It's 8:55 a.m. and Margaret Porigow, director of operations for the University of Pennsylvania undergraduate admissions rockets into an empty conference room, slapping a stack of three-ring binders onto a long table.
She rushes out again, only to return quickly with armloads of the most up-to-date computer summaries of applicants' recommendations, grades, and test scores.
At 8:58, she is snapping binders open and clipping in the summaries - six computerized blurbs to a page. This morning's admissions session will focus on the top-ranked of these "slates."
Willis "Lee" Stetson, dean of undergraduate admissions, appears at the door. Ms. Porigow greets him but doesn't miss a beat in her precision operation here in the heart of academia.
It is precision born of necessity. Eight days are all Penn's small committee has to review a record 2,166 "early decision" applicants to one of America's most selective universities - and to decide who will be accepted, denied, or deferred for reconsideration in the spring. Dean Stetson is followed into the room by M. Quenby Jackson, regional director of admissions for Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of New York. She grabs a black binder. So does Patti Schindler, associate director of external affairs at the university's College of Arts and Sciences.
Stetson sits at the head of the table, a cart filled with scores of fat admissions files in easy reach.
"Let's start," he intones, one minute after the hour.
Ms. Jackson begins by reviewing plaudits for a high school senior. Like each of Penn's 16 regional directors, she has spent at least half an hour on each application, checking test scores, class rank, recommendations, extracurricular activities.
"He's probably one of their top kids this year," Jackson starts, referencing a public high school in upstate New York. Then she ticks off qualifications rapid fire:
"He's top 5 percent of his class; French is spoken at home; Both parents involved in business; MRA (most rigorous curriculum) with 4 APs [advanced-placement courses] his senior year. He's a solid A student with just a sprinkling of B-pluses."
As Jackson recites, Ms. Schindler studies her own slate. Stetson reviews his master application file.
"His guidance counselor says he's the best he's worked with in 27 years," Jackson continues. This young man is also vice president of student government, a Shakespearian actor, and a peer adviser to the ninth-graders. He's vice president of the National Honor Society.
"This kid sort of has it all," Jackson enthuses, pressing the sale. "Academic success with some unusual twists. I liked the Shakespearian actor and school leader part."
Stetson: "Yes. Looks very strong. And he's done things outside of the classroom. That's the reason he's rated a 6 [on 1 to 9 scale, 9 the top] in nonscholastic activities. We don't see many 7s on anything."
Schindler: "Is it a big group coming from this school?"
Jackson: I have five or six earlies this year and they're all very strong."
Stetson: "Let's grab him."
Elapsed time: 1 minute, 42 seconds.
The growing popularity of "early decision," where students can hear from their top-pick school before winter vacation, means that many applicants around the nation will receive notification this week - just weeks after shipping off applications, and months before the traditional April denouement. But whether the mail brings sighs of relief or a signal to redirect, many students and parents can still be left wondering, "How exactly does this work?"
To gain a better sense of what it takes to be admitted to a highly selective school, the Monitor was granted a rare seat at the table, observing the University of Pennsylvania admissions committee as it debated early-decision applicants on the condition that their names not be used, though their credentials could be. Cases involving a handful of athletic recruits and "development cases" - students who might be admitted in part because of large donations by parents - were not viewed.
Penn mailed notices last Friday to 920 admits, 622 denials, and 624 deferrals. Those who got in had an average combined SAT score of 1387 out of 1600, 9 points higher than last year. The average class rank was in the top 4 percent.
Among hundreds of candidates reviewed while the Monitor observed over two days:
* A white male from Kansas, a region where Penn gets few applications but would like to get more. He has solid test scores, but his grades are weak (a sprinkling of B-pluses) producing a ranking at the low end of the top 10 percent of his large class.
Decision: Admitted. Key factors: He is from an "outreach" area where the school wants to encourage more applicants.
"He wrote a six-page essay saying why he wants to be here. I know we don't like long essays. But I thought 'Great, a Kansan who's dying for Penn,'" says Marisa Halm, regional director of admissions.
