The dusty brown boxes, idle desktop computer and stark bookshelves in Jennifer Delahunty’s Ransom Hall office are at odds with the whirr of activity happening just outside the door. Student-led tours leave six times a day during the week; applicants and their parents bombard the office with a constant stream of phone calls and emails; and, during the winter months, a team of around a dozen admissions officers tries to put together Kenyon’s next class. That last job was particularly daunting this year, as the College received more than 7,000 applications for the first time in its history. While officers welcomed the increased application pool, it made an already demanding job even more so: they needed to allot more time to reading applications, and had to come to terms with turning away more students, all while working under the constraints of Kenyon’s limited financial aid budget.
To students who are facing the college admissions process and those who have survived it, the admissions office may seem like like a locked door; they never get a full view of just what is behind it. On the whole, the United States’ undergraduate population is growing — enrollment increased by 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This trend may well have sparked recent fascination with the college admissions process, manifested in such works as former New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, a 2002 book-length study of admissions at Wesleyan University.
Delahunty, who last year stepped down after a decade as Kenyon’s admissions dean, referenced the 2013 Tina Fey comedy Admission, which centers on an officer at Princeton: “It’s pretty close to the truth,” she said, except “people do not make deals.” A few weeks after we spoke with Delahunty, she lamented “the knot of our current admissions madness” in a March 31 op-ed piece in the Times.
This is the world in which Diane Anci, Kenyon’s newly hired successor to Delahunty, has spent half her life. Despite the seemingly cutthroat nature of college admissions, Anci’s voice is filled with enthusiasm as she speaks about her field. “I’ve always been interested in people’s stories,” she said, a statement given credence by Emily Allyn, an associate dean of admission and eighteen-year colleague of Anci at Mount Holyoke College.
“I can’t tell you how many times my dad offered me a car to stay home and go to St. John’s University to do something practical like accounting or pharmacy.” – Diane Anci
Allyn and Anci met during freshman orientation at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. “In true Diane fashion, she approached me and began asking me questions so she could get to know me,” Allyn recalled. “It was Diane who encouraged me to consider a career in college admissions.”
Anci was a first-generation college student, and originally intended to study journalism before settling on art history. Her decision to focus on the humanities was a controversial one in her family. “I grew up on Long Island, where the emphasis was really on profession,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times my dad offered me a car to stay home and go to St. John’s University to do something practical like accounting or pharmacy.”
Yet Anci as a high-schooler was enthusiastic about the prospect of attending a small liberal arts college. “I would read college catalogues for fun,” she said.
So off she went to Wheaton, which she called “a magnificent place.” Anci was a tour guide at the school for three years, after which she became a senior interviewer. “I walked into the admissions office my second day at college and said, ‘Can I be a tour guide?’” she recalled. “I loved being able to represent an institution I cared a great deal about.”
Anci and Kenyon are an apt match: a person and an institution both wedded to the idea of keeping admissions personal. But perhaps more importantly, Anci’s arrival on the Hill will ring in a new era at Ransom Hall. With the effects of Kenyon removing its supplemental application in 2013 just becoming clear with applications to Kenyon reaching an all-time high, admissions officers are beginning to wonder if they will have to change the way they operate, particularly if they are to achieve the goal of increased diversity outlined in President Sean Decatur’s 2020 Plan.
“With the volume of applications we have now I don’t know how practical the way we do it is,” Senior Associate Director of Admissions Trish Priest said. “I started reading [applications] almost a month earlier than I did last year … to absorb some of that increase.”
Kenyon admissions officers described their process as being based on holistic review, meaning they look at every aspect of an individual’s application, a process forsaken at many larger institutions. “Some of the flagship publics do do it, they have a process that’s very close to Kenyon’s,” Steinberg, the former Times reporter, said in an interview with The Collegian Magazine. “But for a lot of the big state universities there are things like cut-offs and formulas, and some of that work is done by computer.”
Each Kenyon application receives a first and a second read; officers typically conduct first reads for the applications from their assigned territories. The first reader spends about twenty to thirty minutes on a single application, and evaluates students’ transcripts in the context of their high schools’ specific curricula and grading methods, according to Priest. In other words, are students taking the most challenging courses offered to them, and are they performing well?
Second reads occur later in the year, take about half as long as first reads and are assigned arbitrarily. The second reader makes sure the first reader did not miss anything important in the application and updates the file with any new information the office might have received, such as mid-year grades or new test scores.
After looking at an application, the reader uses a grid — the details of which Admissions doesn’t disclose, because otherwise applicants “would just try to figure out how to get the rating we wanted, and that’s not what we want to do,” Delahunty said — to assign the applicant an academic rating from one to nine and a personal rating from one to five. The higher, the better. Delahunty said those given a personal rating of five are “students who are going to be real game-changers on campus,” but warned that “nobody is a slam-dunk admit anymore.”
