From Memberanda, Summer 2011
As part of our continuing series on leadership in admission, SSATB’s Aimee Gruber sat down with Ray Diffley, Director of Admission at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT). Diffley spoke about his journey through the ranks of the Choate Admission Office (beginning in 1993), what he loves about his job, the challenges he faces, and his groundbreaking work on assessment with Dr. Robert J. Sternberg, now provost of Oklahoma State University, and the PACE Center.
• Did you attend an independent school?
Yes, starting in 9th grade—Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge. The years I spent in public school prior to that were quite valuable because the perspective they afforded me has given me a great understanding of the differences in both settings.
• How did you find your way to Bowdoin College and from Bowdoin College to the Choate admission office?
Let’s just say my college search didn’t resemble the college search of today. One visit to campus, a look at the hockey rink, and an influential talk from my mentors at BB&N about what an incredible experience it would be had me sold. I later learned it was my English teacher’s recommendation that tipped the scale for me in the admission process.
From Bowdoin to Choate is a much different story. A career in education was something I had considered, but I wanted to get out into the “real world” first. So I met with numerous recruiters who came to campus in my senior year, and ended up with two job offers: one in insurance and the other in a two-year management program for Bath Iron Works (BIW), the builder of Aegis guided missile destroyers for the Navy. I spent two years at BIW and while it was an incredible experience, it was not my calling. While working at BIW’s Government Affairs Office covering Department of Defense issues on Capitol Hill, I spent some time with my brother (also a Bowdoin grad), who was working at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia. A quick analysis of his “life in school” versus my life and future in industry showed me how important my work environment was to me (campus life, enthusiastic kids, like-minded colleagues), and it wasn’t long before I wondered how I could parlay my interest in “strategic business decisions” to a school campus. Admission was calling me. An interview with Choate’s legendary Director of Admission Andrew Wooden, whose close colleague at the time was the friendliest guy in the admission galaxy, Tom Southworth (then Choate’s director of financial aid), did the trick. I thought, if the school world is filled with folks like this, then this is for me. The following August (1993) I started at Choate.
• Describe your path through admission at Choate.
I was ready for everything–including roles I was not trained for–when I filled in as a student of color recruiter, an alumni network coordinator, and a housing czar. Soon I was ready to take on the larger roles of financial aid director and senior associate. Every step of the way I loved what I did and frankly really never aspired to be director. I considered 99% of the job, in every job along the way, fun, challenging, and meaningful.
• You’ve been in admission a long while. What keeps you invested in the work?
First, it’s the ever-changing (but remaining the same!) students, especially the ones who achieve much more than they ever thought they could. Second, there’s so much room for growth in the admission profession. It’s amazing how little we know. It’s one of those situations where the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know! And, I can’t believe I’m saying this as a Red Sox fan, but I remember Yankees Manager Joe Torre responding to questions after a World Series victory: “Are you retiring?” or “Is this getting old?” and Torre’s response was, “You know, this never gets old.” In schools, we can relate—every year we encounter a different cast of characters and interesting people.
• What is the biggest change in the admission landscape you’ve experienced in the past 10 years? What is the biggest change you anticipate in the next 10 years?
I sometimes say that I am not director of admission but rather director of a student mutual fund: I am charged with balancing an investment in student capital, and what I find difficult, challenging, and changing is determining just the right mix for my school. To expand a bit on the metaphor—how many “blue chip,” “emerging market,” or “risk” stocks (students) do you want in your school? Choate now has students from over 40 states and over 40 countries, but what is indeed the right mix? What makes for the most relevant educational experience? With so many emerging markets, changing demographics and constituencies to please, I find this challenging. When evaluating a student from an emerging market, I always wish I knew more. To ultimately answer the question about the future, the answer for me is building admission committees or offices that are diverse enough and experienced enough to have the answers to the questions I don’t.
• You’ve been fortunate to work with Dr. Robert Sternberg, who is well known for his “triarchic” theory of intelligence. How did you meet this eminent scholar?
While in graduate school at Wesleyan, I somewhat independently came to the conclusion that he was pretty much “it” when it came to defining intelligence and assessing people for success in the real world. It just so happened that his two children were students at Choate, and we asked him for his help in taking us to a new level of assessment. So more than 10 years ago, we had our first meeting to discuss the project that we just completed.
