Admissions Beat S2E1 Transcript

Season 2: Episode 1 Transcript
Welcome to Senior Fall: It's College Application Season!

Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, this is Lee Coffin. Welcome to the Admissions Beat.

So our first guest on the Admissions Beat, is friend of the pod, Jacques Steinberg. Jacques spent many decades at the New York Times covering the admissions beat itself. I've often thought of him as one of the founding fathers of the admissions beat back in the 90s and early 2000s. Jacques has been a reporter. He's been an author of two really noteworthy admission theme books: The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admission Process of a Premier College was published in 2002 and I think stands the test of time 20 years later, as my view, one of the best books documented the way a selective college does its work.

And then last year, Jacques and my longtime colleague, Eric Furda, the former dean of admissions at Penn, published The College Conversation, A Practical Companion For Parents To Guide Their Children Along The Path To Higher Education. Jacques is a parent of two college-age kids. He is the past president of the Dartmouth Alumni Association and a Dartmouth class of '88. So, always fun to welcome you to the podcast, Jacques. And in this episode I'm turning my mic over to you and you're going to interview me as we think about the admissions landscape in the fall of 2022. So nice to see you again.

Jacques Steinberg:
It's a pleasure to be with you Lee, and thanks for that introduction. I'm imagining some particular listeners. I'm thinking about high school seniors. I'm thinking about their parents as well as their guardians and other adults who serve as mentors in their lives. I'm thinking about the counselors who support and guide them, and I'm particularly thinking about students whose parents didn't go to college or perhaps went to college so long ago that some of their information might be out of date. And for those who are new to The Admissions Beat, when I talk about students whose parents did not graduate from college, that is an audience that resonates with you personally as well as professionally.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. I mean for new listeners, a recurring theme of my conversations is my own experience in 1980, '81. So it feels like a dinosaur era ago in terms of admission. But I was a first-gen college-bound student at a public high school in Connecticut with some, but not particularly robust guidance, and found my way forward. And a guiding goal of all of my podcasting is to help students like I was to have the agency to move forward on their own and to give them some perspective and some news you can use, as I've heard Jacques say at other venues, that will help demystify a process that can seem overwhelming and opaque.

I have a particular goal every year of helping people to see this as not a random game, but a thoughtful intentional process on the student side, as well as on the college side. And to help empower people to just open up a common application, a QuestBridge application, a Coalition application, the Georgetown application, whatever it might be, and start typing with intent, that helps someone tell her story in her own words to the best of her ability to introduce herself to the college of her choice.

Jacques Steinberg:
So for those who are listening and think to themselves, "Oh Lee, the dean of an Ivy League institution, he can't possibly imagine what I'm thinking and feeling and worried about," I would argue, try to imagine the dean as student as being right where you were and in many instances having to educate his own parents about this process. Some of you can probably relate to that dynamic. So I'm thinking about our listeners today, Lee, but I'm also thinking about the calendar. It's September. Some of our listeners will soon be submitting applications through rolling admissions plans, where some colleges on a first-come-first-serve basis will be considering applications as they come in and rendering decisions.

Others will be thinking about early application programs, binding programs like those at Dartmouth and other schools, as well as early action, which is not binding and other variations of that. And still others will be aiming toward deadlines that will be coming on or around the 1st of January in the new year. So as we think about that calendar and the kickoff of the podcast, we've got bit of time left in September, we've got October, we've got November, we've got December. I'm hoping to ask you some questions on behalf of our listeners that could be helpful to them throughout this fall. And does that sound like a good approach for our time together?

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, I think September, since I was five has been this back-to-school moment. Get the new shoes, find a new lunch box, head back to class, and I think the admission cycle follows that same energy, where it's been going for this class for many months at this point. But it's time to get serious, if you're a senior in high school planning to apply to college. The weeks between early September and the deadlines we've outlined come quickly. People should not wait until the night before a deadline to start filling out the application. So I'm happy to offer whatever wisdom, guidance, do's and don'ts you want to ask me.

