The Search, S2, Episode One Transcript

The Search

Reading Season

The Search Episode One: Reading Season

Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, I'm Lee Coffin, dean of admission and financial aid. Welcome back to The Search. A year ago, this podcast was born as an opportunity for the class of 2021 to launch their college search in what was the beginning of the pandemic. Almost a year later, we're still here on lockdown to some degree or another. You can't come to us and we can't come to you, and your college search has played out with that as your reality. So let's advance the conversation from the how to of making a list of college options and crafting an application, to the equally important process of choosing a college after decision letters have arrived. And while the podcast is sponsored by Dartmouth College it is not about Dartmouth College. It is my ongoing act of admission citizenship as my colleagues from around the country and I come together on each episode to help you make sense of this process called college admissions.

We're excited to start this conversation again with you as season two kicks off with a conversation about reading. Reading is one of those pieces of college admission that I don't think a lot of us talk about very much. We know that you need to apply and then you get in and make a choice. But in between applying and deciding, there's this period known among admission officers as reading season. And reading season is the mega season. It's not travel season; it's not discovery season. It is when the work of the work happens. It's when the outreach of the previous weeks and months comes together in a class, a new community emerges from a queue of strangers. As an admission officer, it always feels incredibly purposeful. And as a new admission officer, way back in the fall of 1990, I remember how excited I was to learn this component of my new job. It seemed mysterious and important. It was and it is.  It's arguably the most essential element of college admissions. We read, we assess, we choose. It's a season of consequence. Folder reading is as endless as it is fascinating.

And when you find a certain file, it's really rewarding. Each one is a novella; someone's story lurks within it waiting to be released. And as a reader, I'm introduced to a high school senior who tells her story through each section of the application. Some manage their storytelling opportunity more elegantly than others. Others hope their numbers will speak for themselves. But as a reader the task is the same. I read what's in the file and make an informed assessment about the student's ability to thrive in the curriculum offered at the college where I work, and to contribute to the community we are framing for that college. And from college to college, selectivity adds a third element to this consideration is the student competitive. There's a rubric to follow, but those guidelines must be interpreted, applied with a the degree of context from file to file.

And for many of us, it's our favorite part of the job. So we're joined for this first conversation of season two by two colleagues. Sonya Smith is the dean of admission and student financial aid at Vassar College. And Sam Prouty is the director of admissions at Middlebury College. So hello, Sam and Sonya.

Sonya Smith:
Hey there.

Sam Prouty:
Hi.

Lee Coffin:
Hi, welcome to The Search. So I think of reading as the gorilla season of the work we do. Travel, as we were able to move about the country, is tiring and important, but the jaunt from the deadline through reading season, those weeks of January and into February, maybe even into March is to me the mother of all aspects of our work. So when you think about reading more as an admission officer, not necessarily as an admission leader, is it your favorite part? Is it your least favorite part? How does reading sit with you as admission people?

Sam Prouty:
I will say it is by far my favorite part. To me, this is where the rubber meets the road of building a class and getting to know our applicants and that. It's interesting that when people ask us questions about what we do, they often ask us questions with a numerical answer. Like, "What's the average GPA, or what are the scores that I need?" Well, that was back when everybody still took scores. To me, the most interesting part is the reading. What do your teachers say about you? What have you written about in your essay? What do you like to do for kicks when the school day is over? What's your family situation? What are your dreams and goals? That's the interesting stuff. And so even though it can be a long slog, it is by far the thing that keeps me interested in the work.

Lee Coffin:
Sonya, how about you in reading mode?

Sonya Smith:
Reading for me is definitely the best time of the year. I always think of a student's file as a new story, and you get to open this book and all of these pieces that come together to reveal who this person is. And there's something inspiring about the next generation coming through and you get to learn about people through their application. I remember, I don't know, I think it was 10 years ago, learning about competitive miming. I had no idea, but it was really fun. And then I was like, "Okay, I'm going to go learn more about this." It's a long time of the season of kind of isolation and reading, but it's really meaningful.

Lee Coffin:
I met a "joggler" a couple of weeks ago and he explained that that was the act of jogging and juggling at the same time. I don't know why you would do that, but it was a very vivid image in my head of him running down the street juggling. And when as a reader, go back to when you first were new admission officers, what was that like when you learned how to read?