* An African-American female from Florida who is president of her senior class at a mostly white school. She plays basketball and has good grades. Also, she took a strong curriculum that includes several AP courses. But her math SAT is weak, given her desire to major in business at the elite Wharton School.
Decision: Accepted. Key factors: She's from an outreach zone in Florida - and she applied early or she could have been shut out by tougher competition in the spring. Her high school math course will be monitored and she will be encouraged to take summer math.
"Let's watch this one very closely and help her succeed," says Anita Gelbard, associate dean of the Wharton undergraduate school.
* A highly motivated white male from Illinois who wants to attend the Wharton School of Business. Penn gets a number of applications from his school. He is in the top 5 percent of his class with high ACT scores. But his class rank is relatively low. Nothing else distinguishes him.
Decision: Deferred. Key factors: Many students with better qualifications will apply for April admission from this school. Penn officials do not want to "send the wrong message" and open the floodgates to lesser applicants.
"I know he says he really, really wants to be here. At the risk of sounding snooty, so do a lot of kids," Ms. Gelbard says.
If students left standing outside a school's gate are often puzzled by the selection process, that goes as well for those who make it in. Just talk to Jordan Schwartz, a smart guy without a clue why he was admitted to Penn. A top student in high school, he is now in his sophomore year, sitting on a sunny December day beneath a statue of Benjamin Franklin, founder of the school.
The psychology-philosophy double major draws a blank when asked what won him admission.
"It's all kind of a big mystery," Mr. Schwartz says. "Maybe it was my [admissions] essay."
Maybe. After all, he did write a harrowing essay about falling into a glacial crevasse while skiing in Alaska. But it takes more than good grades and a riveting essay to be admitted to this urban school, ranked No. 6 in the nation by US News & World Report.
Penn last year rejected about 2 of 3 undergraduate applicants (71 percent) - including 322 high school valedictorians. But if so many valedictorians fail to make the cut, should their peers be even more worried?
This question is hardly academic. The answer involves the art of assessing individual qualifications at least as much as the science of calculating class rank.
"It's a myopic view to say we should all just take those with the highest test scores, which alone are a poor predictor of success in college," Stetson says. "We use SAT scores and other measures in relation to one another. So we may be forced to turn down even a valedictorian [with great SATs] along the way."
Each year's pool of candidates holds so many academic powerhouses that it is achievements outside the classroom, along with geography or minority status that may set students apart. Penn is openly striving for a mix of students. Even so, the academics must be there, Stetson insists. Last year, 36 percent of those enrolled in the class of 2002 were either Black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian.
But affirmative-action critics have sued Texas and Michigan schools, citing admissions policies favoring minorities over whites with better grades and test scores. As a result of Proposition 209, California's college system banned affirmative action in its admissions. But so far, the private Ivys have not been legally challenged. Together, they argue an overwhelming need for admissions policies that promote campus diversity.
At the eight Ivy League schools - Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania - admissions competition has never been greater, due to a swelling applicant pool. More than 110,000 apply to the Ivys each year, but just 26,000 or so are accepted, one expert says.
Only about 100 of the nation's 4,000 colleges and universities are considered selective. Most accept whomever applies. Less than two dozen are highly selective - admitting fewer than 35 percent of those who apply.
Acceptance rates at highly selective schools range from 13 percent at Harvard - the lowest - to about 29 percent at Penn.
"There really should not be a mystery surrounding this process," Stetson says. Yet he and others admit there is. He attributes it to the fact that many students with high academic honors or powerful test scores are denied, while some others with unique attributes outside the classroom are admitted. This has created public confusion, and, strangely, even greater demand, he says. Competition has also spawned an industry of consultants and SAT coaches.
"Competition has become more extreme," Stetson says. "Some of it is the illusion of prestige - and wanting what you can't have."
Competition has also blown open early decision. Early decision a few decades ago was pursued by only the best students. Now many slightly weaker students apply early to gain an edge.