Jacques Steinberg:
So I think for listeners, we're going to get pretty tactical as we think about that roadmap. But first Lee, I want to start broadly. When you say back to school, I kind of feel that in my stomach, I feel the butterflies, the jitters, and you and I both know that whether our listener is a parent or a student or even the counselors helping them, that every fall, there's a lot of anxiety at this moment. Speaking specifically to the students in our audience, the seniors, what advice would you have for them in terms of managing the stress and anxiety of this moment and the weeks and months ahead?

Lee Coffin:
Such a great question. And I think the stress of not just applying but imagining where someone sees themself, trying to get it right—there's this sense that this process is fraught and it's not, it's competitive in a lot of spaces and that's a reality to own, without getting freaked out about the idea that a place might say "no" more than it can say "yes." But remember the goal on the college side is to say "ye"s as much as it can, given the class is trying to fill. But from a student perspective in the fall of 2022, I think one of the challenges right now, is an overload of information. And one of the reasons I named this the Admissions Beat is I think the beat can be loud. There's a lot of information coming at people from lots of different sources, some human to human, some through social media, some through newspapers.

And I think the advice would be, to the extent you can do it, keep your own counsel. Try not to get sucked into the competitive conversation with your peer group about what are your scores, what were your grades, where are you applying, where aren't you applying? Are you early or not? Because, it's not a knock-down-your-peers-to-get-to-the-goal-first. This process invites you to pay attention to you, to have an honest conversation with yourself about what matters in terms of the environment in which you'd like to find yourself a year from now, to the degree as a senior in high school, what kind of curriculum you'd like to study? I mean, in broad ways, pre-professional liberal arts, something that's very prescribed, something that's more open ended. I mean there's lots of different colleges and lots of different programs of study that bubble beneath the name of the college.

I think you have to think about, "where have I been looking, what's resonating and what's not?" And I guess the last piece of advice would be, don't force it. If September moves into October, if you're listening to this right before a deadline, in early deadline, if you don't have a strong pull towards a campus, wait—it's called regular decision. I think that the trap door of all of this, is feeling like something has to happen on someone else's timeline and enjoy your senior year. Take this fall and all of the wonderful things that come along with being a senior and have some fun, in addition to thinking about college and applying to college. Be 17 for a bit and laugh and play to the degree you let yourself do that.

Jacques Steinberg:
Yeah, I mean I think being 17 a bit and keeping this in perspective and having big chunks of your life where this isn't top of mind can be helpful on that point of reducing stress. Talk a little bit about the things that are within applicant's control. We focus a lot of this process on people like yourself, who are in that position to say yes or no or maybe, let me see. But there's quite a number of elements of this process that are within applicant's control and within the control of families. And can you just tick off a few of those things?

Lee Coffin:
Start with the transcripts. So your high school transcript is the most important part of your application, because it's foundational. It tells the admission officer about academic preparation and then the more selective places about academic achievement. You control as a senior, what courses you're taking, how much you're studying. You can't always control what grade you get, but you have agency over the performance piece that happens in your senior year. And it's important, because the transcript before this 9th, 10th, 11th-grade, is static, you finished it, the grades are on those documents, you can't change things.

As you move through your senior year, it is a living transcript. You have report cards, you have midyear grades, which we will get from your high school, after you're admitted we will get your final grades and review those before you enroll. So this 12th-grade academic cycle is very much a living document that you have your hands on the stream below that. So that's, one. Two, is remember that the application you use, whether it's Common Coalition, QuestBridge or Institutional, you have full control over the story you tell through every section of that application. But what you answer and how you answer it, how you choose to introduce yourself through your extracurricular engagement, who you ask to offer a letter of recommendation on your behalf, the sum of all of those application elements create a document known as the application. It is your work.

Jacques Steinberg:
So let's get tactical as we think about the fall and finalizing the college list. What are some, for listeners who are working to finalize that list, how can you help get them across the finish line and by when should they be doing that?

