An admissions committee votes Dec. 7 on an application to the University of Maryland at College Park. The 18-member panel is part of the public university’s “holistic” review process. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
Like an attorney arguing a case, Adrian Rodriguez pitched the applicant to fellow admissions officers seated this month as an internal court of gatekeepers for the University of Maryland. The student came from one of the state’s high-powered suburban public high schools. She had strong grades but so-so SAT marks. Rodriguez liked her essay and extracurriculars, and saw a “pretty good upward trend” in performance.
“She’s compelling,” agreed Michael Nixon, leader of the committee, which granted a rare view inside the inner sanctum of U-Md. admissions. “She has a lot of good stuff going on.” But another officer, skimming evidence from the file on his laptop, raised objections. He said he worried about the student’s class rank and course selection at a school with expansive academic offerings. “Not a lot of rigor,” he said.
Debate on the 18-member committee lasted 22 minutes until Nixon called for a vote. Only Rodriguez raised his hand for fall admission to College Park. Others voted to deny. But the applicant was not rejected. The majority chose to offer entry in the spring semester of 2019.
With that verdict, one case was settled among more than 30,000 to be decided by April 1.
The scene gave a glimpse of how a prominent public university strives to fulfill its promise that every prospective student will get a close look, or “holistic review,” even in an era of surging applications for College Park and otherbig state schools nationwide. It also showed the complex and subjective interplay of factors determining who gets in — and who does not.
Were students taking the toughest available courses or coasting? Were they caring for an ill parent at home or holding down a job instead of maxing out on after-school clubs and sports? Would they be the first in the family to go to college or otherwise help diversify the College Park campus?
Questions such as these are aired every year at selective schools everywhere as admissions teams deliberate behind closed doors. Anxious college-bound students can only guess at what gets said about applications they toiled to complete. But U-Md. allowed The Washington Post into the room one afternoon to show how decisions unfold.
“People believe it’s really formulaic,” said Shannon R. Gundy, U-Md.’s director of undergraduate admissions. “That’s just not true.”
Across the country, major public universities have been inundated by applications in the past decade. The latest available federal data shows the 50 state flagships received 1.3 million applications in 2016, up 79 percent compared with 10 years earlier. The admissions frenzy intensified as the size of entering classes grew at a far slower pace.
For the University of California at Berkeley, applications for the fall 2016 entering class surpassed 82,000. That total rose 123 percent in a decade. The numbers fed Berkeley’s reputation for being extremely selective. Its admission rate fell 10 points, to 17 percent.
Berkeley might seem an outlier because it is known around the world as a leader in public higher education. But applications more than doubled at 14 other state flagships during that decade.
[See the details on surge in applications to state flagships]
Rising demand from out-of-state students, foreign and domestic, drives much of the growth. Universities often seek out those students because they pay higher tuition, offsetting erosion in state funding for higher education. But in-state students also are drawn to public schools that offer a prestigious degree at a substantial discount. Those from upper-income households who qualify for little or no financial aid at private colleges often find tuition at their state flagship is a relative bargain, saving as much as $40,000 a year.
The application surge strains admission teams.
“We are really pressed,” said Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment at the University of Washington. In 2006, the university in Seattle received about 16,000 applications, and two-thirds were admitted. Now the applicant pool is about 46,000, and fewer than half of that much larger pool are admitted. Ballinger said UW employs about 60 “readers,” including year-round admissions staff as well as graduate students and retired admissions officers who work part-time in the high season. On average, he said, a good reader can rate an application in about seven to eight minutes.
Ballinger said it would be cheaper and more efficient to screen applicants primarily on grade-point averages and test scores — which was, in fact, standard practice at UW until 2006. But he said a by-the-numbers approach would be “totally destructive.” To illustrate the point, he posed a rhetorical question: Which applicant is stronger, a student with a 3.8 grade-point average or one with a 3.5?
“Most people will say it depends,” Ballinger said. “And that’s exactly right.”
People walk on the U-Md. campus. More than 30,000 are expected to apply for a freshman class of 4,075. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
U -Md. has become much more selective in recent decades as College Park has risen in prestige. A quarter century ago, the university admitted 75 percent of its 14,000 applicants for the fall class. Now it does so for fewer than half of more than 30,000 applicants.
With an admission rate of 48 percent in 2016, U-Md. ranked ninth in selectivity among flagships, just behind the University of Florida (46 percent) and ahead of the University of Connecticut (49 percent). The leaders were UC-Berkeley and the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (27 percent), Michigan (29 percent) and Virginia (30 percent).
Gundy, in her 28th year at U-Md., said competition for College Park has escalated since she arrived. Back then, she said, admissions officers “had really intense conversations about students that had much lower academic profiles.”
The average high school GPA of incoming freshmen in 2002 was 3.86, U-Md. reported to a national survey called the Common Data Set. Now, it’s 4.20. Gundy acknowledged that grade inflation, an issue for schools everywhere, plays a role. But she said the numbers also show the university is luring stronger students.
How are applicants judged?