According to Delahunty, the office goes through a “norming process” at the beginning of the year, in which officers read and rate the same files to “try to show uniformity and … weed the objective from the subjective,” she said. “Of course, everybody has their own personal things that they look for, that they like, that they like to uncover in the file and bring forth.” (Delahunty called herself “a champion for the bright, well-rounded student, the one who maybe doesn’t have anything special that sticks out.”)
Academic ratings are calculated using a formula based largely on grades, course rigor, and test scores. Admissions also rates applicants based on the interest they’ve shown in Kenyon; interest level is noted on a six-point scale, with a six indicating an early decision applicant and a one indicating an applicant who has demonstrated no interest in Kenyon, failing even to open emails from Admissions.
The personal rating is based on what the student does outside the classroom, as well as on personal qualities expressed in essays or an interview.
“When we’re talking about our rating scale, it’s not like we’re trying to jam a square peg into a round hole,” Assistant Director of Admissions Whitney Hawkins said. “I think it relies on your ability to understand the schools and the context students are coming from.” She and other officers asserted their rating scales could not be standardized.
Delahunty also emphasized that admissions at Kenyon is about crafting a class that meets the school’s academic profile and will bring something special to the Hill. “It’s a lot less formulaic than you might think,” she said. “We have to make the decisions one at a time, and then you look at what you’ve done collectively and then you start to shape the class a little bit more by taking kids according to this and taking kids out.”
Judging from these reporters’ admissions files, the norming process appears an effective venture. Admissions allowed us to view our own files and discuss them with an admissions officer after we asked for access under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The personal and interest ratings in each of our files were the same, while the only variation in academic ratings was a half-point difference for one of us.
“There are very few times where that rating is not close to the other read,” Priest said.
These ratings are among the factors that determine whether an application gets sent to committee, where the officers collectively discuss and determine the fates of candidates. Interim Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Darryl Uy estimated that, out of roughly 6,600 applications for the Class of 2018, 4,000 wound up in committee.
Before committee, first readers are responsible for “prepping” their files: they read the second reader’s comments on the file and compare them with their own, sometimes returning to the actual application if the second reader points out something new.
The committee spends ten-hour days — sometimes bringing their lunches with them to avoid interruption — going through applications by territory and high school. As interim dean of admissions, Uy leads committee and keeps everything moving at a steady pace. First readers present their files to committee and offer a recommendation: admit, waitlist, deny. While first and second readers can see all their notes on the applicant, the rest of the officers only see what is called the “docket” — a chart that contains basic details about the applicant, such as number of years studying each core academic area in high school, APs, and test results. Thus it is up to the first readers to explain important details of the application to the rest of the officers, who may not be familiar with the territory or type of transcript in question.
While some committee conversations are quick, others require an in-depth discussion. “It’s those kids who have a kind of rough edge who are desirable in other ways — that’s still a really tough decision,” Delahunty said.
Admissions Counselor Maurice Hill stressed the importance of analyzing students on an individual basis. “Not every student has the same experiences,” he said. “Life is tough for a lot of students and we just can’t put everyone on common ground.”
Yet admissions officers also have responsibilities beyond reading applications — serving on committees to dispense academic scholarships, or planning events for admitted students, for example — and there are only so many hours in the day.
The committee spends ten-hour days — sometimes bringing their lunches with them to avoid interruption — going through applications by territory and high school.
“It’s tough just because it is a time-intensive labor and I think it’s really important that it stays that way, … not cutting corners just for the sake of efficiency,” Geiger said.
The extent to which the process changes in the coming years will likely depend on Anci, who assumes her new post in July.
“Without exaggeration, I think it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
This was Anci’s reaction to the news that she had been chosen as Kenyon’s next dean of admissions. “I’m having to restrain myself from texting Darryl.”
Larry James “couldn’t help but notice the similarities” between Kenyon and Mount Holyoke, where Anci worked for 24 years, including the last 17 as dean. James, a College trustee, chaired the search committee that recommended Anci for the admissions’ dean post. Anci “was able to have a conversation at least from my standpoint that was authentic,” he said. “She had some fantastic benchmarks that she could showcase, … [including recruiting] a diverse body of students.”
President Sean Decatur also lauded Anci’s success in increasing the presence of diverse populations — including international students, domestic students of color, and first-generation college students — “within a need-sensitive and constrained-resources environment.” As Anci pointed out, more than half of Mount Holyoke’s student body is international citizens or students of color; “a lot of that happened on my watch, and so I maintain a very deep commitment to diversity,” she said. Decatur also mentioned hearing a student on the search committee say she was “ready to go to Mount Holyoke” after interviewing Anci.
