is he exceptional as teachers go?" she asks as she sits comfortably in a side chair in a borrowed office on the second floor of Lindholm House, the admissions building (her office is too small for interviews). Her long, curly hair is pulled back from her face, and her hands are folded loosely in her lap - no notes or file folder in view. "What's he like?"
As the conversation progresses, the student, an exuberant young man who was born in India, visibly relaxes. His blue dress shirt is untucked, and he's wearing black pinstriped slacks with white high-top sneakers. "Are there still lingering questions?" Farrar asks. "As far as our conversation, are there things you wanted to talk about?"
"I have one more thing to add," the student says. "My high school program really prepared me for college." He pauses, and then says it again. "I really think it's prepared me for college."
Just a month later, on November 15, the first wave of application deadlines hits. Like many schools, Bates is seeing an increase in the number of students who apply for early decision. If a student is accepted by her early decision school, she agrees to withdraw all her other applications. Early decision is controversial - critics say it's unfair to ask high school students to make such an important decision so early in the process - and schools including Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Delaware have recently discontinued their programs, saying they put minority and low-income students at a disadvantage.
But it's also a method students use to improve their chances at being admitted to their first-choice school, on the theory that guaranteeing to attend if admitted takes a lot of the guesswork out on the college's side. Because, when it comes down to it, admissions is a numbers game. Lots of competition for just a few places makes a college look prestigious and exclusive, so schools have an incentive to draw as many applicants as they can. In the end, though, they need to be sure that the freshman dorms are full and that the tuition payments come in as the budget projected. And early decision gives schools a guaranteed base of students who will "yield" - admissions jargon for enrolling. With Bates' early decision acceptances accounting for 30 to 40 percent of the incoming class every year, those yield numbers get a significant boost.
As the new year comes and goes, the admissions staff is busy assessing early decision applicants, each folder being read by at least two staffers and sometimes several more. Dean of Admissions Wylie Mitchell and the rest of the staff say what they're looking for is a good match between student and school. "High energy; too wound up for the culture here" is the assessment of one rejected student. Though the first reader for each file spends just twenty to thirty minutes with an application, and subsequent readers even less time, Mitchell says they pride themselves on getting a sense of each applicant individually.
In fact, the paperwork in each folder is organized to support that approach, with the student's own work - the application and essays - coming first, followed by the school transcript and letters of recommendation. At the back of the folder are Bates' own materials about the student, including notes from interviews with alumni or staff, communications with a coach or faculty member regarding the student, and any additional information the student sent in the hopes of wowing the admissions committee.
After poring through all this paper, each reader gives the applicant an academic rating (AR) and a personal rating (PR). There's a scale of one to seven, with one being the highest. Generally speaking, a B student who takes a school's most challenging courses is rated higher than an A student who sticks with an easier curriculum. The ratings are somewhat subjective - occasionally within a committee a debate will break out about whether a student really is an AR-3, or if he should've been a 4 - but readers' assessments tend to be quite similar. In addition, each reader makes a recommendation about the applicant's fate; for the early decision candidates, the options are admit, deny, and defer or "let compete," the staff's euphemism for sending a candidate to the regular admissions pool, which will be judged in March.
After the applications have been assessed individually, they're sorted into groups. The dean responsible for a particular geographic area will look at all the applications from that area, noting, as Mitchell says, "that we were a little tougher on one, or not tough enough here." And then they're sorted again, perhaps by activity, so that all of the students who've expressed an interest in theater are assessed as a group. The process results in what Mitchell says is a "fine-tuning" of the applicants' ratings before they're up for discussion. "As we get into committee, we might say here's this person who looks just okay from Illinois, but then how did they look within the theater group?" Mitchell explains. "And then we'll see, oh, they were also in the basketball review. So suddenly there's quite a lot we can imagine this student bringing to the Bates community."
