In my previous blog entry (Our Approach – Part One), I reflected on my seven-plus years as an admissions application evaluator under the mentorship of our outgoing Dean of Undergraduate Admissions John Latting. The purpose of that post was to dispel any myths about how application file review works as admissions application volume grows and admit rates drop. I hope it became clear that our approach to application review does not exist in a vacuum, and as competition increases year-after-year, we make sure to continue to discuss, research, define, redefine, and adjust our approach to application decision-making. Now, in Part Two of that entry, I’ll actually define the approach we take to reviewing applications for freshman admissions.
Questions about how your application will be reviewed and what factors are most important are legitimate questions, but unfortunately there is no clear-cut answer. Highly selective college admissions is not a science, it cannot easily be predicted, and there is no rule book. Every college and university reads and evaluates college applications differently, deciding which factors carry the most weight and what type of student best fits their school. As I explained in my previous post, every year before we begin our application review cycle, my colleagues and I gather for a reading retreat to reflect on how things worked in the previous year and to fine-tune our processes for the coming year. Under the leadership of Dean Latting, these retreats often focused on a much more philosophical approach to evaluating applications rather than on the individual task of progressing through an application. It is this approach to defining our review process that I personally consider to be Dean Latting’s greatest strength as a leader, and a crucial reason for the successes in admission and recruitment we have experienced over the last 10 years.
During our reading retreat a few weeks ago, Dean Latting discussed with the entire Admissions Committee three core principles to the approach we take in file evaluation. First, application file review should focus on predicting the future of a student, not just a review of the past. Evaluation of past accomplishments academically and non-academically is important, but the central question is about whether we have confidence in a student’s future success and contribution while at Hopkins as an undergraduate. Evidence of future success is clearly linked to a student’s past achievements and experiences throughout their high school years, but it is important to note that the review of the past is supportive to the ultimate evaluation goal of attempting to predict the future. Simply put, our evaluation is about future potential more than a review of past performance.
Second, the data of an application file matters but is not the primary focus of decision-making. Instead we need to care about the deeper qualities of our applicants: engagement, talent, energy, and fit. Our reviews need to go beneath the data. Many assume that highly selective college admissions begins and ends with a review of the academic markers. However, it is our approach that reviews based solely on quantitative analysis limits the selection process. An approach focusing on the deeper qualities of applicants allows for variation in how we define fit and takes into account the context of each individual applicant’s educational opportunities and community. Such an approach values interpersonal qualities and actual experiences and engagement, over raw data.
Third, we must focus on what counts as good evidence of the deeper qualities of students and fit for our university. Our focus is on what a student does on a day-to-day basis rather than moment in time indicators. A recommendation tells much more about a student than a test score, and a recommendation is better evidence of future success, whereas a test score is simply an evaluation of performance. The purpose of our file review is to see the student in a day-to-day way: their role in the classroom, in their community, at home, and beyond. The ultimate question is not how good is the information in the application, but how good the individual student is and will be. This is a holistic approach to application review. It acknowledges each element of the application equally, it focuses on markers that accurately predict future success, it is tailored to the specific institution, and it reveals so much that is in between the lines of an application. Once again, it is an art and not a science.
As much as this approach to the reading cycle is important, it is also crucial to think on the micro-level as well. My personal approach to application file review is to think of each individual application read as a conversation. Once I start reviewing a file, I begin a conversation with the applicant that typically lasts 15 to 20 minutes and sometimes longer. For me, the obvious starting point is a discussion about academics. I examine the high school transcript, the standardized test scores, and any academic letters of recommendation. Evaluating the applicant’s comprehensive academic record, I look for strengths and weaknesses, trends (hopefully upward), course selection, and a myriad of other questions. When I evaluate a high school transcript, I am not just looking at grades and courses. I am seeing a four-year record of one student’s path through a well-rounded academic curriculum. I ask what decisions the applicant made and why, how the applicant performed, and ultimately if the applicant met or surpassed expectations.
The academic conversation continues with a discussion of the standardized test scores and what they reveal about the applicant. Test scores are important, but the high school transcript holds much more importance in my analysis than do the test scores. I look at the test scores to see if they reflect what I expect a student’s standardized performance would be after reviewing the transcript. If they match, which they typically do, I move on. If they don’t, I ask why and then move on. Finally, I analyze the academic letters of recommendation to compile a final academic evaluation of the applicant. The final questions include whether the student measures up to what we expect of Hopkins students and whether the student will contribute in a positive manner to the Hopkins academic community.
Next, I conduct a similar evaluation but now I focus the conversation on non-academic factors. I discuss the more extracurricular and social aspects of the applicant. This is where the essays, the extracurricular résumé, and the letters of recommendation play a vital role. I will investigate leadership skills, commitment to community and service, and dedication to specific activities. Does the applicant have passions? What are they, and how does she pursue them? How has the applicant spent his time outside the classroom? What impact has he had on his school, community, society? In many ways, this is a social analysis of the individual, examining how the high school years were spent when not studying and what interesting qualities the applicant brings to the table. Once again I consider past accomplishments while also looking at future potential—what contribution will the applicant make to the Hopkins student body?
Finally, I reflect on any miscellaneous qualities. Here is where the analysis of the academic and extracurricular merge with any number of intangibles to determine whether the individual applicant is a good fit for Hopkins. Will the applicant contribute and, more importantly, add to the fabric of the institution? Will she stand out and make a difference? It is a determination ultimately of which applicants in the overall pool best represent Johns Hopkins University. Here is where so many of our philosophies combine with the micro-evaluation.
After this thorough evaluation of the application file I render a decision suggestion: admit, wait list, or deny. Then it is on to the next file, and the next file, and the next one after that. Each day I review anywhere between 20-40 files and in an application review season I will review between 1,000 – 1,200 files as a first reader. The first reader of an application makes a decision suggestion, not a final decision. Application review will continue with an extensive committee process where multiple staff members will evaluate groups of files based on a range of factors including academic interests, diversity, or special interests such as athletics, legacy, etc. Applications may go through a number of rounds of committee before a final decision is rendered. The committee process is when the full admissions staff is shaping the final class with the concepts of fit and contribution being a central focus.
As I hope you can see, our process is comprehensive. It is holistic. And it is the best way for us to evaluate each and every individual applicant. The decisions we make do not blindly reflect average GPAs, SAT scores, and other data points, but rather mirror the Admissions Committee’s determination of which students will best fit and fulfill the promise of Johns Hopkins University. I look to my upcoming “conversations” with the Class of 2016 applicants, and I approach this task with confidence based on years of guidance and mentorship from a great leader. Though Dean Latting will depart, his imprint will be left for years to come on Johns Hopkins University and more significantly on the staff that got to work with him.