Lee Coffin:
So if someone started their college search last winter, spring, by September of a senior year, I hope a fair degree of exploration has happened. So there will have been many "aha" moments where something resonated or not on a campus in an info session on a campus tour, poking around the websites. So some places should rise and fall as a result of that exploration. So when they're sagging, let them go. When they're rising, ask yourself, "What is it about this set of places that is still dancing around my imagination as potential places for me?" So that's step one. Step two is you can apply to up to 20 places on the Common application. That's not a goal. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. And I think giving yourself a reality check on let's aim for 10 or 12, not 18 or 20, a couple places that seem aspirational.

And by aspirational I mean you look at the acceptance rates and you think, "Oh, the odds are long that this place becomes an option." A few in the middle where you have broadly competitive credentials as you understand their selectivity with your guidance or college counselor. And then a couple places that I would call likely acceptances, not places you would never go, if that ends up being the one or two places that offer you admission, but places where you have a very reasonable shot at being invited to join that student body. And then I think the last step of this is, as the catnip that is early decision, early action creeps closer through the fall.

I see students make a strategic error every fall and they look at "early" as their chance to go for the most aspirational place on the list, to see what happens, quote unquote. And in doing so, you fumble an opportunity to make that same case to a place that is in your sweet spot around where you see yourself and where your chances are realistic. And some places have second rounds of early decision, some places don't. I would say if you're shooting towards a November application and it's binding, take a moment and ask yourself, "Is this really where I see myself and a realistic candidacy or am I just kind of throwing one out there to see, well maybe I'm going to get in."

And I've heard friends in college counseling say so many times that, "Let's see what happens" turns out in just the way that college counselor has said it, "Well it's a no." And then there's a panic that happens in mid-December. It's like, "Oh my god, I didn't get in." And so that, one early application becomes 15 plus regular decision candidacy, because someone panicked about what did not happen and that's avoidable. Does that make sense, Jacques, as I'm saying that? I think it's sort of a behind-the-scenes perspective, but every year I see a wave of students applying early somewhere and it never was realistic and it just sets up a disappointing outcome too soon in this process.

Jacques Steinberg:
I think it's an important point. I also want to revisit your point that was in effect—you didn't use these words but—kind of love your safety school, for those schools on your list that are likely as you put them. I can't emphasize enough how important it is for you to do your due diligence as a student and not put that school on there because your counselor recommended it and you're it to make them happy. But really if you can imagine yourself, if you've done enough research and due diligence, hopefully even visited those schools in the likely category, this process can be a lot less fraught.

Lee Coffin:
And I intentionally avoided the "S word" as I call it. Because it invites a negative perception. It suggests, "I don't really want to go there, it's my safe choice." As opposed to a likely choice, which is a way of owning it with more excitement. Just like a "reach". I also didn't use that word, which is common nomenclature in my profession. Reach is not a great thing in and of itself. It just means the odds of admission are less, because the volume relative to the size of the class means places have to be really selective. Getting into a reach doesn't mean that's the best place for you.

Jacques Steinberg:
And I stay away from the word safety as well. I also think as there are no sure things in college admissions, we talked about the things that are within your control. There are no guarantees in this process, but being strategic and making sure that some of those schools that are aligned in terms of their selectivity and your credentials can diminish the anxiety in this process. So let's move on. Let's imagine a list is starting to take shape and it's time for application.

You mentioned two applications in particular, the Common Application, which is accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities, I believe. You also mentioned the Coalition Application. Let's start with the Common Application. Imagine a listener or an adult in their life who has never opened the Common Application before. Give us a bit of a preview of it. You've already talked about some of the components, but I have questions about a few others as well. But Dartmouth, is one of those more than 900 schools. What's the purpose of that application as far as you as a dean and your office are concerned?

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, it's a shared document. It's a membership-driven application that serves, as you said, 900+plus institutions that are inviting students to submit their applications through a common framework. Upside for the student, you don't have to fill out the same form 10 times. The trick of it, is you have to use that Common Application and through usually a supplement to that Common Application, institutional supplement, personalize it, bring it back to why am I applying to Dartmouth, to Duke, to Berkeley, to wherever. So as we're reading you in this document that everybody sees the same pieces, how do you use the supplemental component to then say, and this is the local dimension to the application I'm also filing. But the app itself, it's not really a mystery. There's a biographical section that, name, rank, serial number, where do you live, who are you, what's your family dynamic? Are you suburban, rural, urban? What's your high school?