The university lists on its website 26 factors it considers, including grades in academic subjects, SAT or ACT scores, community involvement, extracurricular activities, residency status, gender, race and ethnicity. The university says these factors are “flexibly applied,” but the most important are course rigor, student performance, academic GPA and test scores. (U-Md. says it does not consider whether applicants have family who are alumni.)
The middle half of SAT scores for those admitted to the latest fall class was 1310 to 1430, and for ACT scores it was 29 to 33. That means a quarter of admitted students scored above those ranges, and a quarter scored below.
Most applications arrive before U-Md.’s Nov. 1 priority deadline, about 25,000 this year. The regular deadline is Jan. 20. In all, the university expects about 34,000 applications for an entering fall 2018 class of about 4,075.
All are filed through an online platform called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which U-Md. is using this year for the first time. (The days of paper filing are long gone.) The applications are randomly distributed among 35 people on the admissions team, including 14 seasonal hires, who read transcripts, essays, teacher letters and other materials.
Typically, these readers make one of three recommendations: fall admission, spring admission or denial. A few spring admits also are wait-listed for fall. More than many selective schools, U-Md. uses spring offers to fill slots on campus that open up midyear. Nixon, associate director of undergraduate admissions, will spot-check the recommendations for consistency.
The files are then grouped by high school for a second review by admissions officers familiar with those schools and regions within the state and beyond. Finally, Gundy and her senior staff review the entire recommended admission pool before releasing priority decisions by Feb. 1. She calls this stage “shaping.” Among other things, she must ensure that the university does not make too many or few offers for fall and spring, and that it strikes the right balance between in-state and out-of-state students. Overall, about 70 percent of undergraduates are from Maryland.
Most applications do not get committee scrutiny. But readers seek help with close calls and special circumstances. The Post observed a committee session in early December that reviewed several files, on the condition that names of applicants and identifying details remain confidential. The candidates came from public and private schools, within Maryland and elsewhere.
U-Md. admission officers listen to arguments about an application to College Park. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
Michael Nixon, associate director of undergraduate admissions, leads the discussion. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
Nixon led the gathering of 18 officers, including four linked by speakerphone to a nondescript conference room. Some on the team are U-Md. alumni, but several are not. Gundy earned a bachelor’s degree at Howard University, Nixon at Gettysburg College. Rodriguez went to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Danielle Audley, a graduate of Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, pushed for an out-of-state applicant with high grades, strong writing skills, and deep community and school involvement. The only question mark appeared to be an ACT score several points below the university’s usual range. “She has a stellar rest of her application,” Audley said. “I’m a huge fan.” The committee shared Audley’s enthusiasm, ushering the applicant into the fall class.
None of the decisions The Post observed were denials. The biggest issue in many cases was fall vs. spring, with the seasons used as verbs. “Any folks here want to ‘fall’ the student?” Nixon asked at one point.
High school seniors around the country are nervously awaiting college admissions decisions. The Post's Nick Anderson explains a few unexpected factors school officials consider when choosing whom to admit. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)
Great test scores are no guarantee of success. On occasion, Gundy said afterward, U-Md. will turn down an applicant with perfect SAT marks. Successful applications will have lots of A’s and B’s in tough courses and show the student took advantage of what the high school offers. A few C’s (or even a lower grade) are not necessarily disqualifying, but they will get discussed.
Race and ethnicity arose at various points as members noted that certain candidates were Latino, Pacific Islander or African American students. That appeared to weigh as a point in their favor. Some states bar their public universities from considering race in admissions. Maryland does not. “We live in a society and a country where race matters,” Gundy said afterward. But U-Md. says racial background is just one of many factors in decisions.
Geography within the state is also a consideration. The committee lingered over an application from Western Maryland with a few blemishes on the transcript. It voted to offer that student spring admission.
“We are not the University of Montgomery County, Howard County and Prince George’s County,” Gundy said, citing population centers with large student pipelines to U-Md. Ensuring access to the flagship from all corners of Maryland is a priority.
So is upward mobility. The committee gave consensus fall approval to an applicant from a public high school in suburban Maryland whose parents had not gone to college. This candidate was multilingual, active in student government and had a distinguished internship. She had strong recommendations and mostly standout grades but a modest SAT score.
“Exactly the kind of student we make an exception for,” Nixon said.
One member asked whether the committee should dispatch a “Terp Bus” — a reference to Maryland’s mascot, Testudo the terrapin — to deliver the good news in person when decisions are released. At that, the committee adjourned.
The University of Maryland at College Park ranked ninth among state flagships in selectivity in 2016. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
Inside the admissions process at George Washington University
‘Read me!’: Students race to craft forceful college essays as deadlines near
New SAT scores sow confusion over how to tell a good result
A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision
(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.
If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)
Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.
1. Just get started.
Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.
2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.
Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.
3. Be specific.
For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?
4. One size does not fit all.
Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?
5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.
Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.
6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.
If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.
7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.
Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.
If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.
If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.
8. Be concise.
Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”
9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.
Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.
10. Enjoy the writing process.
Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.
Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.
Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS