marthers imageConfessions of an Admission Dean

By Paul Marthers, MALS ’06

College admission officers can send mixed messages. We smile at every applicant up to the judgment day, then cease all contact with most of them after sending a brief, vague rejection letter that conveys a direct message between its lines: You were not quite good enough for us.

No matter how unrealistic their prospects, recipients of such letters are often stunned. Just ask anyone who has been a high school guidance counselor. As a counselor I felt the rejectee’s pain. As an admission dean, I have inflicted it. And along the way I have decided that if colleges communicated to prospective students and parents more like a neighbor chatting across the back fence than a politician spinning to advantage, we would seem less like bait-and-switch artists.

In recruiting mode, we send “search” letters and email that must seem like near promises of admission to students who score well on PSAT or ACT tests. Recipients of these inquiries probably don’t realize that many colleges contract out the writing to direct-mail specialists skilled at crafting seductive phrases. Soon after I arrived at Reed, I reissued a letter that I had inherited. After Jay Matthews of The Washington Post cited a potentially misleading sentence—“Listen: college admission people all over the country, including me, have decided that you are the kind of smart student they want.”—I neutralized the offending passage to read, “Colleges and universities—Reed included—are already vying for your attention, proclaiming their offerings.” I hoped the new version was less of a tease.

Colleges want to provide stimulating and vibrant educational environments, so we seek to attract bright, motivated, and talented students that will thrive at our particular campus. Thus our search letters, websites, and viewbooks promote our best features to attract the applicants we want the most. But that leads to a more controversial question about the admission process. Do acceptance letters always go to the “best” or “most qualified” applicants? Who gets admitted and why?

At Bennington, Vassar, Duke, Boston College, Oberlin, and Reed, I have seen various versions of admission by category as determined by institutional needs and priorities. Applicants with a “hook” compete not with the whole pool but within specific categories such as varsity athletics (although not at Reed or Bennington), ethnic or geographic diversity, institutional legacy and loyalty, musical and artistic proficiency, academic programs, and even gender.

Such books as Crafting a Class by Elizabeth Duffy and Idana Goldberg, Questions and Admissions by former Stanford admissions dean Jean Fetter, and Playing the Private College Admissions Game by former Santa Cruz, Vassar, and Bowdoin dean Richard Moll peer into the hidden reality of such category admission, which cuts an unforgiving swath and makes competition especially fierce among hook-less applicants who do not fit a priority or need.

This does not mean that admission is random or arbitrary. Every decision is discussed, sometimes again and again and again—especially at Reed. Faculty and deans review some files—again, standard practice at Reed. Yet every year I encounter at least a dozen students who apply to one or more colleges in the hope that they will slip by the committee despite their qualifications. Sorry, neither Santa Claus nor the Easter Bunny serves on the admission committee at Reed or any other selective college. No quirk of fate will overrule the reality of transcripts, test scores, essays, recommendations, passion for learning (particularly significant for Reed), and institutional goals. But neither is the process infallible or exact. Sometimes we grossly underestimate talent. I think of one student I wait-listed at Oberlin who later earned a 3.6 GPA at Reed, and another I counseled who was spurned by Stanford and became a Rhodes Scholar at Washington University.

What does this mean for the confused applicant who simply wants a good education? It suggests that you ought to keep your options open because in many instances rejection is more about the college than the applicant and even good credentials are no guarantee that you have what your first, second, or third choice wants. That is not as discouraging as it may sound, because there are many places to get a good education. Remember that well-used breakup line, “it’s not you, it’s me?” Even though colleges may hesitate to say so, this time it’s true.

Paul Marthers is dean of admission at Reed. This is adapted from a longer essay in College Unranked (Harvard University Press, 2005), edited by Lloyd Thacker.