Selective Universities Admissions Series: 5 Admission Process Part 1

This installment was written in February, so that’s where we’ll start. My interviews are all complete (well, probably, I may be asked to meet one or two more applicants). So we’ll join members of the University of Chicago Office of College Admissions back in Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood that the University calls home.

At this stage in the current admissions cycle, Chicago Admissions Department readers are poring over some 20,000 application folders, part of the daunting, arduous process of selecting the students who will fill the entering class of 2020. Chicago wants 1,400 students to show up next September, and, if prior trends hold, some 65 percent of students who are offered admission will accept her offer. This means the admissions committee must accept some 2,150 applicants, so the task before the readers (who collectively comprise the Admissions Committee) is to cull from all those applications 2,150 acceptances. In fact, some 600 students, who had applied last fall for an early action decision, have already been offered a place at Chicago next fall. Other early action applicants were refused admission, and quite a few more were not denied but deferred and carried over to the regular notification pool. Thus, from a strict numbers perspective, the admissions readers will be combing through regular notification applications, together with deferred earlies, to identify 1,550 more students to accept. Their goal is simple: to fill the next class with the best kids they can identify.  [Incidentally, of great -- and seldom appreciated -- importance is the need to fill the class. One September, 25-odd years ago, matriculant numbers at a well known private research university reportedly came up 50 students shy of a “full” class, and its dean of admissions was promptly informed that his services would no longer be required -- this did not happen at Chicago, one hastens to add!]

Each folder gets closely read twice, first by the reader whose territory an applicant’s high school falls in, and then by a reader responsible for a different region, chosen at random. When a high school offers up more than one applicant, the same two readers review all applications from that school, to ensure consistency and fairness. After a folder has been read, the two readers vote to accept, deny or wait-list.  Sometimes they disagree. After this initial vetting, each folder moves on to the full admissions committee, at which the actual decision is reached by vote. Chicago releases these decisions around the third week of March.

How are applicants evaluated? Along two dimensions: academic and extracurricular. The first thing a reader looks at is grades -- how well academically has a student done? A related question revolves around the degree of difficulty of the classes; certain subjects, like home economics, gourmet cooking, typing, etc., are ignored. To suggest a good analogy for this task, think of judging a gymnastic routine at the Olympic games; it’s not just how well the program of twists and somersaults is executed, but how difficult to it is to carry out, and it is this combination that results in a competitor’s score.

Second, the readers turn their attention to extracurricular activity, or more precisely, meaningful participation in extracurriculars. It’s great that a kid joins the raise-the-flag-in-front-of-the-school society, but somehow, that sort of labor seems a bit less important than being a violin soloist or state champion debater or math whiz or varsity athlete.

Next, readers look at what teachers and counselors say, or rather, write about an applicant. And after that, on to the required essays. At Chicago, the essays are closely scrutinized, because the Admissions Committee wants to know how a kid’s mind works, how well an applicant can organize and present a thought, and then defend it (this, after all, is for an institution that prides itself on the life of the mind). Chicago’s essay questions -- known as prompts -- are unlike anyplace else; readers don’t want kids to recycle the essay they wrote for Princeton. Sample prompts include:  "Where’s Waldo, really?" and "Don’t write about reverse psychology." Readers also glance at an applicant’s standardized test scores -- ACT or SAT (they want applicants to submit either one and don’t care which), not so much to keep a kid out but to see how test scores correlate with GPA. And lastly, they look at reports of campus or alumni interviews.

Applicants are considered holistically, a jargon term that has come to include such factors as family circumstances, high school attended, and personal problems an applicant may have encountered. To expand, not all high schools offer high powered STEM or IB programs or even AP courses, especially in rural and inner city high schools. Some kids grow up in a home where English is not the spoken language; some must contend with family problems -- sickness, death, divorce, drugs. Some kids live a transient life, moving (changing schools) every year. Some come from homes with little or no money. All such factors get taken into account.

The overriding question the readers ask about each applicant is simple: Will this student benefit from Chicago’s distinctive liberal arts education? Which brings up another key question: What sort of student do they seek? Chicago prizes kids who are intellectually engaged: who burn to learn, who are curious, who probe, question, debate, dig down deep for answers. Kids who enthusiastically contribute to class discussion, kids passionate about ideas, kids consumed by the quest for knowledge and not for grades. In short, kids with a scholarly bent.

Regarding financial aid: in admission decisions, Chicago does not take into account an applicant’s ability to pay. For applicants who apply for financial aid, the University meets 100 percent of demonstrated need, and if family finances are extremely low, it will give a student a four-year free ride. Chicago’s financial aid packages have no loans.

At Admissions Committee meetings, a vetted folder goes to the full committee, where it is passed around, discussed, then approved (“You’re IN!”) or disapproved (“You’re not in.”) or deferred (“You are wait-listed.”). Occasionally, a candidate whose great strengths are offset by weakness will be the subject of intense, even heated, discussion between supporters and skeptics. And once in a great, great while, someone with low test scores or GPA, or whose application features other prominent warts and zits, gets in anyway: a former Admissions Dean explains this anomaly thus, “We are the University of Chicago, and we can admit anyone we damn well please!”

Now I’ve only described admissions at the University of Chicago, but a process closely akin to what I’ve described takes place at other selective colleges and universities:  the Ivies, MIT, Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, WashU, the “Little Ivies,” etc. (I once read that, at Yale, a box is passed around and every committee member solemnly casts a white (admit) or blue (deny) poker chip) Some schools place greater emphasis on certain criteria than Chicago does -- on mummies and daddies rich and famous, legacies, jocks, etc. Despite these differences, though, these, and other fine schools go through a process substantially the same as the U of C’s.

Now is the time when juniors who would attend a selective school begin to think seriously about where, or about what type of school, they might wish to end up at (more on this in my next installment).  If you have any questions, please leave them with below, and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability.  In the meantime, I hope this gives you some idea of the process.

Good luck and Cheers!!

--Bill Parker (MBA-1978), Member
               University of Chicago Alumni Schools Committee since 1984