It's in that calculus of filling the basketball team and the hole in the orchestra's horn section - all of which is invisible to applicants - that Bates, and schools like it, end up turning down extremely qualified applicants. Pat Murphy, the Cape Elizabeth baseball player, has the good fortune to know that Bates' baseball coach, Craig Vandersea, is interested in him. But he also knows that, unlike some Division I schools, Division III Bates is not going to accept him merely on his athletic promise.
By all indications, the number of applicants for the class of 2011 is running high. So when it's time to begin judging the second pool of early decision applicants in late January, Mitchell decides that the staff is too overloaded for all of them to crowd into the conference room and debate the merits of each student under consideration. While the rest of the staff is squirreled away in their offices reading regular admission folders, he and three others - Marylyn Scott, Karen Kothe, and Leigh Weisenburger, an assistant dean of admissions who seems particularly passionate about the students from the territory she covers (Arizona, California, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and parts of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) - spread out around the large conference table.
With the quiet, snow-covered campus on view outside, the mood is relaxed, yet serious. Mitchell sits at the head of the table; to his left, Scott stands in front of three cardboard boxes full of applications. She notes that the student under discussion "has been read twice. AR of 3-4, PR-4, admit/defer. Second reader, AR-4, PR-4, defer. Thin ECs" - extracurriculars. "Pluses are fan," meaning she's a fan of Bates, "and geo," meaning that she comes from a desirable geographic region, in this case the southeast.
"Her rigor and testing place her at AR-5," says Kothe. "She's not strong enough."
After a brief discussion - just two minutes - the student is deferred.
"This is an art," Mitchell explains during a break. He's a soft-spoken but authoritative man typically dressed in corduroys and a button-down shirt topped with a fleece vest. "We look at how this person meets our goals - geographical distribution, gender, minority background, type of school background. It doesn't get very formulaic," he continues. "We try to focus exclusively on the individual under discussion while factoring in that they're potentially just one member of the class."
Some students provoke a lengthier discussion, although the longest still comes in at under five minutes. And Mitchell frequently asks Scott to read a few sentences from a student's "Why Bates" essay. This glimpse of a student's personality, of the individual beyond the grades, the test scores, the extracurriculars, often seems to tilt the committee's decision one way or another. About one student an admissions official has written that the essay "was average - remove one paragraph and you could have any school." The student is later denied.
In another case, it's somewhat hard to see what's driving the committee's decision, unless it's simple politics. An applicant from a New England private school is described as "a solid B student with no rigor until twelfth grade. She's very committed to service [abroad]. And she's a legacy."
"I would support the admit decision," Mitchell says. "I think she'll be fine here."
As for Pat Murphy, he discovers early in the year that he is accepted by his safety schools, Seton Hall and Western New England College. Then comes the best news of all: a big envelope from Bates. It's full of information about housing, advisors, course selection, and a host of other details. "The hectic times are almost over," he writes in an e-mail. "The only thing left now for me to do is graduate."
After the two rounds of early decision, Bates has filled 37 percent of the class. So when the full committee meets for the first time in March, less than three hundred spots are left out of the original 465. The room is crowded, with staffers sharing two-inch thick piles of legal-sized student rosters. To an outsider they're a jumble of meaningless numbers and codes, but to Mitchell and the others they're manifestations of actual people, many of whom they've met and often genuinely like.
At this point, though, their job is often to say no. But the distinctions they're making between one student and the next can be so fine as to be indistinguishable. One "Why Bates" essay provokes discussion, with Scott smiling as she notes that she particularly likes the student's use of the phrase "infested with lobsters" to describe Maine.
Jared Cash disagrees, saying, "You might take me to be a grinch, but it was a little generic."
And then Weisenburger speaks up: "I think she gave us her heart."
Mitchell calls for a vote. Weisenburger closes her eyes. Several of her colleagues stare fixedly at the ground, focusing on the information they've just heard, while a few others look from person to person. "Admit," Mitchell calls out. Eight hands go up.
"Deny." Two votes.
"She's admitted, 8-2-1," says Mitchell. A few people make notes on their roster, then it's on to the next one.