It's collecting the information, kind of a census component of the file that helps us kind of understand who you are, where you are. There's a section for extracurricular activities, which doesn't mean fill out every line on that grid. Just because there's eight lines doesn't mean you have to have eight big things. You might play the piccolo and that's your jam and you do that really well and you play piccolo and you're in the orchestra and maybe you're in the newspaper staff. That's three or four things as they say in Italy, [foreign language 00:22:03]. It's enough. You might be someone who's doing a lot everywhere and you're going to fill out that whole thing. I mean what we're reading for there is, what engages you or how long have you been engaged in this pursuit? Have you had any recognition or leadership in that particular area and how does that set of interests and activities and talents contribute to the community we're building on campus?

There are some essays, a long personal statement on the Common Application that lots of different topics invites you to share some narrative perspective of yourself, can come back to that I think. There's the secondary school report filled out by your guidance counselor, your college counselor. There's an assessment, there's a school profile which tells us about your high school and what's offered there and the community. There's a transcript documenting your academic work from 9th through 12th grade. If there's testing that's usually connected to the secondary school report. And then there's one or two teacher recommendations often shared by someone who taught you in 11th grade and that's it. And the Coalition app follows a very similar structure. These are building blocks that give you little invitations to introduce yourself across these different pieces of the application. And you should be thoughtful about what you're saying in each one, so that when you put the pieces together, the whole thing looks like you.

Jacques Steinberg:
Oh, I love the idea and you mentioned this earlier of the application as a storytelling mechanism, this is a memoir opportunity. A few follow-up questions on a few of the components. Coming back to the essays, you talked about the sort of long-form essays that are part of the general Common Application and then there will of course be some essays related to those supplements you mentioned that are institutions specific. So let's just do a little bit of advice on each. When it comes to that long-form essay, you mentioned that there will be multiple prompts. We talk about the listeners of this podcast as being our audience in this case, you and your colleagues both at Dartmouth and at other institutions are the audience for these essays. They should quite literally imagine you sitting down and reading them and carefully. What are some of the things you look for, first of all, in that sort of long-form essay that is not specific to your institution?

Lee Coffin:
The quality of writing always jumps out. How thoughtfully, elegantly, cleanly does someone communicate in written English. When I'm reading, I'm composing an evaluative narrative about each student on my docket. And so, I'm taking notes and I'm trying to glean from an essay whatever salient observation or highlight someone has introduced in that file. So as a writer of the essay, the question to ask is, what does this document, this essay, this statement, tell the reader about me? And as an exercise I've often told students, "Try and write a headline on the essay you just wrote and if you had to distill it down to a tweet, what would it be like?" How do you pull this essay down to a really tight narrative blurb about what's in this essay? Is that what you want me to know about you when all the pros is stripped down prose skeleton?

So you might go into the essay and say, "It's important for me to introduce myself as a politically active person." You might say, "I am an environmentalist and I'm going to use the essay to sketch out an understanding of my green [inaudible 00:26:32]." "I am a performer." "I'm a standup comedian, I'm a musician." Go. So no wrong way to do this. It's truly kind of open mic night if you will. It's like go up and just lay it out there. And the trap door on that long-form essay, is it reads in a very overly scrubbed pro forma way, you followed some outline that someone handed to you and said, "This is what a college essay must look like." And you give us something that's well composed, but does not put a spotlight on you as a person, as a student, as a thinker. Or you're writing about a topic that lots of other people have written about in a very similar thematic way.

Doesn't hurt you, but it doesn't help move you forward in the evaluation process. You're looking to make the essay be a signature moment. I don't want to overstress this one, but it is one of the prime pieces of real estate in this application. You asked me earlier, "What can you own?" You own this, you can go anywhere you want with it. If you're funny and you think you can pull that off and written form, here's your chance to show us a sense of humor. If  you want to talk about how you discovered philosophy, go. You're an engineer and you want to mull about tinkering and the way you've been taking the air conditioner and the vacuum parts since you were five and how you use that mechanical creative impulse to think about what you're studying in physics and chemistry and mathematics, go. So lots of different ways to do it, but that essay is a really rich opportunity.

