The Search Episode Eleven Transcript

The Search
Episode Eleven Transcript


Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, this is Lee Coffin, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admission. Welcome to The Search.

As we near the end of our series, we've spent a lot of time talking about transcripts and testing and fit and interviewing and extracurriculars, but we haven't talked about a more abstract concept, which is community and how college admission officers at places around the country read files, come together and have a conversation about what kind of community are we hoping to bring together on our campus. Some campuses are really small. Some campuses are quite large, but no matter where we fall on that spectrum, it's important to create a community of peers that will come together from lots of different backgrounds, from lots of different points of view.

I am reminded about how important it is when I look at my incoming class, we ask a question basically, "Why Dartmouth?" and half of the answers to that question use the word community in their way of highlighting what was important to them as they considered their college options. So today, we're joined by two deans who will bring to this conversation the perspective of the places they represent. So, Liz Cheron is the Assistant Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions at Northeastern University. Hi, Liz.

Liz Cheron:
Hi, thanks for having me on, Lee.

You're welcome. Nice to have you here. And Karen Richardson is the Dean of Admission at Princeton University. Hello, Karen.

Karen Richardson:
Hi. Thanks for having me.

You're welcome.

Shaping. I wanted to start with that word shaping, because it's one of those admission words like holistic, which we covered in an earlier episode that might be more abstract than a junior in high school, a rising senior might understand. So, when you use shaping as a verb that describes the work, we do in our admission offices, how would you each explain shaping community to prospective students?

When I think about using the word shaping, I'm thinking about it both in terms of the art that goes into crafting a class and bringing together that group, but I think it also is looking at it from the perspective that I am creating a class that's unique to my institution. That the student that might be the one who thrives at Northeastern might look different than the one who's going to be a fit at Princeton who might be different than the one who is going to be a fit at Dartmouth. So, it's both shaping in terms of bringing that group together. I like that artistic lens, but also thinking about it specifically in the context of institutional fit and the type of student that's going to thrive there.

Yeah. How big is Northeastern? What's your freshman class?

Yeah. So, our first year entering class in the fall is about 2,800 students. Total undergraduate student population is about 20,000. So, we're certainly at the larger end of most private universities, smaller than some of the really large-scale public institutions.

Yeah. No. That's helpful. So, as we talk about building community, you will be a really great representative of a larger first year class, and Karen on the other side and myself have rather small entry classes. So, Karen, just introduce us to the Princeton class just as a reference point.

Sure. So, the first-year class is about 1,300 students. Then overall, we're about 5,200 5,400. Some of the classes are a little bit larger. So, we're on the smaller side, as you said. I agree with everything that Liz was saying about community as well as this idea of shaping an intentional community and building this intentional community with the idea that we want students who are going to come together and form this dynamic community, students who are going to both contribute something to the university, but also take something from what they're learning with all of their classmates. So, it's really about trying to include students. We're looking for reasons to include them in this intentional community, as opposed to looking for reasons to take people out of that. So, it's about thinking of a lot of different things and a lot of different perspectives that students will bring to this dynamic campus.

Yeah. As you think about shaping community and you get thousands of applications and your staff starts to read them, how do you sketch out for your team the vision and where does the vision come from around shaping? It's not random. I mean, get to the end of the process and say, "Oh, look, we have a community." Like, how do you start to think about the community that's right for Northeastern or Princeton or Dartmouth or Tufts and Karen and my case from our previous job, like where does that guidance come from?

We want diverse perspectives for a lot of different reasons and in a lot of different areas. So, the first thing I think about of course is academics. So, we want people who are going to be interested in the natural sciences and the social sciences and the arts and the humanities. So, it's about, again, bringing together a community that's going to represent a lot of different areas in those respects, but it's also about who are these students going to be outside of the classroom. You spend more time outside of the classroom on a college campus than you do inside of the classroom. So, we also want students who are going to really contribute to in the common rooms in their colleges or to their sports teams or to the orchestra. It's about wanting to really find those students who are going to, again, come together and just make this an interesting experience for not just themselves but also their classmates.

Does that ring true, Liz, as you're thinking about it from a larger footprint, you're doing the same overarching plan?

Absolutely. I think the two things that I would add are that I think an admissions office really needs to be deeply connected to the ethos of an institution, that you need to be active community members and understand what makes students connected to the institution, what makes the institution tick and those types of pieces. So, we spend a lot of time as a staff talking with current students, talking with faculty and staff and calibrating that way, both on where we stand now as an institution and where we're hoping to go.

One of my favorite questions to ask faculty members is tell me about the students that are just knocking it out of the park in your class and help me understand some of those traits and where I can find more students like that who really are thriving within this environment. Then I think it's a matter of crafting a process that's reflective of those values. Then maybe last, I guess the third point, is also where we want to go as an institution. So, it's both about where we are now and what is representative of our thriving community now, but also where we want to be in the future.

Yeah. That's a really interesting point. Over the years, I've made the comment that in high school you have a yearbook, and the book is this document that showcases the year that you just had. I think as admission officers, we're looking forward. We are mapping the future campus that each of us hopes to be. It doesn't mean you ignore what is, but you have this eye to the future that as a board of trustees, a president, a faculty steps forward and says, "We would like to be more intentionally in this space." whatever that space might be.

One of the things I think is coming up a lot and at least at Dartmouth is students from rural backgrounds. We are a campus in the north woods of New Hampshire. One of the questions I've posed around our community building is, do we have some agency in that space? Because students from rural background who might come to Hanover, New Hampshire are going to see both a place that's familiar but bring a point of view that's important to the way we're building a class. I think that's part of what Liz you're [inaudible 00:09:26] about the institutional priorities.

Yes. I agree with all of those things that we want. We're forward-looking, we're trying to think about who is the student going to be on our campus and what are they going to bring to this community. I do not think that there is one type of student that is successful or one type of student that we're looking for. If everyone had the same experiences or was going to bring the same experience, that wouldn't be a dynamic community. So, I think it's always important for in this process from the student's side to be who you are in your application not who you think we want you to be based on what you've seen.

Yeah. No, and that authenticity piece has come up a lot in previous episodes where this invitation to be yourself and help us populate the campus with that point of view. I often think about my own undergraduate experience where to Karen's point about the learning that happens outside the classroom. Some of my most memorable moments were 2:00 a.m. in my dorm room, having ordered a pizza and we would be debating something, either a movie that just happened on campus or a speaker or a political event or something in the news. The difference of opinion we all brought to the conversation was the part that helped me grow the most, where coming out of a pretty homogeneous, suburban community, I was exposed to ideas that I had not seen before. Those late-night conversations were really to this day really memorable.

I think for community building, that's something I try and proactively bake into the DNA of the class to make sure like when you raise your hand, what comments are you going to make that spark discussion, that bring a different point of view to the topic at hand, but also what point of view might be underrepresented on our campus and how do we bring a little bit more of that into the classroom and the extracurricular in the residential space. As this shaping takes place and you're ... like, how do we read a file? What goes into that part of the admission process? Maybe each of you take a minute to just talk about the way two very different institutions use the same information to build the case.

So, to speak a little bit about Northeastern's process, usually the first thing that strikes families or other observers when I speak with them is the general disbelief that we could possibly read all the applications we receive. Last year, our applicant pool was over 64,000 students, but we have always felt that that's a core value that I need to understand each one of those students who took the time to apply to my institution, and from their point of view, that Northeastern could be a good fit for them and they want to be considered in that context.

So, we have designed a process and we dedicate a huge amount of human resources to making that possible each winter. I think many of us, myself included when I was going through this process years ago, imagined that it was people sitting around a grand wood table. Many of those people may have been gray- or white-haired men and they were going to debate the candidates' merits and where it might fit into the pool.

The reality is that the majority of my staff and readers are 20 and 30 somethings who are sitting at home with their laptops in their sweat pants who are reading remotely almost entirely paperless and online process and doing so comfortably and individually because it is a process that they need to dedicate as much energy and attention to understanding that student's application and that student's experience as they possibly can. So, that's a labor-intensive process. It's a labor of love, but it's something that we have felt really strongly is a critical, critical part of this process. So, there aren't any cutoffs, there aren't any filters that make a student have a read or not have a read that we're looking at all of those candidates as we begin the process of selecting the class.

I think that's reassuring the idea that you have 64,000 applications, which is eye-popping, but that you read them one by one.

I think we have to respect the fact that students have put time and effort into this process.

Karen, how do you read files?

Our goal is always to ensure that the students who we admit can feel like they can thrive academically on our campus. We never want to set anyone out for feeling like they're not being successful. So, that is a first priority, but then we're also, again, really trying to think about who is this community going to be, not just in the classroom, but of the classroom as well. As we think about the things that are important on our campus about civic engagement and about discourse, respectful discourse from various points of view, we're also looking for within the files, through the essays, through the recommendation letters, through any sort of interview reports that we might have, just some information that will show us how the student would be a part of this community where those things are important.

We are a very diverse staff and that's an important piece because while there will be some students that will resonate with me because of similar backgrounds, there might be students who resonate with one of my colleagues even more, and for us to be able to have those conversations, to be true advocates for students within our committees, it's so important for us to have these different perspectives. That's what makes our office one that is able to bring these intentional communities together.

You just used the word advocate. I think advocacy is something that a lot of applicants and parents don't think about. That each of us as admission officers are advocating one by one applicants to join the community as we build it, who compliments one another, who stretches one another. I open every single file even when I know the acceptance rate will be on the more selective slide and think, "How can I say yes? What's the path through this file towards an offer of admission?" I don't start and say, "Let me build the argument to say no." That surprises people that I can't always get to yes or sometimes I get to yes and we just don't have space, which is a different topic, but the goal is always, how do I see the sum of these parts making this person a lively member of the community we're trying to build on campus?

I always like to say, "Yes, you've trusted us with your story." Right?

Yeah, yeah.

More so than just told us, you've trusted us with information about your life that other people might not know. So, yes, we're definitely going to read fully into that. As you said, really look for reasons to be able to say yes.

Yeah. How do we think about another word that pops up a lot in admissions, diversity? How are we building a diverse student body?

I think it's a combination of things. It's both looking at students within their own individual context and realizing that the path that I took to get to this point might look different than the path someone else took to get to that senior year in high school as well. So, it's understanding each applicant and in context and understanding that there is incredible diversity within our applicant pools, both when you look across the United States, but also when you look globally and understanding what the norms might be within that community, what the norms may be within that student's background, the family they grew up in, the culture that they've been a part of.

That I think all plays a role and that it also is about thinking back to the conversation we were having earlier around that potential engagement once students are part of our community of what is this student going to bring in terms of viewpoint or in terms of experience that's going to create that dynamic environment that leads to the 2:00 a.m. pizza conversation where you're talking to a student who has had a different lived experience that, that I think is something that universities value. I think in many ways from what we think of as being the value of higher education, especially from a social emotional lens and the development that occurs, but I think that it also is reflecting our institutional values and where that can play out in trying to continue to bring in a diverse cohort of students to our institution.

Uh-hmm (affirmative). Well, I was just going to say institutional values also informs the way this concept is interpreted. Karen at Princeton, you have a pretty explicit institutional commitment to low income access and that's institutional value that frames diversity on your campus.

Absolutely.  It's always interesting when I think about diversity. I think when people hear diversity, the word diversity, the first thing that they think about is racial and ethnic diversity. It's about so much more than that. It's about, as you said, the socioeconomic diversity. We have a very explicit commitment to socioeconomic diversity on our campus, but it's also about diversity of thought and geographic diversity. We're always looking for students who have different lived experiences, because again, that's what makes the four-year experience one that is dynamic and helps our students to learn more, not only about themselves, but also from the people who are their classmates.

I often say to students, "Think about not just your four-year window of college, but how does the community on that college set up the life, the career, the family, the citizenship that comes next." So, if you're applying to the college class of 2025, students were born 2000 to 2003, makes me feel really old as I say that, but ... so if you were born in 2003 and your career will run until you're 70 years old, that means from 2025 to 2073 you are working in an active part of your life. To me, as I think about community on the campuses where I've been, think, "Well, how do we build a community here that best represents the journey you're going to take from 2025 to 2070 and beyond?"

That to me it's going to be more global. It's going to be more multilingual. It's going to be more technical. It's going to be more open ended than the one I experienced in the 1980s. How do we create a campus that has those personalities, perspectives, backgrounds in it? To me, that's the exciting part of being able to imagine community on college campuses, how do you populate it with all sorts of unexpected points of view that my niece is enrolling this fall at Boston College. She's from Connecticut, and her roommate is from Greece. I said, "Well, how exciting is that? You grew up in suburban Connecticut and your first new friend grew up in Greece." She said, "I don't know anything about Greece." That's why you're going to learn a lot because of just this roommate dynamic that is going to set you on a completely different path than your own Italian American public-school premed way of thinking about yourself. That's fun, I think.

So, as we talk about community building, it's important to remember and remind everyone that you don't have to be a specialist to come into a community. There will be specialists. There will be lots of generalists. We're putting together a community of lots of different parts with lots of different needs. I remember being on a panel once and one of my fellow admission officers said, "You might be a flutist and we need a piccolo." In that particular cycle, piccolo is going to be something that matters in that particular admission process, but the orchestra remains something that the campus values and will populate the campus newspaper. Needs journalists, both those who have been editor in chief and those who want to just do it. We all have athletic programs. We all have an art scene. We all have activists. We all have people who are the planners. The word I've heard use as their glue. They're the people in the community that make the place stick together and work. Is that part of community building?

I think what you just touched on Lee in terms of that glue is such a key part of community building that's something I will look for as I'm reading files and will often capture in my notes is the student who I think is going to be the amazing roommate, the student that is the bridge builder, the student that is doing really interesting things to bring people together or to move forward their own community in high school. That is a really valuable trait as well. I think that oftentimes students leading up to this process, we set up this idea that they need to be superheroes in order to gain admission.

I think that having read a whole lot of applications from 17 and 18 year olds in high school, the vast majority of students that we are offering admission to are nice normal kids who I think their application really shines because it is authentic, because they've used their own agency within their application to highlight what they're passionate about and what gets them excited. Sometimes that's something that is really defined, that they are the flutist and that that carry through multiple different parts of their life or they're really passionate about research and this is how they've engaged with it.

Sometimes it's that they are really into reading books or that they really have significant family responsibilities and they figured out time management and how to balance all of that or that they've taken leadership from their part time jobs. Sometimes it's more subtle. I think realizing that we're not expecting anything more than that 17 or 18 year old to present themselves, that they don't need to fit into a certain mold or have some incredible special superhero talent, I think is really important because I think this process can create a lot of anxiety that students would need to feel or be something that is beyond their realm.

Yeah. No, I think ... Go ahead, Karen.

No, I was just going to say, Lee, I'm really glad that you brought up the difference between the specialist and the generalist. Colleges and university campuses need both.

No, I think the point Liz made about being a good kid. I've over the years had people say like, "Where does the good kid fit in college admission?" I was like, "Everywhere. That is such an essential element. Not mutually exclusive either." I mean, being a good kid who's intellectually curious, being a good kid who's also a leader, being a good kid who's a bridge builder are common ideas, but the idea that the there's room in particularly a selective process for things like decency and neighborliness and citizenship and kindness and empathy are important.

