Monday, November 30, 2009

Testing 101

Today, I got an e-mail from an applicant who wanted to know how much a student’s SAT scores affect his or her chances of being admitted. I’m sure she is not alone in wondering about testing's place in the admissions process at highly selective schools like Dartmouth. I was certainly worried about the SATs when I applied years ago. So here goes...Testing 101.

The SAT is an important factor in our admissions decisions but if you look at the breakdown of testing in our pool of admitted students, you will see that just like there is no set formula for becoming a Dartmouth student, there are no magical cut-off scores that will automatically compel the Admissions Committee to admit or deny a student. The middle 50% of our admitted students score somewhere between a 660-770 on all 3 sections of the SAT I. This means that 25% of the students we admit score higher and 25% score lower.

Testing is considered in conjunction with your transcript, the rigor of your curriculum, your GPA and your teacher recommendations. Let’s say you are an applicant with the following profile:

  • You did not do as well as you had hoped on the Critical Reading section of the SAT I.

  • You consider English your strongest subject in school.

  • You got an A+ in your junior AP English class.

  • You scored a 4 on the AP exam.

  • You asked your AP English professor to write one of your Teacher Recommendations.

  • So yes, the Admissions Committee will see your less than ideal Critical Reading score…but we also have your grades, an AP score, a teacher recommendation and, let’s not forget, an actual writing sample in the form of your personal statement to help us get an idea of how strong you are in your favorite subject area.

    Let’s face it- some students do not test well. Other students revel in exams like the SAT. What we suspect is that what type of tester you are may have something to do with your level of familiarity with the exam and whether you have had access to test prep. Performance on the SAT is highly correlated to parent income and level of education. This does not mean that parent income and level of education are categorically determinative of a student’s SAT scores, nor does it mean that the SAT is a biased exam; however, it does mean that there are limits to its value in the Admissions process.

    Together with your high school GPA, the SAT I is a good predictor of how a student MIGHT do in his or her first year in college. In other words:

    SAT I or ACT + 2 SAT Subject Tests + High school GPA
    Good Correlate to First Year College GPA

    It is important to know that there are many indicators in your application OTHER than your SAT score report and GPA that are also very good, if not better, predictors of whether you will be a successful Dartmouth student- your willingness to take intellectual risks and ability to meet challenges; your willingness to ask for help when you need it; your intellectual curiosity; your level of motivation and discipline; your social and intellectual maturity; your leadership qualities, and much more. It is also important to know that the SAT’s predictive value fades after the first year. For these reasons, we don’t put all of our eggs into the SAT basket when deciding whether to admit a student.

    On a final note, if you are the student who has scored perfect 800’s on the SAT, yes, we are impressed by that…but make sure the rest of your application is as impressive!

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Thoughts on AO Contact

    Like many of my colleagues, I follow the treatment of the college admissions process in the media, and an article in The NYTimes "The Choice" column caught my attention this morning. Jacques Steinberg poses the question: "Is there a danger in pestering an Admissions Officer?" As touched on in his response to this question, there are a few different issues at play here:
    1) Does it make a difference whether a student or parent is contacting an Admissions Officer?
    2) Will calling or e-mailing an Admissions staff member help your chances of admission?
    3) Is there a tipping point at which some contact becomes too much contact?

    I think the confusion surrounding the topic of student (or parent) contact stems from the fact that colleges and universities approach this matter in very different ways. As Mr. Steinberg notes, "many (Admissions)offices will keep track of the number of queries they receive, particularly from the applicants themselves, as a possible measure of interest." In the Admissions world, we sometimes refer to this type of contact as "demonstrated interest," the idea being that students who visit campus, call, and e-mail are more interested in attending your institution, and are therefore more likely to matriculate if admitted.

    The Admissions Office at Dartmouth College DOES NOT consider demonstrated interest as a factor in our admissions process. I recognize that this is difficult for some students, parents, and guidance counselors to believe, but it's true. If you take the time to apply to our College, we consider that to be the only necessary demonstration of your interest in attending our institution. Our job is to carefully review each application that comes into our office and thoughtfully select a great mix of students for each incoming class. Once we decide to admit you, it is our responsibility to convince you that Dartmouth is the best place for you to spend the next four years.