Sonya Smith:
That was a "holy frijoles" kind of moment, like, "Okay, I have to do how much by when?" And then you just get a rhythm. I always think of files as like there's a skeletal framework that comes through with a transcript and the rigor of the classes and how they're doing them. But then it's the extracurricular involvements and the essays that are the flesh and blood. They breathe life into it.

Sam Prouty:
I remember…I was an English major and I was an English teacher…being an admissions person it's the same thrill. I get to go sit in the corner by myself and dive into this amazing story and get really invested in the story and want to keep turning the pages. And I remember thinking, how do they expect me to then turn around and say no to 80% of these people? That's still not easy 20 years later, but that was one of the hardest parts. If you're out there listening to this, I want you to hear me say we really are interested in who you are, and we get invested in who you are and it makes it very difficult when we do have to say no, because we all would love to say yes over and over and over again. And so to me that's why reading season is such a complicated and wonderful piece. We are diving into this wonderful story to look for the reasons to say yes.

Lee Coffin:
There's a quote from Einstein that I often use when I'm doing PowerPoints. Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted." So I introduced that to juniors and seniors when I'm doing a presentation around how to apply, to get them to think about what counts isn't always what you measure. But does that resonate with either of you as you think about the task of distilling the application down into its component parts of merit?

Sonya Smith:
Well, I think that's the beauty of holistic admission. Unfortunately, there's a misunderstanding that it's just an input output for an admission process. That is, what's your grade at some schools? What's your scores? You're in or you're out. And it's an actual situation that we're looking for full people, we're not looking for those numbers, we're looking for personality and humanity. Who's going to join our community, what things students might bring to our community, what they might learn from others, what they might teach others that it's so much more nuanced. So when I'm in a file, I'm thinking there's so much more than just are you doing well in your classes? And there are so many different ways that bubbles to the surface of a page, there's beauty in that. And there's also an incredible challenge as an admission officer because there's all sorts of different stories and you have to figure out which puzzle pieces fit together to form a whole.
    
But for me, it's really all those other pieces that aren't as easily quantifiable that really make a file compelling. I know there are a lot of situations where a student feels like they need to be the captain of this and the president of that. And they have to have their 4.0 in everything and all APs, higher levels galore. They think all of that and I'm just like, "But who are you? What do you care about?" And the student who just is really speaking about their truth and what they like, those are the ones that actually stand out.

Lee Coffin:
Sam, what counts that can't be counted?

Sam Prouty:
When you connect with another human being, Sonya just said it, you connect because you're being real. You're being genuine. I'm getting to know you authentically. I hear your voice. There's that wonderful spark of energy when you're really connecting with another human being and you just feel like, "This is a magical moment." And the best applications have that. There's a spark of the 12,000 applications I'm going to read, this one… I feel it. I feel that I'm getting to know this person on a level that goes far beyond the surface. And so it's like going on a first date; nobody falls in love because of a transcript or anything else with a number, you start to fall in love because you feel that connection.
    
You feel that person come alive. The irony is, students out there, you could workshop your resume to death, but the truth is as long as you have an authentic voice, as long as you're allowing us to look into your world a little bit and get to know you for who you really are…if that means being vulnerable, if that means being honest, if that means sounding real and not being polished, that's sometimes the best way to be. Because in the end that's what stands out much more than perfection or statistics that are impossible to fault.

Lee Coffin:
We're talking about being readers of the file. And before it arrives in electronic queue, I think there's an itch for a lot of other people to take a read of materials before someone hits submit. Is that wise?

Sam Prouty:
I would say, ask a trusted someone friend, parent, teacher to read your stuff but ask the right questions. "Does this sound like me? What did you just learn about me? If you didn't know anything about me, what have I just portrayed?" We absolutely can tell the difference between the voice of a 17- year-old and the voice of a 55-year-old. And so when it gets to the point that your helpers are really your re-writers, that's when it's time to rethink the notion of help. But if you ask the right questions, not just, "Is this any good?" But much more specifically, "What have you learned about me? What does this sound like?" Then you can get some very helpful hints.