• Although it involves boiling down years of research and work, can you describe in a nutshell the work that you did with Dr. Sternberg and the PACE Center?
Essentially, we are trying to access the full spectrum of a student’s ability to better assess for success in school and beyond. For the last several years, we have partnered with Dr. Robert Sternberg, Dr. Elena Grigorenko, Dr. Linda Jarvin, and their team at The PACE Center (Psychology of Abilities Competencies and Expertise), formerly at Yale. We worked to develop an assessment that would go beyond the predictive power of standardized tests and grades. The results from early pilots did just that, giving Choate the confidence to move ahead with this exciting project. While the full assessment is not currently in use due to the practicality of its worldwide administration, a critical piece is available online and offered as the Choate Self-Assessment©, a brief 40-question inventory that takes about 20 minutes to complete. Each of the questions is answered by clicking on a number on a scale – there are no essays or “trick” questions. Our purpose in offering this assessment is to provide candidates with one more way to help us know them better when they apply, and when they’re enrolled, to offer ways to help them achieve success at Choate. (For those who wish to read more, an article about this was published in the fall 2009 Journal of Educational Psychology titled “Beyond GPA and Test Scores” and is available at www.choate.edu/admission/applying_selfassessment.aspx.)
• When you first introduced the Choate Self-Assessment©, how was it received?
This question is a bit tricky to answer, because it’s difficult to get negative feedback when someone wants something from you. When we introduced the assessment, we explained that it was a “pilot” program and would be given the same weight as a teacher recommendation. Parents have been more reactive than students about this assessment, and we get a lot of comments like, “wow” or “this is fantastic that you look beyond traditional research in assessing an applicant.” Many also draw on personal experience, comparing this with personality inventories that they have taken in school or the workplace. Colleagues in education, such as educational consultants and placement directors, were eager, interested, and asked a lot of pointed questions.
• How has the Choate Self-Assessment© benefited the school?
One benefit is how the school is perceived. The Choate Self-Assessment© matches the innovative, creative style of the school that motivated the research in the first place. Another is that it is an area where the faculty and admission office agree completely; the research findings have created a common language for faculty and admission. They know who the ideal Choate student is and can describe the attributes we are seeking. If we look at our most “successful” students –the prizewinners (and remember there are prizes for character), for example –they often possess the qualities that we are seeking to identify with this optional assessment, qualities that our faculty has identified as important for student success at Choate, like:
• intrinsic motivation
• internal locus of control
When I get the call from an alum, trustee, parent, teacher, etc., saying, “I’ve got a great kid for you, Ray, ” if they are aware of this research, they know a bit more about why this is a great kid for Choate and if he/she, in fact, possesses the attributes that we are seeking.
The program continues to evolve. Although the assessment is optional, 90% of applicants completed it in the last cycle. This year, for the first time, we will share results with enrolled students. We will weave it into student orientation. The goal is to help them understand themselves, what it takes to be successful at Choate, and to give them a sense of how they compare vis-à-vis their peers. In the past I have used it informally when a student is struggling to explain where she/he might be weaker than other students in certain areas.
• In addition to pursuing your interest in student assessment, what kind of professional development activities do you engage in?
I study the business world, sports management styles (Yankees’ Brian Cashman and the Red Sox’s Theo Epstein), and more recently the world of the arts, where “selection” may be more competitive than any other arena. I am always looking for information related to building teams, assessing for talent, and group dynamics. Once you learn about best practices in other industries, you then ask, “How do these translate to independent schools?” I confess that I am addicted to a reality TV show or two and see their connection to admission work—particularly the success stories, finding raw talent, and selecting “winners.”
• Which book do you recommend people put on their summer reading list and why?
My recommendation is an old one but a great one. I think that anyone in this business should read Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition, by Arthur Powell.
• Knowing what you know now about admission work, what is your best advice for newcomers to the profession?
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I took a house-building course at Shelter Institute in Bath, Maine (www.shelterinstitute.com). They had a saying that I’ve never forgotten: “Never decide not to know.” You can’t be in this profession and not be curious. You can’t decide that you’re not going to learn about the TOEFL, for example, or read the “Interpretive Guide to the SSAT.” I guess as I continue in this profession I would add to that saying: “Never decide you know enough,” as each encounter in our office and out there in the world of education brings depth to our understanding of a great education or a great candidate.