Anci stressed that she has no plans to overhaul Kenyon admissions, at least not at the outset. “It would be a little arrogant or presumptuous of me to be sitting 775 miles away, after a day and a half on campus, … to have all the answers for Kenyon,” she said. But Anci’s record of recruiting diverse classes contributed to her hiring, and she hopes to use her experience to “advance Kenyon on the diversity front.”
“Where could we be going?” Anci asked. “Where, literally, in the world could we be going?” She noted that while recruiting for Mount Holyoke she visited as many countries — thirty-seven — as she did states. Anci also mentioned working to attract “non-traditional-age” students. “Do I think it’s an option for Kenyon? Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “But having a population of older students who bring to the table substantial amounts of work and life experience — that’s tremendous for diversity on campus.”
Decatur pegged increasing diversity as one of Kenyon’s top priorities in the 2020 Plan, which his office released this spring. “I think the plan for 2020 certainly renews and strengthens the commitment to diversity,” Anci said. And in 2013, Kenyon removed its supplemental application, largely because admissions officers perceived it as standing in the way of increasing access to the College.
The supplement was “a barrier for students, particularly underrepresented students,” Priest said. “We would find that they would complete the Common App piece and then never finish the supplement,” she added, saying the office experienced an uptick in applications from underrepresented students after it dropped the supplement.
Caroline Dellheim, who was accepted early decision into the Class of 2019, heard about the removal of the supplement on her tour. Her sister, a member of the Class of 2017, had to fill one out when she applied to Kenyon. Dellheim is in favor of the supplement: “Students who are very willing to fill out that supplemental essay and put in the extra work are more interested in Kenyon,” she said. “I just think that that kind of demonstrates that they’re ready to work for it. … I think that those people who are willing to work hard end up being the better students in college.”
Olivia Debay, a high school junior from Concord, Mass., did not know Kenyon once had a supplement, and said she favored its removal. “It’s going to definitely make more people able to and willing to apply, so I think that’s good,” Debay, who plans to apply to Kenyon, said.
Hawkins, who once worked as a college access counselor in a low-income high school in Virginia, agreed. “Thick supplements were a real barrier to their ability to access college education, and it wasn’t because they weren’t interested and it wasn’t because they didn’t care,” Hawkins said. “If you have four little siblings that you’re taking care of as soon as you get home from school, and then you work at McDonald’s part-time, and then you’re also trying to be in the band … and you are not from an environment or a high school that encourages things like creative writing or writing about yourself, it can get really tough to fill out that supplement.”
Anci called the supplement removal an “interesting choice,” adding that “sometimes in admissions more is more … [and] enables an admissions staff to really create a community that is going to achieve institutional goals for enrollment.” Uy calls these goals institutional priorities: gender balance, athletes, legacies, students of color, first-generation students, socioeconomic diversity and students interested in the sciences are among the examples he listed.
Many tuition-driven institutions with smaller endowments use quotas to maintain diversity levels, according to Priest. The Kenyon admissions officers we spoke to said they do not use quotas, but some said they keep tabs on diversity figures throughout the process.
“Every year we’re trying to improve upon the previous year,” Uy said. “So it’s not a quota, but we never want to fall behind what we did the previous year.”
“If you have four little siblings that you’re taking care of as soon as you get home from school, and then you work at McDonald’s part-time, and then you’re also trying to be in the band … and you are not from an environment or a high school that encourages things like creative writing or writing about yourself, it can get really tough to fill out that supplement.” – Whitney Hawkins
Geiger emphasized that officers prioritize admitting students who are Kenyon-ready, and that Admissions does not sacrifice that aim solely for the sake of creating more diversity. “We’re not trying to arbitrarily just hit specific numbers,” he said.
But diversity won’t increase on its own: the 2020 Plan aims to “strategically use Kenyon’s resources to attract, retain and graduate an academically excellent and diverse student body.” Resources means money — and Kenyon’s supply is finite.
This is the sticker price for a Kenyon education in the 2015-2016 academic year. With such a staggering number, many high school students have to go where the money is. Kenyon promises to meet 100 percent of applicants’ demonstrated need, which is calculated based on the PROFILE and FAFSA, forms on which students supply family financial information. However, Kenyon’s ability to meet student need is restricted by its relatively small $200 million endowment, which pales in comparison to many of Kenyon’s “overlap” institutions — schools to which Kenyon applicants most commonly apply. Delahunty said Kenyon doesn’t have the resources to be need-blind in its admissions process, and that Admissions sometimes has to factor families’ ability to pay into their decisions.
“We have to keep in mind that we have a budget to work with,” Priest said. “Those are conversations that we have, and certainly in regular decision … we do sometimes have to make decisions based on what’s best for the institution and for us to still be able to meet 100 percent of need.” According to Priest, the conversation goes like this: “This student has need, this is what they’re going to add to Kenyon, and then you vote.”
Yet Geiger insists the office usually doesn’t take applicants’ financial need into consideration. “Most of the time it doesn’t come into play, just toward the end when we’re trying to make sure everything matches up,” he said.