Sonya Smith:
So I had a former colleague who would tell a story about students and the best way to get feedback, and it's to reflect and think on if you dropped this essay in your hallway at school. So let's say it's not COVID and you're actually at school. You dropped this essay on the floor, your name's not on it. One of your friends picks it up and they go, "Oh my God, I know who this is, who wrote this? This is Miguel's." And then I'm going to go catch them in class and say, "Hey, you dropped this." But it's so authentically you, that a good friend would know what's yours whether your name's on it or not, those are the best kind of essays. So finding the editors who aren't going to wipe your voice out of it, that's a really important piece.

Lee Coffin:
Students are so focused on GPA and SAT, and I think of three Cs and a K as equally important strings of letters as I'm reading. Do I see curiosity? Do I see creativity? Do I see collaboration? Do I see kindness? As qualities that I think enhance a classroom, enhance a community. And I can't to the Einstein quote, I can't at the end of the reading season say, "The curiosity quotient of the students we admitted was 7.2, and the creativity index is an 11.6." Maybe I can come up with some way of doing that, but I don't think it means anything. And so that lack of quantifiable evidence, I think makes people suspicious that, "Well, they don't really count." And when I'm reading, I get tickled much more by one of those Cs or a K towards she has shown me a mind work.
    
Here is somebody who has A's in the courses that applicants to our colleges typically take. But now she's showing me how her interest in social studies is being applied to the world she sees today, either from her pandemic perch somewhere in the world where she's like, "I thought I was pre-med, but now I'm curious about epidemiology and how viruses jump from humans to people. And I want to think about that when I go to college, and re-imagine what that intellectual experience would be like while I'm also playing rugby and writing poetry." And you start to see like, "Okay, her curiosity is there and paired with the GPA and the testing if it's there." I see how she thinks. I see how if her hand goes up in a classroom, what might come out of her mouth that changes the conversation. I read one this morning and the teacher said, "She is the provocative presence in my classroom."

It was an English teacher, and she said she reads closely, she raises her hand and I think, "Hang on, something good's coming." And that as a reader I find really compelling because it gives me a way of saying, "What are you going to be like in the classroom that we offer?" Particularly on places like all three of us represent smaller places and the reading processes has to tease that out I think.

Sam Prouty:
I would add the C of "challenge," challenge and the degree to which you're willing to put yourself out there and actually grow even if that growth comes at the risk of a numerical imperfection. And I would also say, if I may, just one other thing, and that is you don't have to have a sexy-sounding internship experienced job. You might be interested in psychology and if your Uncle Phil is the head of neuroscience at some big hospital and you get to have a great internship through Uncle Phil, that's wonderful. But you know what? I've read amazing essays about human psychology from people who have had a summer job slinging coffee at Dunkin's. And they write with real insight into the human condition based on the people that they serve at the drive-through window all day. And I think that is one great way to show curiosity and future accomplishment. It doesn't have to be quote unquote, impressive to still impress us.

Lee Coffin:
Well, and you're putting another C in my brain as I listen to you Sam, which is context, that we read with context. And I don't know if either one of you want to talk about that. How do you read a file and meet the student where she is?

Sonya Smith:
Yeah. Well, I want to springboard a little off of what Sam was saying, that you don't have to do something that's quote-unquote "impressive." And in some instances there's so many other things you're doing that are actually incredibly impressive that a student doesn't realize. And I think it ties in with the idea of context. So a student who has to work part-time to help their family pay bills, a student who is taking care of younger siblings because one of their parents has to work split shifts. A student who's taking care of a grandpa. There are these other things that I think for our students, they don't quite realize how significant those things are, because it's just there every day. Of course, "I'm going to take care of my little sister. That's just what we do in my family. And maybe in my neighborhood, everybody does that." But in the admission process that's significant commitment, that is going to a collaborative spirit caring about others. Is that one of the Cs, caring?

Lee Coffin:
You said commitment too. I was like, "Oh my God, it's like Sesame Street all these Cs."

Sonya Smith:
You're like, "Community, caring. All right." But that's something that can really show through with the student's extracurricular commitments, even though they don't even realize what they're doing is significant.

