Contrary to news reports and grapevine chatter, getting into a highly selective college doesn't mean you have to be a male from Montana with perfect SAT scores and an A average who is first chair in the orchestra, captain of the cross country team, student council president and designer of a Web site for the local soup kitchen where you volunteer 20 hours a week
By Mike Debraggio
On a sunny August afternoon, the high school seniors and juniors began gathering with their parents in the large room set aside for the admission group information session. For many, it was the second college they had visited that day and the fifth in three days.
An admission representative soon strode to the front of the room and began what was to be an hour-long presentation full of facts, anecdotes and stories about campus life. It wasn't long — perhaps 10 minutes into the talk — before he boasted that applications had set a record last year and that the percentage of students being accepted was smaller and more selective than ever. The audience reacted predictably, with rolled eyes, slumped shoulders and an occasional exasperated sigh. The road-weary families had heard this information before — at the college they'd toured that morning (and the one they'd visited the day before), from high school guidance counselors and in the media. Every newspaper article on the topic seemed to begin the same way: Getting into a selective college is the toughest it has ever been. The title of an essay by Keith Gessin in the March 16, 2008, issue of The New York Times Book Review said it all: "Admission Impossible."
And yet they keep coming in record numbers to those same colleges, the ones U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and The Princeton Review say are "best" and Barron's labels the "most competitive." Truth be told, all colleges want to be on those lists, even though college officials say the methodology for calculating such rankings are flawed and misleading. Despite those criticisms, the evidence suggests that students — and even more, their parents — pay attention to where a college falls in the higher education pecking order.
Like it or not, Hamilton is part of the admission frenzy sweeping American higher education, and if you happen to be a parent currently making college visits with your child, you know that the vignette above could easily describe the scene at the Siuda Admission House on the Hamilton campus or at any other highly selective liberal arts college in America. In fact, colleges pointedly announce their increasing selectivity (and by so doing add to the frenzy) as a way of reassuring alumni that their alma mater's reputation and stature are growing. But if you're the parent of a high school student looking at colleges, you're more concerned with reassuring your own child that this stress-inducing process will end happily.
Bigger Numbers, Higher Quality
Regardless of which side of the Admission desk you sit on, the competition to get into America's top colleges is real. Sara Rizzo Ziesenitz '00 recently returned to work in Hamilton's Admission Office after three years teaching and pursuing graduate studies. The biggest difference she's noticed between her two stints at Hamilton: "volume and intensity, especially volume."
Shirley Croop, staff assistant and operations manager in the Admission Office, has a slightly longer perspective than Ziesenitz — about 40 years longer. She's played a part in admitting Hamilton's classes since 1960 and is currently the second-longest-serving employee at the College. "I remember when we hit 1,000 applications in one year," she says of 1968. "We thought that was a lot." Now, with the Bicentennial Class of 2012 topping 5,000 applications, Croop concedes that she and her colleagues who process the applications and prepare the files for the admission officers to review have waved the white flag. "We've had to hire temporary help to open mail and file it, because we could never keep up with it," she says. She points to a mail crate next to her desk. "After the first of the year, we get 20 of those coming in every day." From just before Christmas until the first or second week in February, Croop and some of her colleagues now typically work seven days a week just to process the letters of recommendation, transcripts and other supporting materials that are part of each applicant's file.
Director of Admission Lora Schilder, a 30-year veteran of college admission work, says the number of applications is only one part of the story at Hamilton. "The quantity of applicants and the quality have changed," Schilder says.
Achieving improvements on both fronts simultaneously is unusual. Typically, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Monica Inzer observes, when a college improves its selectivity over a short period of time, applications will tend to drop off in subsequent years. That's because some students — those who might have fit the profile of an accepted student two or three years earlier — believe that their chances of being accepted have diminished, so they're less likely to apply. The expected drop in applications has not happened at Hamilton — at least not yet — but Inzer says the College is not taking its newfound selectivity for granted. "It is humbling to admit Hamilton's future," she says. "Many of the students we can't admit are ones any college in the country would be happy to have on campus."
The Fallout: Hard Choices
The fact that the marked increase in Hamilton's selectivity attractiveness to top students has happened quickly has an unintended side effect. It can create more angst and more confusion for prospective students' families and the guidance counselors who advise them, as high school seniors with credentials similar to those admitted just a few years ago are now denied or wait-listed. Ziesenitz, who graduated from Hamilton only eight years ago, confesses, "I wouldn't be admitted now." Two of her colleagues in the office, also Hamilton graduates, express the same sentiment. Statistics comparing the profiles of two recent classes with those of the Bicentennial Class that just matriculated tell the story.
Those figures prove the claim of Associate Dean of Admission Jay Bonham '93: "We've always attracted strong applicants — they're just getting even stronger, and there are more of them." The trend, in turn, has a trickle-down effect. "It makes it more difficult for us, because it's such a fine line between an accepted student and those on the wait list," Bonham says.