    So what happens if you call or e-mail our office? Unless you are contacting us with an update to your application (please e-mail these in, instead of calling!), nothing. I will do my best to answer your questions in a thoughtful manner, and then I will hang up or delete your e-mail and go back to what I was doing.

    Does it matter to me whether a parent or child is contacting our office? Not really. I think it's important for students to feel like they are in control of this process, but I also understand that there are many different family dynamics out there, and to be honest, people call our office for a variety of reasons.

    I often field calls from parents who are simply concerned - they love their children and want the best for them, but there are so many myths and competing sources of information about the admissions process that they just want to make sure they are doing everything they can to help their child succeed. I often don't get the name of the parents placing these calls, and I don't mind having these conversations. This can be a confusing, frustrating, and tremendously disappointing process for families, and if a short phone call can help to relieve some of this tension I am happy to help. That being said, I do think that parents should encourage their children to take responsibility for their own college search and application processes.

    (I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to take charge of the process, but also understood that, as a 17-year-old high school student who had never been to the east coast before, college was still in many ways an abstract concept for me. I needed my independence and their support, and I was fortunate to have both.)

    Finally, when does some contact become too much contact? I think common sense and common courtesy should be the rule here. Unless you don't have regular internet access, my colleagues and I would appreciate it if you avoided calling or emailing our office with questions that can be easily answered by our website. If you have done your research and still have questions, we are happy to hear from you. Similarly, I would avoid sending in constant updates to your application. As I mentioned above, we are not looking at demonstrated interest, so it is the quality of the materials in your application and not the quantity that matters.

    Think about it this way - our process requires me to file each update to your application in your electronic file. If you send in approximately one update a week between January and March, you could easily have 10 additional pieces of information in your file by the time we enter the final stages of our decision-making process. When readers open electronic applications, especially as we move towards the final stages of our process, they are encouraged to look at new information first. So one of our readers is going to open your application, and the first thing they will have to do is dig through 10 short e-mails with minor updates that you were only really sending in because you thought you were supposed to in order to show us how badly you wanted to attend our school. Is this going to change the outcome of your application? Probably not. But I know that if it were me, I would want a reader to see the big picture first, and I wouldn't want to dilute the impact of my personal statement and recommendations with a bunch of emails about how I was named student-of-the-week for the 3rd week in a row. If you have important information that you want to add to your application, by all means send it in. But be thoughtful about what you are sending, and try to create a single, well-written, comprehensive update instead of allowing your message to get lost in the sheer volume of material your are adding to your application.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Busy Night at the Hopkins Center

    The Hopkins Center for the Arts was the place to be on Saturday night, as both the Spaulding Auditorium and Moore Theater were host to significant student performances. The Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra performed gave its fall concert in a sold-out Spaulding Auditorium, while the Dartmouth Theater Department gave the penultimate performance of its fall musical production, Rocky Horror Show, in the 480-seat Moore Theater.
    I attended the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra performance. I really enjoy the symphony and have fond memories of being a ticket subscriber for a major metropolitan orchestra before moving to the Upper Valley. This would be my first DSO concert, and, having listened only to professional ensembles in recent memory, I was not sure what to expect in terms of musical quality or audience support.
    There was a great energy to the room as I settled into my seat in the sold-out 900-seat concert hall. An impressive number of Dartmouth students had purchased discounted $5 tickets to listen to their peers perform, but the turnout from the community was amazing. This was truly a "night out at the Symphony" for the Upper Valley community and, while smaller in scale, it had every bit the buzz of a major metropolitan orchestra concert.
    The orchestra gave a splendid, pleasing performance featuring works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich before a rousing performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (I confess that it was Beethoven's 5th that prompted me to attend the show). The Orchestra was joined by Bonnie Thron, principal cellist of the North Carolina Symphony (and NH native) for Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Overall, the quality of the musicianship was magnificent.
    During the intermission, I ran into an admissions colleague who was seeing Rocky Horror Show just down the hall from the Symphony concert. We agreed it was a great night for the Arts at Dartmouth. There are myriad ways that Dartmouth students seriously persue their artistic interests at the College, and, importantly, appreciative audiences to take it all in.

