Building a Class
|Facts, Fiction, and Trends
Much like the infamous “perfect storm” that struck off the coast of New England in 1991, today’s college admissions environment is fueled by a potent mix of largely unrelated factors. Taken together, they have created the most competitive admissions environment in American history.
The art of undergraduate admissions
Toto had the right idea. When Dorothy’s pooch ripped back the curtain in the Emerald City, the wizard’s mystery and majesty and power were laid bare. There was nothing unusual or regal or magical about him: The Wizard of Oz, for all the hype, was just a man. The frenzy enveloping college admissions these days could stand a visit from that little dog.
For the past decade, the buzz surrounding the college admission process has escalated into a deafening roar. “Tell-all” books by former Ivy League admissions officers line bookstore shelves. Articles about early-decision practices are autumn staples of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The Atlantic Monthly launched a “College Admissions Survey” in 2003, strategically published to coincide with the homestretch of the admissions process each November. Financial aid practices, preferences for legacies and athletes, and the sins of “enrollment managers” have all attracted media attention. And, of course, U.S. News & World Report—the mother of all media on the admissions beat—ranks and comments on college reputations each fall. Admissions chatter swirls through suburban cocktail parties and PTA meetings. More than one parent has opined, “This is all a game.” It is not.
Within this stew of anxiety and hype, people look to the traditional markers of the college admission process—SAT scores, grade point averages, class rank, AP scores, and the like—to predict admissibility. They assume data carries the most influence in a competitive admissions environment like that at Tufts. It does not. Clearly, academic qualifications represent the core of Tufts’ evaluation and selection process. But these statistics do not dominate an admission decision as much as people assume they do. And here’s why.
Last year, 15,532 students sought one of the 1,300 seats in Tufts’ Class of 2009. It marked the fourth year in a row in which applications to Tufts set an institutional record and the 10th record in the past 11 years. As the Admissions Committee reviewed these files, academic evaluations revealed a clear majority were “qualified.” In other words, they could perform successfully in a writing-intensive, discussion-oriented Tufts classroom. In fact, 74 percent of last year’s applicant pool—or 11,017 students—met this essential criterion.
But academic merit is not—and cannot be—the sole dimension of Tufts’ selection process. If it were, and the university offered admission to each qualified candidate, Tufts would enroll a freshman class of nearly 3,000 students instead of 1,275. (This calculation assumes that the traditional percentage of accepted students who enroll held true.) Obviously, the university’s academic and residential infrastructure cannot accommodate a class of this size; it would destroy the academic intimacy that defines Tufts’ undergraduate experience.
To manage this overabundance of quality, the Admissions Committee uses subjective elements—personal essays, recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors, alumni interview reports, and a determination of institutional “fit”—to sort the qualified majority into individuals offered admission. Admissions officers assess “voice” as well as academic merit. We value diversity of opinion and background, and we want underrepresented groups and viewpoints represented on campus. Women in science and engineering, men in the humanities, and representatives from our campus neighborhoods in Medford, Somerville, Grafton, and Chinatown are perennial goals. Each year, we must repopulate 33 varsity athletic teams and the staff of the Tufts Daily. We hope to acknowledge the importance of family relationships to our 153-year-old school and, in a typical year, the acceptance rate for alumni children is nearly twice that of the pool as a whole. These objectives, among others, push and pull the admissions process in many directions.
A staff of 16 full-time admissions officers sorts the pool and evaluates 1,000 or more files apiece. We read. We ponder. We argue, not unexpectedly, as individual perspectives consider individual credentials. The committee performs a check and balance on each other’s natural biases. Sometimes, out of necessity, we split hairs. Simply put, subjective analysis forms the essence of our work after statistics cull the pool.
