From Memberanda, Spring 2012
At the heart of any admission process is the selection of students, and many independent schools rely on admission committees to shape each incoming class through a collaborative decision-making process. Memberanda sat down with Episcopal High School’s Admission Committee and observed an actual meeting to investigate just what committees do and how they do it. Prior to the interview, Director of Admission Emily Atkinson warned, "we don’t fight, so don’t expect any Jerry Springer-type excitement."
Episcopal’s six-person admission committee is comprised entirely of admission staffers. Emily Atkinson chairs the committee, which is evenly split between men and women. As Headmaster Rob Hershey explained, there is no need to bring a faculty perspective to the admission committee, because it’s already there; at Episcopal, admission officers are considered "faculty" and all have significant community responsibilities such as teaching, coaching, advising, and dorm duty. All live on campus and participate fully in campus life.
In many ways, EHS’ Admission Committee meetings begin in September. The admission staff meets every Monday to plan their week. This meeting includes thoughtful consideration of all scheduled visits and who should serve as primary interviewer for each student. Detailed discussions about applicants take place all year – not just during file reading season.
A Whole-School Admission Perspective
If you believe, as The Enrollment Management Association does, that support for admission comes from the top, Rob Hershey serves as a role model for other heads of school. A former admission officer himself, Hershey is very supportive of admission efforts, as is the entire school community. He emphasized that the admission staff is well regarded by the rest of the faculty. Like many heads, Hershey meets with his director of admission once a week. However, unlike most, he meets with Atkinson in her office.
EHS’ Board is equally supportive of admission, focusing on what’s important (enrolling students that fit), rather than on simply increasing applications. This enables the admission team to operate with a "high-touch, student-centered" approach. Since this technique centers around "putting people forward" (e.g., allowing families to meet the talented faculty), faculty support is key to its success. As Atkinson stressed, "Faculty members are in and out of the building all day long." Once acceptances are mailed, a master list is posted in the admission office. Whenever anyone – admission officer, coach, or teacher—receives word that a student is coming, they rush to the office, ring a bell, and put a star beside the student’s name. There is great enthusiasm for the new class, and all community members are part of the celebration.
The committee takes great pride in thoroughly vetting every candidate. Every application or "file" has at least four separate readers; Atkinson reads every application. An officer who did not conduct the interview acts as the "primary reader" for each file, charged with the most thorough review and creation of the initial write-up that illuminates the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. A close group of colleagues, the EHS Admission Committee respects the work of the primary reader, who will star or circle items in the file to which they want to draw attention. After the primary reader is finished, the other team members review the file, adding their own perspectives/questions to the report. It is not uncommon for a reader to suggest additional research, which is the responsibility of the primary reader. The group is committed to getting as much information as they can about every candidate, which often requires going beyond what is in the file. In fact, on the day of this interview, Atkinson missed lunch in order to call a teacher about a recommendation, which proved very useful; based on that conversation, she recommended that the student be moved to the "accept" list.
Since all committee members do dorm duty, female committee members get to know the girls on campus very well, and the male committee members get to know the boys. Given this context, whenever possible, male admission staff interview male candidates and female admission staff interview female candidates. Atkinson feels this new arrangement, implemented in the last few years, has been an invaluable part of the process.
Once a file is complete, it is passed along to the primary reader in the following order:
1. Application (Student, then Parent)
2. Counselor, English, Math, and Extracurricular Recommendations
4. SSAT scores
5. Interview notes
6. All other communication (emails, letters, supplemental info, etc.)
Most committee members read in this order, so they aren’t biased by the interviewer’s notes. Of course, the committee review process can never be without "bias." Each committee member brings his/her own perspective to the file reading process. See each committee member’s perspective on the selection process on page 7.
By the Numbers
During file reading season, which kicks off on January 15, the Admission Committee meets every Thursday in Atkinson’s office. Fueled by Girl Scout cookies (a timely arrival), they roll up their sleeves and get to work putting the class together. Atkinson projects files onto her wall for discussion. Applicants are rated from 1-5 (five being highest) in the following areas: personal, extracurricular, and academic. Each receives a total score. Most students receive threes and fours. It is "pretty rare" to give a five. The group also projects yield assessment on a 0 - 100% scale.
For the first five weeks, the group categorizes students as admit, wait list, or deny without regard to space available. After mid-February, Kristen Dix, Director of Admission Operations, collates all the information on an Excel spreadsheet, so they can see where they are. The discussions then become more difficult as students have to be moved from one category to another to increase or decrease specific numbers – girls, boys, international, students of color, financial aid, etc.