It appears they get one. Last year at Penn, the final acceptance rate (including those deferred to spring but ultimately accepted) for early admission was 42 percent. Compare that with the 14,533 who applied in spring. Just 3,976 - 27 percent - were admitted to the class of 2002.
The result: Last year Penn drew 35 percent of the class of 2002 from "earlies," compared with 5 percent a few years ago.
Other universities are jumping on the bandwagon, too, whether or not they are particularly selective. More than 400 schools offered early action this year, the College Board reports.
The reason early-decision candidates are given an edge is purely economic. Applicants commit to coming to Penn if accepted. They may apply to only one school. So Penn doesn't have to worry about competing with other Ivys and good state universities.
During regular admission, by contrast, many of those accepted at Penn will also apply to Harvard or Yale - and may end up at one of those schools.
"Early decision is not a full reflection of the entire selection process," Stetson says. "We're laying a base and we're probably a tad more forgiving because the students are making a commitment to us - so there is a measure of preference."
About three minutes and four students (two "easy admits," one deferral, and one denial) into the morning session on Dec. 3, another of Jackson's New Yorkers hits prime time - but with less stellar results.
A senior at a strong private school, this young woman has high test scores, including a combined 1,480 on her SATs. But her grades are weaker. She has applied to the College of Arts and Science as a philosophy major.
The college is eager to admit women. But all three in the room worry her merely "rigorous curriculum" is not the "most rigorous available." Also, that even deferring her might send the wrong message to the school.
"We've got a lot of B's on this transcript, including four in her junior year," Jackson says. "She's described as having lots of potential. But there's a lot of depth to this class. And she's got too many B's for me to be comfortable at a school like this where we do see their top kids coming to Penn."
Stetson: "She ended up getting a 120 point increase on her SATs. But it just proves even more that she's not using her ability."
Jackson: "There are so many B's on her record in a rig [rigorous curriculum, see glossary]. Still, she's in the top 15 percent of her class. I'd like to hold onto [defer] her."
Stetson: "Do we get much from this school? What kind of community is it?"
Jackson: "It's a middle-class community. It's not a Scarsdale or Mamaroneck, but it's not White Plains either."
Stetson: "Patti, you're thinking we should let her go [deny] now?"
Schindler: "Well, yeah, it's the B's and the rig - that's not going to change [before regular admission]."
Stetson: "What do you think, Quenby?"
Jackson: "One of the letters or recommendation says she has a really strong interest in bioethics and he thinks it's a nice match for her. But he goes on to say that she handed in late work. He thought that was OK because it was honest and it was her own work. But nevertheless, I don't think it's an excuse for handing in late work in high school.
Stetson: "OK, let's let her go then."
Elapsed time: 2 minutes, 9 seconds.
THE SHORTCUTS OF ...
FEEDER - A school from which the university regularly receives a large number of applicants.
PLUGGER - An applicant who works very hard academically, who won't let himself fail, but who may not be at the top of the pool. Sometimes indicates a lack of intellectual spark, but often is purely descriptive and could at times be complimentary.
PQS - A student's personal qualifications, for example, "she has great PQs."
ATHLETE - A recruited athlete, not simply someone who played athletics in high school.
Straight down the middle - A student with a solid application, solid academics and extracurricular qualifications, but no spark.
LOPSIDED - An imbalanced student profile. Could apply to an academically one-sided applicant, one with very strong grades and test scores in math and science, but weak verbal testing and English class grades.
ALL A'S ALL THE TIME - A term used to describe someone who has superlative academic performance.
SELF-REP - A student's representation of himself on his application. He has either a "good self-rep" or spelling errors and grammar mistakes.
... ADMISSIONS SPEAK
RIG - A student who has a middle-of-the-road curriculum. It is one notch above an "above-average" curriculum and one notch below the coveted MRA, or "most rigorous available."
GC - A guidance counselor. GC recommendations come up regularly.
Slate - A notebook full of computerized student application summaries ranked 1 through 9, with 9 being the lowest.
DULL READ - An application where nothing "jumps off the page." It's akin to "straight down the middle," but more negative and probably means an outright denial.
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