Building a class is more art than science. In Tufts’ competitive admissions environment, where there are nine “qualified” candidates for every place in the freshman class, admission decisions reflect a subtle choreography of objective and subjective elements and impressions. With Tufts having an acceptance rate of 27 percent, data guides the process. In fact, it is the first “cut” in the evaluative process, and the academic credentials of the current freshman class reflect the selectivity that qualified them for admission. Eighty percent ranked in the top 10 percent of their graduating class—including 49 valedictorians and 47 salutatorians. The enrolled class posted average SAT scores of 692 Verbal and 707 Math; at 1399, the combined mean is an all-time high for Tufts. More tellingly, the middle 50 percent of the class scored between 1330 and 1480 on the SAT, up from 1290–1470 last year and 1210–1410 four years ago.
In addition to the data, a well-written essay with a clear and compelling narrative or an incisive teacher recommendation that lauds the provocative questions a student asks in classroom discussion differentiates—and distinguishes—one candidate from another. A well-developed and articulate interest in biomedical engineering, architectural preservation, cognitive studies, or community health catches our attention, since these academic interests match Tufts’ curricular strengths. Perhaps an alumni interviewer reveals an ebullient personality with a natural leadership presence. An applicant might be the first in her family with a legitimate chance to graduate from college, and the opportunity to provide access drives the decision. In fact, more than 10 percent of current freshmen are the first members of their family to attend college. Geography, socioeconomic status, leadership, gender balance, race, athletics, religion, artistic expression, political affiliation, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, or combinations of these qualities and many others, all come into play.
Some characteristics—like race or artistry—are clear and visible attributes. Other factors, like socioeconomic status, are less obvious but no less powerful when added to a high-powered and eclectic community like this one. The qualities we cherish in this venerable old college—intellectual passion, citizenship, humanity, and curiosity, among others—are not found everywhere nor are they easily acquired. Diversity in its broadest definition requires some effort. Grades and test scores predict academic success. Such data, in and of itself, does not guarantee that the quality of classroom discussion will feature insights born out of diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. Nor do numbers alone help Tufts field successful athletic teams, populate dormitories with perspectives that can stretch and enhance personal boundaries, or seed Tufts’ alumni ranks with graduates who will make a difference in their chosen fields.
Like most things that are special, the constellation of undergraduates enrolled at Tufts is created through a thoughtful, well-choreographed plan. Tufts admissions officers, like our counterparts at other highly selective colleges and universities across the country, study a wide array of information as decisions are rendered. And as the acceptance rate moves below 30 percent — a level of selectivity achieved in 2004 by only 22 universities according to U.S. News & World Report— these distinctions become pronounced. By the numbers, these students are qualified but indistinguishable. When a student’s voice is added to the equation, the admissions outcome clarifies itself.
Contrary to what the media often insinuate and parents fear, there is room for humanity in Tufts’ big and seemingly unwieldy applicant pool. Like a good book, the paper-based manifestations of the students who seek admission are hardly anonymous. Personalities emerge and entice us; we are charmed and occasionally smitten. Their wit makes us laugh and poignant stories of adolescent angst and triumph sometimes prompt a tear. And, yes, on occasion we encounter a character we would rather not get to know. For all the stats, the artistry of shaping a freshman class is an exceptionally human experience.
Tufts is very lucky. In a given year, we consider the accomplishments and aspirations of a very talented group of students from every American state, D.C., Puerto Rico, and more than 100 nations. In the end, we select an intellectually nimble class that reflects the many examples of human heterogeneity. An array of backgrounds, personalities, perspectives, and opinions adds depth and texture to the student body. Such points of distinction surface every day—in a lab in Anderson Hall, over lunch in Carmichael, or during a late-night conversation in the freshman dorm. An admissions officer never identifies such “texture” in an SAT score or a GPA.
It has been said that admissions officers are social engineers. To a degree, we are. At Tufts, we forge an undergraduate community that uses its intellect for the common good; respects difference in its many forms; celebrates the ideals of citizenship and activism; and harnesses its curiosity to interpret and critique the world around. Assertiveness, flexibility, inquisitiveness, creativity, passion, and leadership are the qualities we seek—and validate—as we shape each class. We look for heart and soul and style and a sense of purpose. It’s an idealistic vision—but if a college cannot espouse idealism, where can it be found?