As we prepare to release admission decisions tomorrow evening, Duke’s admissions officers know that many deeply talented students are going to be crestfallen and perhaps mystified. Only 9% of Regular Decision applicants will receive the news they hope to see. For those we do not admit, an admissions officer’s words may not diminish disappointment, but I hope they can make the selection process less opaque.
Alongside mystery naturally lies skepticism for some, especially in an arena as complex and high-stakes as selective college admissions. Earlier in the application season, The Atlantic tapped into the confusion many students experience and took a shot at holistic admissions as a lure, offering students the false promise of personal consideration. Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues: “From colleges’ perspective, “holistic” is just shorthand for, we make the decisions we make, and would rather not be asked to spell out each one.”
The decisions we make here in Duke Admissions are nuanced, subjective, and, yes, personal. Though never arbitrary, they can be difficult to understand without having seen a large, representative sample of the applicant pool. However, “holistic admissions” is not an explanatory scapegoat; it is a practice that enables meaningful distinctions among a sea of candidates who are highly qualified to attend a school like Duke.
I’ve written before about the workings of reading season, but let me dig a little deeper into the underpinnings of holistic admissions. Philosophically, it rests on two fundamental assumptions:
As an intellectually demanding and fast-paced university, Duke is first and foremost concerned with our applicants’ academic qualifications. When I read an application, I always start with the transcript. Even the best essay of the year is unlikely to sustain an academically lackluster application. (By the way, to younger students reading—please don’t feel that you ought to write a confessional essay. The personal statement is already a tricky genre, and the confessional is even tougher to write well. For essay tips from Duke Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag, check out this piece in the Raleigh News & Observer.)
Most students who apply to Duke display the intellectual chops and commitment to succeed here. With over 32,000 students vying for just 1,700 spots in the class, even absurdly fine grained distinctions along a numeric metric wouldn’t get the selection job done. To look at just one example: more than twice as many valedictorians applied as we had spaces in the class, and that’s a count contextualized by the fact that only half of schools sending us applicants provided a class rank. We have to look at other factors, and we want to consider all the other ways a student might contribute to the richness of Duke’s community.
Duke is very transparent about relevant characteristics we seek—things like engagement, impact, creativity, talent, and drive—and where in the application we look to find them. There are six areas, both quantitative and qualitative: curricular rigor, academic grades, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, the quality of thought and expression in the application essays, and standardized test scores.
These components are equally important, and most of the time just one of them doesn’t “make or break” a decision, though different pieces may come to the fore in different discussions. In making a case to admit a student, I have to articulate to the committee what stands out. For decisions on the bubble, the factors that most differentiate a student from the norms of the applicant pool—positively, negatively, or simply uniquely—are likely to drive the committee conversation.
We do not rate or rank applicants’ personal qualities, but we do aim to identify those that emerge, and we care very much about them. A suite of recommendations, essays, extracurricular and academic choices, accomplishments, and an interview report, if available, can solidify a strong sense of kindness, grit, wit, or a particular flavor of intellectual fervor.
Evaluating a file is an art akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle without a box. We aren’t starting with any preconceived pictures, and we don’t possess every piece of information that might be interesting or valuable. We do not presume we know everything about all our applicants, but the application provides enough interlocking pieces, many of them very big, for us to identify a picture of each student as a person.
I take it very seriously that a real, hopeful human being devoted significant effort over many years to present each one of the 1,600 or so applications I read in a winter. I consider it a great privilege as well as my duty to give full, fair consideration to each applicant. I am often saddened to recommend deny decisions, and I frequently experience excitement when someone’s unique blend of traits and talents comes to life on the pages of her application. Many times, disappointment and delight come hand-in-hand as the committee is forced to make tough calls.
Bovy is right on this count: a disappointing outcome does not imply any shortcoming. The tough reality is that there is far more excellence of character and ability in our applicant pool than we can physically accommodate on campus. The selection process is personal, but don’t take it personally if you receive bad news from Duke or any other selective university. If you are among the few to receive a letter that begins with the word “Congratulations” from us, know that it has been tremendously well-earned.
Thornton Wilder writes: “Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous.” As you wait these last few hours, keep your courage—and be sure to take it with you to college. It is the first step in all great things.
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