The process by which one gets into an elite college or university has become harder to predict than the weather. Parents who want their children on the road to success via the Ivy League and elite institutions are scrambling for that one thing that sets their child apart from the thousands of others students applying to elite institutions. Thousands of dollars are spent preparing children for the SAT’s (or even the PSAT’s), private school tuition or tutors that can cost upwards of $150/hour, college essay assistance, college counselor fees, interview coaches and the list goes on.
When you look at raw numbers it seems like these pricey services help students maintain, not secure their position as a competitive applicant an elite institution. Most applicants applying to these top schools are in the top 10% of their class, scoring above a 1500 on SAT’s is common, everyone has AP classes and a solid essay. So what is a parent to do? What is the one thing that distinguishes who gets in and who doesn’t when most applicants are the top of everything?
In a recent interview with Troy Onink from Forbes, Duke University’s Undergraduate Dean of Admission, Christoph Guttentag candidly answers Mr. Onink’s questions about the Duke admissions process. Mr. Onink is the CEO of Stratagee.com, a provider of college planning advice to families and college planning software and services for financial advisors, his business background is evident as he asks Dean Guttentag direct and sometimes hard to answer questions.
Most of us wonder how college’s admissions advisors educate themselves on the diverse curriculum of each high school that applicants are derived from. How do admissions advisors know that one public high school has fierce academic competition among its students, whereas the high school a few miles away is regarded with less academic focus? How do advisors know that the IB program at high school A is regarded higher than high school B? How do the advisors differentiate the private schools that churn out incredible thinkers as opposed to ones that merely educate wealthy children?
Dean Guttentag addresses these questions by informing us that there are regional admissions advisors. These advisors become well versed in the nuances of one region (typically a state), but split into potentially more than one regional advisor for larger states. Studying the curriculum, the culture and reputation of high schools in their region allows advisors to understand the rigor of academics at thousands of high schools. Mystery solved!
The regional admissions advisors become the gatekeepers for applicants. Regional admissions officers provide the first part in a multi-step process, which is broken down below:
A first read of applicants by the regional admissions officer for the state eliminates 50% of the pool applying to Duke. Dean Guttenberg is quick to explain that while these applicants are qualified, they are not competitive.
After advancing to this second round, an application is given two full reads by a member of the first reading staff and an admissions officer. Each applicant is rated in 6 different areas.
After the application receives two reads the application will get a third assessment where about 5% of applicants can be admitted to Duke at that point. The rest of the pool (the majority) of applications goes before a board and is discussed and voted on.
This labor-intensive process takes almost three months, lest anyone think that admissions decisions are hastily made. Dean Guttenberg takes great measures to ensure that applicants receive every opportunity to present themselves to Duke. What really matters to Dean Guttenberg and the admissions staff is quite simply making a match to the university. This does not mean taking the most exceptional student, this means taking the students who will add to the Duke community at large. Duke is looking for students who will add value to the school’s philosophies, legacy and mission. Dean Guttenberg places significant weight on letters of recommendations, advising that letters of recommendations provide admissions staff with insight into the applicant’s authentic self.
Dean Guttenberg advises parents not to write or re-write their child’s college essay, stressing that this will have a negative impact on the admissions board being able to truly evaluate an applicant’s merit for admission. It is at this point in the interview where Mr. Onink brings up the elephant in the room, social media.
Mr. Onink bluntly asks Dean Guttenberg about Duke’s policy about social media and the admissions process. Dean Guttenberg adds that applicants should never post things that they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with their parents. Would Dean Guttenberg look at an applicants social media images? Yes, he responds, they are public. This small snippet of information can prove to be invaluable for students aiming to set themselves apart from peers.
Social media, as a force for good and not evil is a novel concept pioneered by Alan Katzman. Alan is the founder of Social Assurity (socialassurity.com). Social Assurity provides students with social media training in an effort not sanitize their online presence, but rather to distinguish them online. Alan prompts students who are artists to share their talents on Instagram, up and coming writers are encouraged to start blogs, and all students are taught the value of LinkedIn.
This process allows individual talents to shine through in a very real and relatable way. That one thing that separates your child from the 30,000+ applicant pool at Duke might be your child debating politics with a university professor on Twitter, albums of architectural photos on a Facebook page of an applicant vying for a engineering program, or maybe even a selection of YouTube videos that show just how musical your child is. Outside of letters of recommendation and the essay there is not a way for a student to showcase their individuality, except for social media!
Dean Guttenberg reiterates that Duke gets huge numbers of qualified applicants with great test scores, high GPA’s and profound essays. So what sets a student apart if they are all qualified? This intangible, subjective part of the admissions process is the most confounding because there is no concrete answer. There is not one thing that parents can do to give their child a competitive edge with this part of the admissions process, it must be a holistic process whereby students who will fit into the culture of a particular school and add to the community of a particular school are granted admission.
It might be your child’s essay, experiences, a legacy, or even their social media presence? Anything is possible.
To listen to Troy Onink’s interview in full, click here:
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