I'd say there's not just room, there's a desire to have those things. It's essential to a community where you can have these respectful conversations, sometimes difficult conversations, but those are all important things.


I think in that same vein that one of the things that helps in shaping a class and building a community is when there's resonance throughout an application. It isn't necessarily that it's the same passion or the same interest, it can still be a very multifaceted or Renaissance kid or generalist, but when I start thinking in my head different adjectives that I might write down in descriptors about that file and then I read the counselor recommendation or the teacher recommendation or the student's essay and somehow that's reiterated, I think that that's also where the real strength in an application comes from, when the pieces tell the same story and I understand where I'm going.

I think that's really what we get at. We're talking about students telling their story in their application, when we talk about authenticity. That when you are being yourself, then that story is going to resonate with the other voices that we have in the application and the other experiences that you've had around your story to build it out.

Well, thank you both for joining us on the search and sharing your wisdom about such an important if elusive topic as we wander through this admission conversation.

Thank you so much for having us.

Yeah, thank you.

You're welcome. Each September when I welcome the class to campus at the matriculation ceremony, I use students' words as a way of framing their collective biography, as a way of introducing themselves to each other and the community they have just created by the act of enrolling.

So, take us out of this episode. A group of tour guides will share some introductions of students who joined Dartmouth class of 2023 a year ago, and then doing so, you will see the way a rich tapestry of people come together to create a campus that has a community, a point of view, diversity, lots of common ground, and most importantly, a shared passion for where we are together.

Speaker 4:
I'm a woman who refuses to lower her voice.

Speaker 5:
I am a city boy who's tired of the city.

Speaker 6:
I'm a mix of Puerto Rican sass and New England clergy.

Speaker 7:
I think the trombone is my form of rebellion.

Speaker 8:
I'm a third generation Holocaust survivor.

Speaker 9:
I'm a transgender kid in the rural Midwest.

Speaker 10:
Bees are my jam.

Speaker 11:
I have birthed some baby goats.

Speaker 12:
I've penned hundreds of sonnets and raised thousands of miles, and I spend my lunch hour discussing Dante, Queen and Caravaggio.

Speaker 13:
I am a half Unitarian, half pagan football player who stars in a school play.

Speaker 14:
I'm a girl with one foot in the 18th century and one foot in 2040.

Speaker 15:
My wobbly accent is too American for the Brits and too English for the Americans.

Speaker 16:
I'm a black girl born to a single mother in the deep South.

Speaker 17:
My home and my heart are in the streets, sand and beaches of Dubai.

Speaker 18:
Kate is a single syllable of fierce independence.

Speaker 19:
I am tumbleweed.

Speaker 20:
I'm passionately curious about the bacteria in poop.

Speaker 21:
When the bomb threat is real, I stay home.

Speaker 22:
I will be the revolutionary point in my family tree in which the ladies no longer settle with a high school degree.

Speaker 23:
I'm known as Tee-hee because I'm a proponent of laughing it out.

Speaker 24:
I come from a tradition of Southern soul as well as a tradition of breaking traditions.

Speaker 25:
Some people bring flowers or a box of chocolates when invited for dinner, I bring an air filter.

Speaker 26:
And his teacher added, he's like one of his air filters, nothing gets past him.

As we move on to our episode, we will meet three long time mission professionals to share some thoughts about our current landscape, where we've been, where we are, what's changed and most importantly, what's still true. For parents, you'll find that reassuring to know that the landscape may have shifted but has not changed in its fundamental ways. Then of course, we will conclude the series in the Ask Me Anything episode. So, we still have time for you to pose a question to me, record it on your phone and send that recording to We will add it to our bonus episode where I will respond to as many of those questions as I can. I'm Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College, thanks for joining us.