Admissions officer - or supersleuth?

M. Quenby Jackson is on the hunt for "rare birds" - not endangered species, but a special type of high school senior.

She found one not long ago. He was a top academic student at a high school in New Mexico who had also been elected president of the student council for the entire state by his peers. He was a great catch for the University of Pennsylvania - and one she eventually bagged.

"Rare bird" is, of course, admissions lingo for a student who is not only tops academically and in extracurriculars but also is exceptional in other ways. Ms. Jackson is after kids who might rate a 7 or 8 on a 9-point scale for potential. Most good applicants get only a 5 or 6.

Fortunately, as one of 16 regional directors of admissions for the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Jackson has all of Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, and parts of New York as well to scout for these talented students.

"What appeals to me is working with these really bright 17- 18-year-old kids," she says. "That's one of the reasons I chose this field. And I wanted to work in a creative, intellectual, academic environment rather than a stale corporate environment."

Jackson graduated from Gettysburg (Pa.) College and went to work for a bank in Philadelphia. But after six years she had had it, and decided to get a master's degree in education management at Penn. While taking a course in admissions management from Willis "Lee" Stetson, dean of undergraduate admissions, he inquired what she would be doing with her degree. She said admissions. He mentioned an opening. She landed a job.

In this instance, though, it was the dean himself who landed a rare bird. Dean Stetson's regional directors are from all races, ages, and ethnic backgrounds - about half are Penn grads. One speaks five languages. It isn't easy to find people who can consistently spot exotic plumage. And, it isn't particularly easy work.

In the spring, Jackson must bushwhack her way through every recommendation and essay in 1,200 applications - in just 2-1/2 months. That means getting through 25 to 30 applications per day at about 30 to 40 minutes each. Then, too, there's months of travel to hundreds of schools across her region.

"You sacrifice the winter season," she says. "You're a slave to your job. But the rewards at the end when you matriculate your class are worth it. April is very exciting - going down to see the list of who has said 'yes' to our offers - then running into them on campus."

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