Jacques Steinberg:
Imagine a reader who's never met you before. In all likelihood, they probably have not. An opportunity to sort of say who are you? What makes you tick? What do you value? What are some of those moments in the course of your life that helped you sharpen that sort of awareness about yourself? That's the sort of longer form. The essay for the supplement that is school specific. Is one theme of that line of questioning sort of, why our school?

Lee Coffin:
That's almost always a short-answer question on a supplement. And it gets back to the conversation we had about shaping your list. And if you come to a question that basically boils down to, why us? And you can't answer it, that's a clue. That place really made the list for a reason, that's probably more reputation than intent. But you want to be answering that question with an eye towards, why did this place make your final list?

Jacques Steinberg:
What do you look for in teacher recommendations? How important are those recommendations and how should students think about the teachers they ask to fill out those recommendations?

Lee Coffin:
Where I've worked over the last 20 years, it's not uncommon to see transcripts with lots of A's, great. All A's aren't equal. So a teacher recommendation is an opportunity for the person in the classroom with you to say, here's what I witnessed about this student's journey from September to June in my classroom. That this is her contribution to class discussion and the papers she wrote, her analytical reasoning, her collaborative skills with her peers. Drawing a portrait that brings the grade to life. Classroom presence would be another way of thinking about it.

And who writes that? I mentioned it's almost always somebody from 11th grade who is taught someone for the full academic year. Which teacher can enhance the storytelling you're trying to share. If you are headed towards engineering, doesn't have to be a math or science teacher, often is, but you might say, "I think my grades and my essays paint that portrait and I'm going to have a humanities' teacher bring another perspective of me into this application." Or no, "I'm going to double down on this. I really loved chemistry and I want the chemistry teacher to be able to share insights from my exploration of that and why I'm thinking about that as a potential major." It doesn't have to be this person who gave you the best grade. Maybe you had one teacher who was a particularly tough grader but you learned a lot.

Jacques Steinberg:
So I want to talk a little bit about standardized testing, which we haven't really talked about at all in this conversation. And spoiler alert for listeners, we're going to be devoting an entire episode in the coming weeks to this subject. It's impossible to do justice to it in just a few moments here. But first of all, in this moment as we speak in the fall of 2022, nearly every college and university in this country, including the institution you work at Dartmouth, considers the SAT and the ACT to be optional.

Lee Coffin:
There some places that are coming out of the pandemic and said, this optional pause has been valuable and we're going to continue. There're places like MIT, which is already said, "We are reinstating testing, because testing is valuable in the process we run." Requirements and place will vary across the landscape. I will say in this third year, if you've got scores and you're applying to one of the pandemic pause places, think about sending them in. I think they're a valuable addition to your file when you've got them. And to parents I say this, with a yellow highlighter, "Trust the admission officers to read scores in context."

Jacques Steinberg:
And more to come on that of course. Implicit in your answer though, for this current crop of high school seniors. If I'm hearing you correctly, the question of whether to submit, you've provided some advice on that, which will surely get refined in conversation hopefully with counselors and families. It's very personal, particular decision. But you can't submit if you don't take the test.

Lee Coffin:
You don't have to take it five times, you should never have taken it five times, but taking it once or twice and then looking at those scores in the context of the places you're thinking about. I guess another way of saying this, is being test-optional is not a pass to apply to a place where you probably weren't going to be competitive anyway.

Jacques Steinberg:
Another topic that with another spoiler alert—we're going to be devoting an entire future episode to— is affordability. But in the context of these months that we're talking about this fall and where seekers and their families and their counselors and other adults in their lives are at, how should families begin to interject the notion of affordability into their search and their lists in particular?