Increased financial need and requests for financial aid have definitely made the process more difficult. Schools do not have unlimited resources, and students know this and are applying to more schools than ever before. According to the SSS form for one EHS applicant, the student had applied (or at least sent an RFC) to 33 different schools. At the time of this interview, the group was engaged in a difficult discussion regarding students of color and projected yield, ultimately deciding to move a few girls from "wait list" to "accept" to reach their target number.
Once letters of acceptance go out, each admission staffer gets a packet containing their accepted students – i.e., the students they interviewed. Since the interviewer is the first adult the student knows in the community, they feel an enormous investment in the student attending. The interviewer is charged with post-acceptance follow-up, including outreach to current families to enlist their help. Students in the dorms frequently inquire about who’s coming and reminisce about who interviewed them, and EHS makes sure to value that relationship. Revisit days are a source of anxiety for the EHS team, who feel that an entire year’s work boils down to two days. The ultimate reward for the committee is the opening-of-school "Transitions Meeting" in which the committee presents the new class to the faculty.
Atkinson closed the interview by offering some food for thought: "Is it time for the admissions community to re-evaluate the common recommendation forms?" Atkinson wants to know more about things like grit and resilience, believing that the current forms don’t encompass the new challenges that schools face.
Quality not Quantity
Everyone on the Admission Team considers the high quality of EHS’s campus visit program their trademark, and they devote significant time to preparing and hosting visitors. While the standard tour and interview at many schools take two hours, families are encouraged to spend four to five hours at EHS having lunch, attending Chapel, visiting classes, and meeting with teachers or coaches. Not being "obsessed” with increasing application volume allows Atkinson’s staff the luxury of time to customize each visit. As Atkinson shared, “It is a big decision to visit campus. Often it involves taking a day (or more) off work and the expense of travel. We feel truly honored when a family chooses to visit Episcopal, and we want them to know it.” All credit Wendy Lukstat, Admission Greeter and Scheduler, and her extraordinarily hospitable presence with enhancing every visitor’s experience. Hershey, who visits the Admission Office most days to welcome visitors, calls Lukstat the “Director of First Impressions.” Lukstat says, “I want families to see that I knew they were coming, and I’m glad that they’re here.”
What’s Most Important? It’s Individual.
Emily Atkinson, Director of Admission:
For Emily, the transcript is the most important item in a student’s file. From the transcript, she assesses the student’s chance of success, willingness to work, drive, and motivation. Personal characteristics and recommendations are a close second.
Scott Conklin, Assistant Director of Admission:
Scott reports that recommendations are the most important thing, followed by the interview notes. "For me, it’s hugely important how my colleagues viewed the applicant." Scott also looks closely for information about an applicant’s work ethic, character, and concern for others. "I don’t often find a big discrepancy between the transcript and teacher recommendations." Scott is the only team member with children of his own, and he feels that being a parent gives him a different perspective from his colleagues.
Jaye Locke, Assistant Director of Admission:
Jaye reads the answer to the question, "How do you handle criticism?" more carefully than ever. She "likes most people," which can sometimes make evaluations more difficult. One thing she looks for is an applicant’s potential for engagement in the community. At a boarding school, participation is key, and school is around-the-clock. She asks herself, "What is he/she going to do here?"
Jim Fitzpatrick, Associate Director of Admission:
Jim, like Scott, places a great deal of emphasis on the interviews and the teacher recommendations. He looks for evidence of very specific strengths when evaluating candidates, saying "I believe that character and citizenship are extremely valuable traits in students."
Vincent Hodge, Director of Financial Aid & Assistant Director of Admission, EHS Class of ‘89:
For Vincent, "expressing sincere interest in attending Episcopal High School" is one of the most important factors. As the person responsible for international student recruitment, Vincent spends a great deal of time with these applicants. For him, visiting campus (including when they visit and when the visit is scheduled), is a way to infer the level of interest for these students.
Helen Woolworth, Assistant Director of Admission:
When reading files, evidence of concern for others and honesty are at the top of Helen’s list. She admits that it’s hard for her not to read the interview notes ("dessert") first. Says Helen, "Often, I find the in-house essay the most revealing piece of the student’s file." While waiting for their parents during the parent portion of the interview, students are asked to respond to a questions such as, "What would you do with three wishes, and why?" Helen finds the level of "self-talk" (use of "I") revealing in these essays.