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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

The nine admission deans—most in their early 20s and most of them Reed graduates—get right to work. What ensues over the next couple of hours seems at times like a post-graduate version of Hum 110—a frank, freewheeling discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of prospective students, or “prospies.” The deans present their hard cases in turn, laying out the pros and cons of each application. The running commentary is trenchant, often cutting.

“I’d love to see the kid here, but I can’t see giving him an A.”…“Her counselor rec is nice, but it’s for Brown.”…“This one’s definitely got the spark.”…“Bizarre.”…“We’d be crazy not to take her.”

As the relative merits of students are deliberated, fortunes rise and fall abruptly. At this stage, every decision is wrenching, and there’s no such thing as a sure thing. An applicant who seems a shoo-in can get shot down when someone in the room points out a fatal flaw, such as a spotty academic record or an awkward admission interview. At the same time, a long-shot can be redeemed by a brilliant essay or a glowing recommendation.

“The first question has to be: ‘Do you have the academic wherewithal to make it in this rigorous environment?’” Marthers explains. “That’s the numbers-driven answer—transcripts, test scores. The next question is: ‘Do you have the intellectual passion, the independence of mind, to thrive here?’ That’s more intangible—recommendations, essays, interviews. The process is a bit of art, a bit of science. There’s an element of alchemy.”

Ultimately, every file ends up in one of three white plastic mail tubs—“admits,” “rejects,” and “wait-list”—the latter a place of limbo from which a lucky few may yet get pulled as the process winds on.

“You want her, you’re really going to have to fight for her.”…“He’s bright but dull.”…“I think he’s awesome.”…“We have to take a chance.”…“Yeah she’s smart, but is she Reed-smart?”

And so it goes until the magic day in late March when the admit list has 998 names on it. That’s another alchemical feat: a number based on Marthers’ best guess of how many applicants, minus deferrals and early-decision applicants (this year there were 114), need to be admitted to yield next year’s targeted entering class of 325.

Reed is facing an admission tsunami, partly driven by demographics, but largely of its own making. Since 2001, applications to Reed have doubled, and the acceptance rate has plummeted—from 74 percent to an all-time low of 32 percent this year. Dean of the Faculty Peter Steinberger calls the change “stunning…one of the most important and dramatic developments in the history of the college.”
As Reed becomes increasingly selective, its incoming classes are stronger than ever, at least by most objective measures—SAT scores, GPAs, graduating class rank. The graduation rate, abysmally low in the early 1980s (when nearly one in two incoming freshmen didn’t make it through), has improved dramatically. Today, nearly 80 percent of students graduate Reed within six years. The student body, meanwhile, is more diverse in every way, with more students on financial aid, and far more students of color than in recent decades.

“For the longest time there was a fear that if you expanded the applicant pool, you’d just end up rejecting people who didn’t have any business applying” in the first place, Marthers says. “We’ve expanded the pool and we’ve just gotten more kids who are—academically and personally—very compelling.” There were plenty of potential Reedies out there, Marthers adds, but they weren’t finding their way to the college. “Now we’re finding them.”

The college’s efforts to recruit more prospective students notwithstanding, some of the trend is attributable to nationwide trends. A rising tide of high school graduates (the so-called echo boom—children of the baby boomers) has fueled an increase in college applications, allowing many institutions to get choosier. As colleges get more selective, high school seniors apply to ever more schools, trying to hedge their bets, and shopping for the best deal on financial and merit aid. Even so, Reed’s recent surge is remarkable, especially among its peer institutions (see graphic on next page).

reed magazine logoSpring 2008