And so it will go for the following nine workdays, what Mitchell describes as "eighty hours of very active listening."
At the end of the process, Bates has accepted 27 percent of the students who applied - more than 1,200 total. The numbers are even tighter at other prestigious liberal arts schools. Bowdoin accepted 18.5 percent of its applicants this year, while Pomona College, in Claremont, California, accepted just 15 percent. The general consensus is that students are hedging their bets by applying to more colleges than ever. Which means more work for admissions staffers but better-looking numbers, too. "We only took 2.7 out of every 10 applications, then we enrolled about 40 percent of those we admitted," Mitchell says with pride. "We're in rare company to have low acceptance and high yield."
To keep those yield numbers high, once the final admissions decisions are made in mid-March the staff splits up to host accepted-student receptions across the country. In early April Mitchell and a half dozen staff members travel to Boston, where there will be an evening reception at the New England Aquarium for sixty or so students.
This seems like an awful lot of effort - not to mention money - to woo just thirty undecided students (the other thirty have already committed to Bates). The school has rented the aquarium, complete with seals, jellyfish, and a particularly boisterous group of penguins; ordered a catered spread of cookies, chips and salsa, and enormous brownies; and reserved a block of hotel rooms for the staff. But Mitchell says later that it's just the way Bates does things. "The goal of these receptions was not and never has been 'let's go and somehow get all these admitted students to choose Bates.' It's very much about trying to show off the parts of the college that help the admitted students figure out whether it's a good fit," he says. "But it's also about the engagement of those students who've already been admitted and their families so they can see who else is a part of Bates College."
Still, the remarks by Mitchell and a host of others - admissions staffers, faculty, administrators, and Bates alumni - are extremely enthusiastic; if they're not intended to win over undecided students, it's hard to tell from the audience. Fisher Qua, an admissions counselor who's also a member of the class of 2006, tells a story about taking a modern dance class on a whim - he had no dance background, and was the only man in the class - and how it broadened his horizons. Another recent alum, an international student, makes a detailed and heartfelt accounting of the ways in which Bates both prepared her for life after college - a prestigious job in a lucrative career - and cared for her as an individual, down to one of her professors helping foot the bill for a plane ticket home.
Afterwards, with the penguins squawking in the background, small knots of students form, their voices rising excitedly as they discuss their plans - or their lack of them. "I hate thinking about it, I hate talking about it," says one young woman. "They each tell me to go to a different school."
"If money wasn't an issue, I would totally go," says another.
Meanwhile, Fred and Maryanne McCall sit on a bench as their daughter, Christine, talks with a group of students. Christine is leaning toward Bates; she's looking for a small school, and the Bates basketball coach is interested in her.
The McCalls, who live in Lowell, Massachusetts, have liked what they heard this evening. The alumni who spoke "all had connections, and so many of them came back to work at the school," says Maryanne. "And I did like the story about the professor helping the girl get the plane tickets."
In the end, though, Maryanne continues, "I think Christine's decision is purely emotional. I think kids go for the feel."
And she's right: Ultimately, Christine chooses Bates over her second choice, Babson College, largely because of what she hears at the aquarium: "When all the people started talking about classes and events and all the extra stuff they offer, I thought, wow, this sounds like a lot of fun," she says later.
As the college class of 2011 readies itself for high-school proms, graduation ceremonies, and a summer of leisure, back at Bates the cycle has already begun again. Recruiting for the class of 2012 is well under way; Mitchell reports in mid-June that Bates' mailing list has about 10 percent more names than it did at this time last year. "Apparently there will be another set of students going off to be high school seniors next year," he says wryly.
Meanwhile, Scott has been to El Paso on a recruiting trip. Farrar spent time in Chicago, and Weisenburger went to California for a lengthy itinerary of college fairs and meetings with guidance counselors. The students they met are stressing out about SAT scores, wondering where their friends will end up, struggling to narrow down the list of colleges to which they intend to apply.
Several months from now, their name will be read in a conference room. Three minutes later, their fate will be decided.