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    You hit 'submit'...

    You've done your research. You've visited some campuses (or lots of campuses). You've made your list (and changed your list). You've asked your teachers for recommendations (or that's on your to-do list). You've completed your Common Application (or that's on your to-do list right after "ask teachers for recommendations"). You've narrowed your list of potential friends to write your Peer Recommendation and decided to go with the friend who just knows you the best, despite the fact that English (and writing) aren't her greatest strengths. You've taken the SAT (or ACT) and two SAT Subject Tests (they went well - not quite as well as that last practice test, but you're okay with the scores). You've given your college counselor the Secondary School Report to send with your transcript and recommendation. You're getting ready to hit the submit button (or you hit the submit button as an Early Decision applicant several weeks ago and you're waiting anxiously for your decision). But what happens to all of this stuff - and all of that time and effort - on the other end?!

    A very important question! And perhaps one that many Early Decision applicants are wondering about as they imagine what their applications are up to right now - and a question that many Regular Decision applicants are considering as the January 1 deadline draws near.

    So what do we do with all of those applications and application materials? We read them (carefully). And we think about them (a lot). We read your application individually and holistically. There is no magic formula (see Colleen's post) but perhaps the following will give you a better sense of what goes on as an admissions reader engages with your application...

    I usually read in my office (sometimes I read at home, too; it depends on how persistent my dog is in her attempts to engage me in games of fetch). We have a paperless reading system, so all application materials are reviewed online. The materials that are submitted electronically are loaded into our system, and the paper pieces we receive are scanned in (think about this when are you are considering sending in a funky shaped newspaper clipping... will it run through our scanner?) One of the first things you'd probably notice in my office is the 24-inch monitor that is flipped vertically and affords me a great full-page view of your application materials. I get my coffee (or tea) and settle in to read...

    What kind of applicant is Dartmouth looking for?

    In the most basic terms, students who are:

    intellectually engaged,
    actively committed to their personal interests,
    and reaching beyond their current circumstances.

    (Think about how you show us these things throughout your application.)

    As I read your application, I am thinking about five basic questions:

    1. What opportunities have been available to this applicant?
    2. What are the things that matter most to him/her?
    3. Given these two, what choices has he/she made?
    4. What are the applicant's successes?
    5. How has he/she had an impact on others?

    I consider your application, thinking about these questions and how the pieces of your application come together to answer these questions. I take some notes and I write a summary of my thoughts, along with a recommendation for a decision. Your application then makes its way on to a colleague, who engages in the same process (without looking at my notes or recommendation). We begin to reach decisions based on these individual reads.

    But Dartmouth receives so many more outstanding, qualified, talented applicants than it has space for in its First-Year Class, you say? How can we possibly distinguish between such strong candidates? There either must be a magic formula or we just close our eyes and pick randomly at the end.

    It is very true that Dartmouth's applicant pool has continued to grow and grow over the years, and the number of talented, interesting, well-qualified students in our applicant pool greatly exceeds the number of spaces in our entering class. But we don't plug in numbers and generate a decision (there are so many aspects of your candidacy and who you are that can't be captured in numbers). We consider the questions I listed above, and we consider your application materials as a mutually supportive set of parts. Just before I get ready to write my summary and recommendation, I ask myself: what will this student add? What kind of impact might he/she have at Dartmouth? And I think about how all of those individual voices and contributions will come together and form an interesting, diverse First-Year Class (perhaps the greatest class Dartmouth has ever seen?).

    Think of it this way - I heard a fellow admissions officer use this metaphor recently, so I'm stealing it. You're hosting a party, maybe a dinner party. You're cute and funny, so you have lots of friends. You can't possibly feed (or fit) all of your many, many friends at your party, so you think about what group you are going to ask. You think about who might make for some lively conversation and a great party, and you invite that group. It's not that you don't like your other friends, but for this particular party, you decide to go with the group that you think will be interesting and engaging for one another. (And my guess is you would probably base this on a number of different factors, not just your friends' standardized test scores.)