A subset of admissions officers also serves on Kenyon’s merit committee, which awards merit aid to the top 15 percent of students who applied — merit helps “to yield those really high-achieving students” that Kenyon loses to Ivy League schools and higher-profile liberal arts institutions such as Williams and Amherst, Geiger said.
Despite the financial constraints presented by Kenyon’s endowment — Decatur said that “growing the endowment is … at the top of priorities we have for the next few years” — admissions officers are looking for ways to bring more socioeconomic diversity to the Hill.
“How do we make sure that we are building new pipelines, to high schools, to cities and areas that Kenyon has not been able to reach quite as effectively in the past?” Decatur asked in response to a question about how Admissions could improve. Steinberg’s new organization, Say Yes to Education, aims to provide such a pipeline. By partnering with Say Yes, Kenyon and other colleges agree to cover tuition and fees for applicants with family incomes below $75,000 who hail from public high schools in Say Yes communities. Steinberg called joining Say Yes’s compact “an unbelievably generous offer on Kenyon’s part and that of our other partners.”
The administration recognizes that Kenyon is limited by its finances, however, even amid its participation in initiatives such as Say Yes.
“I don’t see us moving away from being need-sensitive,” Decatur said.
Aid offers are far from the only way Admissions attracts applicants to the Hill. For prospective student-athletes, Kenyon’s varsity coaches can serve as the best marketers of all. Reece Rose, from Lenoir City, Tenn., learned that he had gotten in to Kenyon before most of his classmates to-be. As a cross-country recruit, he was in contact with Head Coach Duane Gomez, who traveled to Rose’s town to meet with him and his family and later informed him of his acceptance. “I was a top recruit and so then I could hear back a little bit earlier with the permission of the admissions office,” he said.
Rose’s experience is an example of slotting, a system Admissions uses to save a limited number of spots in the class for recruited athletes; officers “pre-read” these students’ applications, then let coaches know how likely they are to be admitted and what they could do to improve their chances. Students who are slotted still have to go through the formal application process, however, and may have their admission revoked — though this has only happened once, when the recruit’s GPA fell significantly senior year.
“I don’t see us moving away from being need-sensitive.” – Sean Decatur
The phenomenon of slotting speaks to the procedural differences in admissions for recruited athletes. Baseball recruit Jordan Levin, from Thetford, Vt., originally met Coach Matt Burdette at a showcase he attended two years ago. When he visited campus last spring, Burdette chatted with him for two hours and gave him a tour of the KAC. A prospective environmental studies student who “instantly fell in love with the campus,” Levin applied Early Decision II and got deferred. “I called him and wanted to see what the story was, like what my chances were for regular decision,” Levin said. “And he said that he had three other baseball guys that applied EDII that he was trying to get in and two of them were denied, and I was the only one that was still in the running. I’m sure his help got me through, so that I didn’t get denied.” Levin ended up getting admitted regular decision.
Burdette declined to comment for this article. However, Suzanne Helfant, head women’s basketball coach, explained that coaches communicate with Admissions to indicate their top preferences of the recruits applying to Kenyon. “If we are really thin in the post and we want to make sure that we are getting at least one or two post players then we’ll rate those kids higher,” she said. Having worked the Kenyon job for two decades, Helfant now conducts her own round of academic screening, requesting students’ transcripts and test scores.
Priest, one of two athletic liaisons in Admissions, said the office maintains good communication with coaches. “I give them suggestions or comments of ways that that student could be more attractive in the admissions process,” she said, while cautioning that “a coach’s influence would never make us decide to admit or to not admit a student.”
Like Delahunty, Anci acknowledges the strain the increasing competitiveness of the college admissions process can place on applicants — athletes and non-athletes alike. “I am so acutely aware of how overwhelmed they are by this process,” she said. “It breaks my heart.” Yet Anci thinks admissions officers can help mitigate the chaos of admissions on an individual level. “Why aren’t we using our authority … to be giving kids good advice about how best to manage the process?” she asked.
Anci also noted plans to use analysis of administrative and survey data to fine-tune the efficacy of Kenyon’s admissions office, to evolve based on the reactions of applicants, students, graduates, and those who show interest in the College but end up not applying.
Uy, for one, is on her side. “It sounds like she is someone who will question the status quo,” Uy said. “Coming from a different institution, being new here, it will allow her to ask us and challenge us: well, why do we do it that way?”
“You walk a tightrope when you do the job that I do,” Anci said. “On the one hand, you could lean to one side … to meet the interests and needs of seventeen-year-olds and their families, but you can’t fall off the tightrope and exist only in that place. Similarly, you could lean in the other direction on the tightrope as you consider the interests and needs of the institution. You really want to walk in a very sort of steady [line].” She paused.
“And that becomes in some ways the goal, right?”