The difficulty lies not only in evaluating applicants but also in sharing their anxieties and expectations. Mike Salmon '06 recently completed his first year in the Hamilton Admission Office after working in New York City. "In the financial world you have concrete answers — 'yes' or 'no,'" he says. "But in admission 'yes' and 'no' are relative." Salmon recalls the second student he ever interviewed: "He had a lot of incredible qualities. I thought he'd be a sure fit. He was qualified, but we just ran out of spots and he was not admitted. ... There's a real emotional component to this process."
Anxiety Antidote: Which College Suits?
Knowing the odds, parents seek every advantage for their children, and you can't blame them. Still, some tactics are open to debate; The Wall Street Journal wrote recently about a mother who quit her job as a human resources manager to help her daughter get into college. But if a parent gets too involved, such strategies can backfire, since, as Inzer points out, "We try to remember who is applying for admission and establish our relationship with the applicant." Admission professionals note that, with the number of high school graduates soaring 16.6 percent nationally since 2000, there's not much they can (or would) do about the growing demand for selective colleges. But some people's obsessive search for the brass ring — the chance to display the decal of an elite college on the back window of the family automobile — is a problem admission professionals do attempt to address, albeit with limited success.
The antidote to admission anxiety, Schilder says, is getting families to focus not on the college that's the highest rated or most prestigious, but on the college that best suits the prospective student's needs and interests. "It's not all about reputation," she says, "but about being at a place that's the right fit for you."
Wendy Schmidt '05 agrees. "As an alum, I can be so genuine about this place," says Schmidt, who split her responsibilities between admission and financial aid before moving full time to financial aid last summer. "Early on, I tried to sell every person on Hamilton. I've learned that it's not the right place for everyone, but it can be the right place for a lot of people. For me, it's more about a match," she continued. "I'm not trying to force something on them; I'm trying to help them find the right place."
For Inzer and her staff, that dialogue is always a personal one, focused on the individual applicant. "We can't do anything about the number of students graduating from high school," Inzer notes, "but we can work to ensure that Hamilton puts its best foot forward and that our prospective students' experiences with the College are positive and personal, so that they can make an informed decision about whether Hamilton is right for them."
Still, she told a New York Times reporter in March, "We need a shakeup. I think the anxiety families are feeling right now is not the way we [in the admission profession] planned it."
A Fundamental Shift Approaches
Part of the shakeup Inzer foresees may be coming soon for admission offices. The surge in the number of high school graduates that began in the early 1990s reached its peak this year and will begin a slow, steady decline through much of the next decade. And a more detailed look at the demographic data indicates that the anxiety now felt by many high school students is about to shift to the colleges that court them. Declines in the high school graduation rate will be especially precipitous in the Northeast and Midwest and among white and more affluent high school graduates. Traditionally, these are populations from which many liberal arts colleges, including Hamilton, have drawn significant numbers of students. Conversely, the number of high school graduates is expected to grow in the South and the West, and especially among Hispanics and Asians.
Many colleges have been preparing for these demographic shifts for years, focusing recruiting efforts in areas of the country where the population is increasing and ensuring that campus programs are in place that are attractive to a more geographically, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body. At Hamilton, for example, several steps taken in recent years help ensure the College remains accessible to low- and moderate-income families. These include growing the financial aid budget, reallocating merit aid dollars to need-based scholarship aid and lowering the average indebtedness of our graduates. "Hamilton has always been a school of opportunity," Inzer says, "and it's important to us that we protect that legacy."
"We're going back to a period of diminishing numbers," says Schilder, who recalls the days in the late '80s and early '90s when the apprehension families currently feel "was on this side of the desk." But the mission, she says, will remain the same: Treat students and their families individually and with respect, and bring in the most qualified class possible.
Worth the Struggle, but Never Easy
When that class has been chosen each spring and the letters are mailed informing applicants of the Committee on Admission's decision, the questions start from parents, guidance counselors, alumni volunteers and even some admission officers bothered that a favorite candidate did not get in. "Can you tell me why we didn't admit this student?" they ask the dean. "I can't figure it out." Hamilton's increased selectivity and the growing pains that come with it have only exacerbated the problem.
"Rarely can I point to a C in calculus the senior year or anything specific," Inzer says. "Most of our applicants are great students, and that's what makes this job so satisfying — and so frustrating. Usually, when the decision doesn't go the applicant's way, it has nothing to do with the student and everything to do with our overall pool and how we're trying to sculpt the class for what our community might need in any given year. We end up turning down hundreds and hundreds of qualified candidates, and it's never easy doing that."
But the system still works in most cases, and every admission officer has a story that proves the point. Wendy Schmidt '05 remembers a student with whom she connected and for whom she advocated in committee, but when acceptance letters were mailed in late March, the student learned she was on the wait list. Undeterred, the student stayed in contact with Schmidt. When a spot opened up, Schmidt had the pleasure of making the phone call to tell the student she was being offered admission. "She cried on the phone," Schmidt recalls, "and several days letter I received a bouquet of flowers with the message 'Thank you for believing in me.'" Schmidt keeps the card on her desk as a reminder of why she loves her work. "It still makes my day," she says.
For Inzer and her colleagues, such stories make the difficult decisions worth the struggle. "We never forget what an honor and privilege it is to admit Hamilton's future," Inzer says, "and how lucky we are to review applications from the best students in the country and around the world. It's hard not to be able to admit them all."