    How can you improve your chances? Check out Ben's post. I have to get back to reading applications for the Class of 2014.

    Monday, November 9, 2009

    What is the Greek system really like at Dartmouth?

    This question was on my mind when I first visited Dartmouth as a prospective student. I had not applied to any other schools with a Greek system, and based on what I had seen in the movies, I figured it was wise to avoid universities with a fraternities and sororities. Dartmouth's Greek system was its one negative on my color-coded spreadsheet of colleges' pros/cons (yes, I'm a little type A).

    And yet, Dartmouth made my college list. I loved the mid-range size, the D-Plan, the tight-knit community, the enthusiastic students I had met. In the end, the positives out weighted my hesitations about the Greek system; I took the risk, chose Dartmouth, and packed my bags (somewhat nervously) for Hanover.

    Once I arrived on campus, I realized the Greek system at Dartmouth was very different than what I expected based on media images and stories from my home state university. Here's why:

    * Dartmouth students cannot pledge a fraternity or sorority until sophomore year. This removes the pressure to join a Greek house in order to find friends. At Dartmouth, everyone makes friends freshman year through the dorms (all first-year students live together in residential clusters), classes, teams, etc. Come sophomore year, students can choose to join the Greek system if they want to meet new people, but they usually have a solid group of friends already so there is no pressure. A little over half of the sophomores choose to join a fraternity or sorority, and about half decide not to.

    * There are no dining facilities and very limited residential space in the in the frats/sororities, so even if students join a Greek house, they still eat in the dining halls with everyone else and usually live in the dorms too. The average Greek house at Dartmouth can sleep only 15 - 20 of the 100 or so members. This means the Greek system does not dominate most students lives on campus -- rather than an all-consuming place, it is just an added social option.

    * Events and parties at Greek houses are open to everyone. True to the feeling of the Dartmouth's community in general, the Greek system is welcoming and non-exclusive. The Greek houses put on tons of events that enhance the social options for everyone, including dinners with professors, slam poetry competitions, fundraiser for charities, and parties like Disco Inferno (my favorite! Don funky neon clothes and donate a can of food to rock out to 70s music).

    When my sophomore year rolled around, I decided that I wanted to join a sorority, much to the surprise of my parents & friends from home. After all my uncertainty about the Greek system, they could not believe that I was becoming a "sorority girl." I explained that one of the best parts of Dartmouth was meeting the amazing people here, and I figured a sorority would be a great way to make friends with girls that had totally different interests than mine.

    It worked beautifully. I met awesome girls in Sigma Delta, but also kept my best friends from freshman year. I never lived in the sorority, preferring the dorms instead. I still spent most of my time with friends from the crew team, outing club, mock trial team, etc. But the Greek system did give me a chance to have my own social space, host parties and events I wanted to see on campus, and get to know a really diverse group of people. In the end, the aspect of Dartmouth that I had been most nervous about turned out to be one of the best components of my Dartmouth experience.

    Big Sports Weekend at Dartmouth

    Dartmouth's campus was a hive of athletic activity over the weekend, as Dartmouth teams hosted many matches and games across numerous different sports. Here's a condensed listing:

    • Women's Volleyball - wins overBrown and Yale

    • Women's Hockey - win over St. Lawrence

    • Men's Soccer - win over Cornell

    • Women's Soccer - win over Cornell

    • Women's Tennis - won the Big Green Invitational

    • Football - win over Cornell

    It seems worthwhile to linger over the football team's victory for a couple of reasons. First, the team came back from 10-0 deficit at the start of the 4th quarter to defeat Cornell 20-17 in double overtime. The game included freshman quarterback Greg Patton breaking the Dartmouth single game rushing record in his very first varsity contest. The Big Green blocked a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, and got a game winning kick from Foley Schmidt in overtime.

