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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Applications start arriving at Reed via snail mail and email in early fall.

About 200 students apply early decision, pledging that they will attend if accepted; typically, half get in. The vast majority of applications flood in during the weeks preceding the final deadline, January 15. Applications (Reed employs the common application used by many colleges and universities) include personal information, transcripts, test scores, two essays (a personal essay and one answering the question “Why Reed?”), and recommendations. Occasionally, students will try to stand out by submitting music CDs or creative writing samples. Some send collages showing pictures of themselves pasted into campus scenes. One student mailed the admission office a cake (she got in, but not because of her baking prowess).

Through February and March, the admission counselors work overtime plowing through the applications. Each is read by at least two staffers, and usually three. Dean of Admission Paul Marthers reviews every application, as well. A few special cases are forwarded to faculty for review; these include interesting-looking students with spotty or unconventional academic records. When behavioral, social, or mental health issues arise in an otherwise promising file, a special dean’s committee weighs in.

Every application is rated according to five criteria— some data-driven, others more subjective:

  • Courses taken in high school, based on rigor of classes and curriculum;
  • Grades, class rank, and standardized tests, including the SAT and ACT;
  • Personal character and intellect, based on interviews and recommendations;
  • Essays and application essays;
  • Involvement, such as extracurriculars and community service.

Each criterion is rated from 1 to 5, with 1 being “superior” and 5 “dismal.” The scores are averaged to arrive at a composite score for each student. Anything below 1.8 is terrific. A rating higher than 2.5 more than likely eliminates a candidate. The applicants are also rated on fit—whether they’re a good match for Reed— and yield—how likely they are to say “yes” if admitted. There are also various tipping factors that influence the decisions: weighted consideration is given to students of color, “first-gens” (first generation in the family to attend college), and children of alumni.

Even as Reed has raised the academic bar for getting in, the admission deans still look for what they call “spark”—the drive and passion that define what it means to be a Reedie. But spark alone isn’t enough to get admitted—not anymore. The admission deans want to see a strong academic record and the “pq”s (admission parlance for personal qualities) to indicate that the student is going to be able to succeed in the classroom and contribute to the campus community.

Marthers estimates that one-tenth of applications are so strong that admission is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Two in 10 are so deficient or such a poor match for the college that they are summarily rejected.

Many of the rest—not straightforward “A”s or “R”s—make it to the regular Wednesday admission counselor review session. A student with a handful of Cs will get a close look. One or two Ds is tough to overcome, never mind an F. At the same time, being class valedictorian or earning a perfect score on the SAT is no guarantee of admission. A typo in an essay will get noticed; more than one will really hurt. If a student was nervous or pretentious in the interview, that’ll weigh in as well.

Marthers hires alumni as admission counselors because, while they don’t share a single fixed idea of what Reed is, they understand the college in a unique way. “If you have enough people in the room who know and love the place,” he says, “you have to have faith that they are going to make the right decisions.”

Near the end of the evaluation process, the final list is tweaked to ensure that there’s enough diversity—in all its forms: racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic. Depending on how the numbers crunch, some students initially placed on the wait-list stand a chance of getting “pulled up,” while others who were on track to being admitted might get “pulled down.”

It’s during this last round of fine-tuning, in mid-to-late March, that students’ ability to pay full tuition can become a factor. Reed’s admission policy is need-aware rather than need-blind: the college can afford to give financial aid to just over half of students, and when the financial aid budget is tapped out for the coming year, financial need can affect admission decisions. When looking at applicants who are on the cusp—in the gray area between admission and the wait-list—the college admits some who don’t need financial aid, even if they are slightly less qualified than others who do. The number affected varies from year to year: this year, it was approximately 60 out of 1,112 acceptances. In 2007, it was more than 100.
Reed mails out notices to applicants around the beginning of April. The acceptance letter begins with a hearty, “Congratulations!” Confetti flutters out. The admission office also sends an email acceptance; it links to a short web video welcoming the prospective student to the world of Reed.

The rejection begins, “I regret to inform you…”

reed magazine logoSpring 2008