Lee Coffin:
As we're reading this year we've all been locked down to some degree or another for almost a year at this point. And so the applicant pool we're meeting right now are students who began their search virtually remotely have spent all, or most of their junior spring, their senior fall, and now their senior winter learning from home, probably. And then the world around us has been complicated in historically vivid ways over the last year. How are you seeing any and all of that come through the applications, are you reading them differently? Is the 2021 reading cycle impacted by pandemic, racial unrest, economic issues, all of the above? What are you seeing?

Sam Prouty:
Obviously, we are not going to hold the pandemic against anybody. So if that means that your season got canceled or you can't play the flute and the orchestra anymore that's fine. What becomes interesting is, "Well, what else have you done then?" And we read this all the time, "I couldn't run track so I decided to take up cooking. And I'm a terrible cook, but I'm learning. And I'm spending a couple of hours in the kitchen to try to figure that out." Or the theater person who can't be in a play, so they've decided to make little SNL style sketches that they record and put on YouTube for their friends. There's all kinds of ways to find light even in darkness. And I think that this has been a year when we've seen students do that.

And then obviously in terms of social... I love that one of your many Cs is context. That's one of my favorite things to talk about because who we are and where we come from and the towns in which we live and the schools to which we go. All of these things are our access to whatever, test prep, socioeconomic realities, certainly the racial unrest that we've seen in this country. That's why I like this idea of context. Whether you're first gen or you live in a place where you live off the grid, so you don't have internet, which in a year of COVID has greatly affected your life and certainly including a person's identity. Look, the reality is some of us walk down the street and we are inherently safer than somebody else who's walking down the street.

We can't ignore that. That's the world in which we live. And I think this work not to get on too much of a high horse, but this work is really one of the few places in American society where the person that you are transcends the world into which you have been born. College admissions is one of the few places where you can be born poor, you can be born non-white, you can be born to a family that has not had access to education, but if yourself and your story and your abilities are such that one of our schools wants to admit you then you're going to get admitted. And those elements of your life are not going to stand in your way.

COVID is just one of many, many examples in which that is our reality. And I think that's why none of us do this work because we're going to get rich or famous. We do it, I think because of that. We get to meet amazing young people. And sometimes we get to be the people who help them take a step forward, that's really it right there.

Sonya Smith:
And I think with admission, so much of what we've always been thinking about is this whole person and the context. And so, yes, this is a time of COVID and worlds have been just flipped upside down for families and for students. And in admission, we're able to make those adjustments because we always have read in context. So that's an interesting thing where I know we've received definitely more questions, "How are you going to assess this? How are we going to figure this out? I can't do my sport. I can't meet with other people. I can't do all of these things." You could have been the president of this group or what have you and it's like, "That's okay. Tell us what you are doing?" Tell us what you are grappling with." And we adjust. That's the beauty of an admission office and why we are actually professionals.

We adjust, we adapt just like our students do. And we can see that in a file and respect it and honor it. And I appreciate that too in reading with my colleagues, we come together and have conversations about candidates and we talk to each other about what we're seeing. How is the student negotiating the world they're in, whether it's sunshine or snow storms? What's going on for them and let's fully understand this and respect it. And that's a really important part of our job.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. I think part of what all three of us are saying about reading that gets overlooked is at the end of reading, there's selection and then selection means there's an acceptance rate and then that's the story. But in between the moments of applying and releasing a decision is this really interesting, tiring, we don't want to undersell this. It's a lot of reading and thinking as we sift all this together, but it is very hopeful in a way. And to the seniors who are in the midst of having their files read, one of the questions that has come up a lot over the last several months is what's missing to Sam's point about extracurriculars having been up ended or I had a student say to me, "I've always been in the band, but the band can't meet because we can't socially distance."
    

And I said to her, Well, what was your instrument?" She said, "I played the flute since 6th grade." And I said, "Do you still play the flute?" And she said, "Yeah. In my bedroom, I played a flute. I practice, I do some research on different musical scores and I said, "Then you're still a musician." And the construct of filling out the common application and filling out marching band X number of days a week, this many hours, that's not relevant right now, but the musicianship was and remains the important part of your story, band was the vehicle. But the talent that's hiding there is you're a musician. A really elegant comment one of our colleagues made to me in the fall. She said, "It's what's in the file, not what's missing from the file."
    

And I think to reassure all of you who applied and you're wondering, "Well, how will these admission people get to know me?" By what's in your file and how you've chosen to tell your story. And giving us the way.... One of the things I think also gets lost in the story of admissions is how we then become the advocate for the student we have read. We read the file, we dehydrate all the pieces of it down to a smaller narrative that we then rehydrate a few weeks later when we're in that committee room. And I say, "Okay, I'm using my notes to tell you about Sam. And this is the person I met as I met Sam through his application." And in doing that, "You have given me a way of convincing my peers to say yes, and to include you in the community we are now building but based on what's in it, not what's missing."
    

And this episode wouldn't be complete if we didn't touch testing, just because it is the thing that danced off of the dance floor this year, because people just could not take the test. So to those of our listeners who applied to that testing, and they're worrying about how we will read their file without those naughty little digits as part of the story, what are you finding at Vassar and Middlebury? I'm guessing you were test optional, like so many of us. Has it mattered?

Sonya Smith:
I found it incredibly freeing to not get caught up on, like you said, those pesky little numbers. We were doing research before the pandemic hit, considering going test optional anyway, so we had a little bit of a jumpstart because of that. But for our poll so far, and I don't know how many colleges are really talking about this yet but only 22% of our applicants submitted testing.

Lee Coffin:
Wow.

Sonya Smith:
Yeah. And in the early round it was about 25%. And of our admits from early 27% had testing. And for those early rounds, it was not a disadvantage at all not having the scores. It wasn't a challenge for us. It just was something we didn't have to think about. And it was quite lovely.

Lee Coffin:
Sam, what happened with you?

Sam Prouty:
Yeah, I agree completely and would say the testing is one ingredient in the soup, but there's plenty of other ingredients that still make the soup have flavor and so-

Lee Coffin:
That's a great metaphor.

Sam Prouty:
I was an English major Lee, I can metaphor you all day long if you like. But I do think that we still have your transcript in terms of grades. We have your transcript in terms of curricular rigor. A lot of people forget to talk about teacher recommendations. Teacher recommendations are super important in this process and they give a real flavor for who the student is in a classroom day after day. I was a teacher for 11 years, myself. I wrote a lot of those recommendations. And even among students who have the same grade, there are real differences "Who are you as a learner? Who are you as a collaborator, et cetera. And so I assure you listeners that we have plenty of information to get to know who you are as a student. And, if you have a great test score and you want to submit it, that's wonderful. If you don't have a test, that's fine. There's still plenty of information in there. I'll leave it at that.

Lee Coffin:
And I think that's really important for high school juniors who are just starting their search…and just a little plug for season one, start at season one and then come back to season two. But testing is one of those things that I don't think it's going to be part of your college journey this year, because the issues that were true last summer and fall are still true. And maybe you take an SAT next fall but if you don't, don't worry about it. I think what you're hearing us say is the soup... I'm going to go back to Sam's comment, the soup does have lots of different flavors in it. And what I've loved about being test optional this year is it backs up what I had been saying for years, anyway, that the SAT, the Act are supporting pieces of information, not the lead piece of information, and nobody believed me.
    

So now as you move it off to the side and say, "Well, it might not be there or it's there in a partial way." You took it once not three times. I don't know, I feel like it gives us more credibility as readers to say we are reading all the other elements. So as we wrap up this conversation about reading, what myth would you knock over for families out there, who have suspicions about what goes on behind closed doors when we're actually reading the file? What reassurance would you give them as long time admission officers about what we've said is a really essential task that is opaque. We don't do it out in the open.

Sam Prouty:
"It's all a crapshoot." And that's not true. Hopefully, what you've been hearing us say out there is that we read every word of every application and I can assure you, it's not a random outcome. It might not be terribly reassuring to hear this necessarily, but there is always a reason that we said, yes. I can't always pinpoint a reason to say no. And if you call up and say... And students it's not you calling up, it's usually your parents, let's be honest. And so if your parents call up and say, "Why did you deny my daughter? She's fantastic. She's the valedictorian. She's wonderful and we love her." And all I can say is, you're absolutely right. She is all of those things. And I agree with you and the people that we said yes to, we had reasons to do that.
    

And those are reasons that are not quantified. And so the process doesn't always make sense when you're looking in on it from the outside, but for those of us who do it, and we read every word of every application, and we are trying to get a sense of who you are, and what makes you tick and how you fit our particular institution, there's always a reason or multiple reasons why we have chosen to say yes. And unfortunately that means that there are some others out there to whom we have to say no, but that doesn't mean it's random. It doesn't mean it was all just a crapshoot anyway. You are a human being applicant, and that's why it takes a human being on the other side to get to know you.

Sonya Smith:
No, there's definitely a stereotype that admission deans are stuffy, gruff kind of people, that they just, "Admit, deny." And aren't thoughtful humans with their own lives and stories, and who are deeply moved by reading files and getting to know you through your stories. That we laugh, we cry, you share great movie lists that we add to our Netflix queue. There are things where I'm like, "Oh, I got to do that. I had no idea." And it's a very, very human process. And I think it's important that students know that and that they know the admission deans are human too. I read at the weirdest hours. I am a night owl and I'm often wearing Snoopy fleece pajamas. I'm human. I love my donuts. I love my cat. There's something just a little different that I don't think is well portrayed in popular culture about who admission deans are and our admission officers we're human just like our applicants.

Lee Coffin:
And you're a night owl, I'm the early bird. I can't sleep this time of year, so I usually get up and I'm sitting there at 5:30, six o'clock in the morning reading and I'm on fire from early morning until about three. And then I need to stop and walk the dog or do something else and just clear my head. But that is the beauty of reading season is it allows all of us to go back to those moments as students. Like when did we study? Where did we study? You're studying one by one, these applicants and the college is where I've worked and always given us the flexibility to do your best work when you can do your best work. But I wanted to start this conversation around reading because I think it is the most invisible part of what we do as admission officers and the most important part. That thoughtfulness that characterizes my colleagues, your colleagues is something I just wanted to reassure the families that are in the midst of it. And those that will come our way next year, that to Sam's point it's not random

Sam Prouty:
To the students out there if you're hearing a theme today, it's that we put a lot of effort into getting to know who you are beyond the number. And you would be very disappointed if we looked at your transcript and then immediately wrote you off and said, "It's not worth reading the essay and getting to the rest of this file." We don't do that. And I would say that in a way you all are also readers, metaphorically speaking of the colleges that you're looking at. And so I would give you the strong encouragement to do to colleges, what you want us to do to you. Which is to say, "Get to know us beyond a superficial number." Now, the guests on this podcast today are Dartmouth, Middlebury and Vassar, which are all very well-known high selective schools. We are you could say the top 10% of the high school class if you were to rank us.
    

But the same way that when I look at your transcript, if you're not in the top 10%, I still am going to read your whole file. And frankly, you might be way more interesting than your classmates who's in the top 10%. And I want people out there to hear me say there are 4,000 colleges in this country, probably 25 to 30 of them are the really famous ones. And beyond those 25 to 30, there are amazing schools, I have two children myself. There are all kinds of schools that I know about that aren't very famous, that I would be delighted to send my children to.

Lee Coffin:
Sam and Sonya, thanks so much for joining me on the season debut of The Search. And it's always fun to find kindred spirits who nerd out about reading, like I do. I think reading really is... When were kids there was this "Reading is Fundamental" campaign on public television. And I think that's true, reading is fundamental as a part of the work we do in college admission. So thanks for sharing your wit and wisdom and Sam, your metaphors with us. And I hope the rest of reading season goes really well for both of you.

Sonya Smith:
Thanks Lee.

Sam Prouty:
Yes. Thanks for having us.

Lee Coffin:
So we were just talking about debunking myths as it relates to reading season. And as it turns out, in episode two, we'll expand this idea of gossip. How many things have you heard around the block in the neighborhood, at the water cooler, at the PTA meeting, at the soccer game? And you're wondering, "Is this really true?" So a couple of deans, a college counselor, and one of my favorite moms will join me for an episode called "My Neighbor Says," where we will do what we can to redirect some of the conventional wisdom that is buzzing around this atmosphere of college admissions. So until then, I'm Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College. See you next time.