    Equally as entertaining as the game was watching Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim roam the sidelines, congratulating players as they came off the field and encouraging the crowd to stand up and cheer at key moments. President Kim, who was a high school quarterback while growing up in Iowa, has been a prominent figure on the Dartmouth sideline this season, even braving a driving rain to cheer on the Big Green during their Homecoming win over Columbia. He's pictured below with Dartmouth's athletic director Bob Ceplikas and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire:

    While cheering on the football team may seem like a small thing, Dr. Kim's energy and enthusiasm for supporting students in many different settings has already become notable in this early part of his tenure as Dartmouth's President. I am not going to say that he does this more than other College Presidents, but I bet he can throw a better spiral than any of them. Chalk it up as another plus for Dartmouth!

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    So you want to be pre-med?

    When talking to prospective students and parents, we field a lot of questions about how Dartmouth prepares students for medical school. Our Admissions staff met with Dartmouth’s pre-health advisors earlier this fall, and below are some key points from our discussion.

    Many Dartmouth students are interested in medical careers. Typically, about 1100 students – a quarter of the student body – follow the Nathan Smith Premedical Society email list. About 180 to 200 students per year apply to Medical, Dental, or Vet programs. Learn more about the Nathan Smith Society.

    Dartmouth has fantastic resources for pre-med students. Chief among them:
    • Dartmouth Medical School (DMS). The medical school is on campus and many professors have dual tenure with DMS and Dartmouth College. Undergrads can collaborate on research projects with med school faculty and students.
    • Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC). One of New England’s best hospitals is located just one mile from campus, providing incredible research and internship opportunities for undergrads.
    At Dartmouth, students do not “major” in pre-med, but they CAN take all the courses they need to be ready for medical school. Their major can be in a related area, like Biology, or in a completely different subject like Anthropology, International Relations, you name it. In fact, less than half of our medical school applicants are science majors – and this can be a real asset in the medical school admissions process.

    Support for students interested in health professions abounds! Our Health Professions Program assists students applying to Medical, Dental, and Vet schools. Open office hours are available 4 days per week to assist students with course planning, internships, and applications.

    Unique advantages to Dartmouth’s pre-med program:
    • The advising system lasts 4+ years – we continue to work with students through graduation and beyond.
    • Because of Dartmouth’s small size, the advising and letter-writing processes are very personal. Most universities have a pre-health committee that writes letters of recommendation. At Dartmouth, students select who writes the summary letter on their behalf (a faculty member, dean, etc.) This creates a much more personal letter than what typically comes from a committee.
    • Dartmouth has very strong extracurricular programs that allow students to test their interests before they make a commitment to pursue this as a career.
    • We have about 300 Dartmouth alumni in medical school, who have specifically agreed to assist students interested in pursuing medical school. (For example, they often host Dartmouth students visiting for interviews.) Students can also draw on the overall strength of our alumni network.
    • We offer excellent support in the medical school admissions process, and the Dartmouth Medical School Admissions Office also offers guidance.
    What is your medical school acceptance rate? This question comes up time and again. Here is the short answer: If a student comes to Dartmouth, works hard, utilizes pre-health resources, and has an average GPA and MCAT score, they are VERY likely to be accepted to medical school.
    • Nationally, the medical school acceptance is about 45%, and Dartmouth’s is far higher (approaching twice) that average.
    • 11 of 85 students in this year’s Dartmouth Medical School incoming class are Dartmouth College graduates.
    More resources for our pre-med students:
    • 80 Medical School Faculty members offer shadowing opportunities in a wide range of medical specialties. We also have community vet and dental shadowing programs.
    • The Health Professions Program maintains a research opportunities directory, and students engage in a wide variety of medical research projects.
    • Women In Science Project (WISP) connects students in their first or second year with paid part-time research internships with science faculty members (or researchers in nearby industrial or government laboratories).
    In short, if you decide the medical field is for you, Dartmouth will provide the support and opportunities to make you successful!

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    Early Decision Kick-Off

    Early Decision applications are in, and they are up by about 3% (see The D coverage of this topic here). Our office will officially begin to review ED applications on November 10th. For now, staff members are finishing up a few final recruitment trips and slowly trickling back in from the road. I met a lot of wonderful students, parents, and alumni on my last trip (12 days between Iowa, Nebraska, and Connecticut), but its great to be back in Hanover, and it will be nice to be back together as a whole staff once everyone gets back.