Lee Coffin:
So affordability for many families is the non-negotiable, non-starter, we got to start here. So start to look at that now, not later. We all are required to have a net price calculator on our website that allows a family to plug in essential data and have a projected cost of attendance and likely financial aid award. If those calculators are saying you qualify for a significant amount of aid, that changes the conversation about affordability. If the calculator comes back and says you have a family contribution that equals 80% of the cost of attendance and the family looks at that and says, "That's just not realistic." Maybe that merits a follow-up conversation with the guidance counselor or with the school itself. So the net price calculator invaluable at the early part of the search.

Jacques Steinberg:
One last element of this process. As we speak, the Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider the question of the constitutionality of affirmative action in the college admissions process. That decision, whatever it may be whenever it comes, will not affect this current crop of high school seniors. But can you talk a little bit about, at least as the process exists now, how do you all as admissions officers, as practitioners of the holistic admissions process, factor diversity and equity into your decision-making process?

Lee Coffin:
Many of us, most of us, look to create a campus community drawn from as many different perspectives as we can bring together in a class, because we believe that both enriches the academic and residential experience, but also we're trying to replicate the world in which our students will graduate and be living lives in leadership. So to me it seems like a false question to say, "Well why are you diverse?" Why wouldn't you be? So the Supreme Court has a case that is looking at the idea of holistic review and whether race as one factor among many in that review, is constitutional. That's a policy conversation. Affirmative action is a policy. The case does not get to the principle of diversity, the principle of access, the principle of trying to build a campus community from many different backgrounds and perspectives. And that goal doesn't change if the Supreme Court over terms of policy.

Jacques Steinberg:
So we've given our listeners a lot to think about and we've admittedly thrown a lot of information at them. And for those of you who are listening who may feel like this sounds overwhelming, almost undoable, I think that's sort of a natural emotion and yet it is doable and it is achievable. And Lee, when a young person or a parent comes to you and says, "I just don't know if we can navigate this." Particularly, a parent who themselves may not have navigated this process before, like your own parents. What's an argument that can give them confidence that this course that we've laid out for these next few months for them, is achievable and with a good outcome and hopefully multiple good outcomes?

Lee Coffin:
I'm struck all the time by how different the landscape today is to the one I navigated 40 years ago now, which always makes me go, "Oh God." But just this podcast and the conversation we're having, is a resource anybody can access. And that's the spirit of why we're having this conversation, to help start to frame the topic, give people some insights, hopefully a, "Oh." Kind of moment. And by the end of the season through 10 episodes, a way of saying, okay, they've talked about essay writing and they've talked about testing and we're going to get to an episode where we talk about gossip and all the things you hear as you're moving through this journey and I say keep your own counsel. How do you do that?

It is not an impossible quest. This is not Don Quixote charging a windmill that's not there. This is a part of the academic journey that a lot of people take. I think the volume of contemporary admissions is what makes it seem impossible. We have a lot of people who seek what we offer and that points you back to just be thoughtful about where you're applying and don't load up on hard to get into places just for the hell of it. And the people who do that are the ones that come out the other side say, "Oh, that was hard." Students who are more clear-eyed about opportunity, where it could be found, how to pay for it, it happens.

And I think there're moments throughout the decision-making cycle where families are surprised by an admission outcome that they didn't expect. Financial aid offer that seem more generous than they imagined. And play a game with yourself. Take a piece of paper write on it, "I'm going to enroll at College X." Lick it shut, put it in a drawer and open that envelope on May 1st. I think many of you are going to have a different answer in May than you have today, because things evolve and you learn things and your perspective changes. That's organic, that's fine.

Jacques Steinberg:
I think that's a terrific note on which to end. I appreciate your patience with my questions and I hope that our listeners will take a moment after this conversation to pause, to breathe, to reflect, and to come back to The Beat for future episodes.

Lee Coffin:
We did this episode first, because we wanted to sketch out the landscape and we will come back to some of these topics and some others, once a week for the next 10 weeks. And we are excited to welcome some fellow deans, some college counselors, maybe a journalist or two here and there. And we're also going to bring back a couple of encore episodes from previous years that we think are worth having a second airing in the fall of 2022. So I'm excited to be back on air with the Admissions Beat. Thanks Jacques, for kicking us off on the season premiere. And until next week, this is Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College, see you soon.