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Deciphering the Admissions Map
Getting into a top college has never been harder—or more confusing. And the students are not the only ones under pressure. With its competitors growing in numbers and strength, Yale is confronting an admissions landscape very different from the one faced by the applicants’ parents.

Heading into its Tercentennial year, Yale seems to be in better shape than at any time in decades. After years of budget deficits, the University has its finances in order, thanks in part to a successful $1.7 billion fundraising campaign and an endowment that continues to outperform the market, jumping 40 percent to $10 billion last year. Two billion dollars is being spent on capital improvements, much of it to strengthen Yale’s reputation in the sciences. The buildings and grounds look better than ever, New Haven appears to be joining the renaissance of American cities, and the football team is coming off an Ivy League championship. Given all that, and the fact that America’s high schools are turningout a record number of graduates, one might think that this is an easy time to be in the admissions office at Yale.

Think again.

While the competition among high school seniors for admission to top colleges this fall was tougher than ever, the competition among colleges for the best of those students has also become more fierce. In addition to its traditional rivals Harvard and Princeton, Yale must now battle Stanford for the top students from the West, and other colleges are offering merit-based scholarship packages, something the Ivy League doesn’t do. In order to attract a world-class student body, Yale is having to learn to do something that has never come easily to a bastion of Yankee reserve: sell itself.

“There was a time when it was much more comfortable in this business,” says dean of admissions and financial aid Richard Shaw, a Dartmouth alumnus who came to Yale from the University of Michigan eight years ago. His mandate was to turn what some had considered a gatekeeping function (or an “office of rejections,” as some called it) into a recruiting center. “Years ago you could assume you'd fill your class with the best students,” says Shaw. “Now, applicants have so many options that we can’t sit on our laurels.”

In response, Shaw is about to hire Yale’s first director of recruiting, a position in the admissions office dedicated solely to “outreach.” “The idea is to get someone who can research how students make decisions and provide direction for the recruiting process,” says Shaw, “someone who is not encumbered by the process of reviewing applications.”

The need to recruit goes back to the admissions reforms of the 1960s, when Yale began to look more actively for students from diverse economic, racial, and educational backgrounds. (See “The Birth of a New Institution,” Dec. 1999.) Finding such students meant departing from the traditional system of “feeder” preparatory schools and sending the admissions staff on the road to public and private schools throughout the country.

Even so, when elite colleges like Yale identified these students and encouraged them to apply, little effort was required to persuade those who were admitted to matriculate. “It’s fair to say that Yale and other competitive institutions came a bit late to the serious business of recruiting,” says Margit Dahl '75, the director of undergraduate admissions. “It wasn’t necessary until the last eight or ten years.”

Not coincidentally, that has been the period in which the number of high school graduates has steadily increased, as the children of the Baby Boom generation (the so-called “echo boom”) have been reaching maturity. This year, many colleges saw their applications increase to record levels in what the Chronicle of Higher Education has called “the most competitive admissions season ever.” Admission rates—the percentage of applicants who are admitted to a college—accordingly fell. Stories abound of students who applied to six or seven colleges, taking care to include what seemed like “safety schools,” and came up homeless in April.

But shouldn’t such an environment make it easier for a school like Yale to get the students it wants without going to the trouble of recruiting? Not necessarily. The very difficulty of getting into a good college is making potential students more knowledgeable about the admissions maze and how to negotiate it. “Students now have to be better detectives,” says admissions consultant Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer and author of a how-to guide for students called A is For Admission. “They have access to a lot more information, and they’re making much finer distinctions among colleges.”

High school students—and their parents—now pore over the many college guides on the market for information about colleges. They check the U.S. News & World Report rankings and review college information on the Web. They exchange e-mail with admissions officers, professors, and students to find out more about the colleges that interest them, and, in many cases, they treat financial aid packages from universities not as a final offer but as the beginning of a negotiation.

“I don’t think anybody is complacent about getting a high-quality applicant pool or about getting the kids to come once they’re admitted,” says Dwight Miller '59, a senior admissions officer at Harvard, where 80 percent of admitted students matriculate. At Yale no less than Harvard, the admissions department—and the rest of the University—is having to work harder to attract applicants and matriculants.

That work starts with students who may not even have their driver’s licenses yet. Yale begins to target talented high school students in the tenth grade, when they take the College Board’s Preliminary SAT (PSAT). The admissions office buys from the College Board and similar organizations the names of the 30,000 students who score highest on the tests and contacts them. In years past, these students have received a letter from Yale with a reply card that could be used to request an application and a brochure of introductory information, or “view book” in admissions parlance. But this year, all of the contacted sophomores will receive the view book, which has been redesigned from the black-and-white version of a few years back to a glossy four-color publication worthy of a coffee table. While the additional mailing is expensive, Dahl says it is necessary in order to stand out among the hundreds of pieces of mail students now get from colleges. Besides, she says, research shows that many high school students now make up their minds about where to apply by early in their junior year.

Although traditional direct-mail techniques are still an important part of recruitment strategy, Shaw says the “number-one place students are going for information today is the Web.” A well-designed Web site can point students to a virtually limitless supply of specialized information about a university, and students are taking full advantage of the opportunity. A recent survey showed that 80 percent of last year’s high school seniors used the Web in their college research.

Yale’s own efforts on the Web have been mixed—the University was the first in the Ivy League to offer an online application, but it has lagged behind other schools with more elaborate presentations. (Dartmouth’s includes Web cams that scan the campus in real time, and Harvard’s provides a virtual tour.) The admissions office is now working with a Palo Alto company called embark.com (whose Web site is a portal to admissions information about 400 colleges) on its online application, and is hiring a full-time webmaster to improve the appearance and function of the admissions site. But a good admissions Web site is hardly enough. Dahl says that Yale’s academic departments need to upgrade their Web presence too, because students are going directly to these sources to find out about opportunities in their specific fields of interest. “Each successive cohort of 16- and 17-year-olds has higher expectations,” says Dahl.

Nonetheless, much of the work of recruitment is still done the old- fashioned way, by admissions officers traveling to their assigned territories around the country (and, increasingly, around the world), and by alumni schools committees (ASCs) that visit high schools and staff booths at college fairs. A more competitive recruiting climate means more trips by the admissions staff, more evening informational meetings on the road, and more spring travel to reach students in their junior year. Yale and some of its competitors—including Harvard, Penn, and Princeton—have banded together to stage multi-college evening meetings in some cities, a strategy that each college hopes will increase its exposure: A student who comes to check out Harvard, the thinking goes, may prefer what she hears about Yale. (Of course, the opposite may also be true.)

But Richard Moll '59MDiv, a former Yale admissions officer who later oversaw admissions at Bowdoin and Vassar, thinks Yale still is not as visible as it should be. “Yale has not had the presence at grassroots admissions and counseling conferences that Harvard and Stanford have,” says Moll, author of Playing the Selective College Admissions Game.

Once students have been persuaded to apply, the admissions office turns much of its attention to the business of choosing some 2,000 admittees from more than 12,000 applicants, sorting through transcripts, essays, and recommendations and taking special note of students’ status as “legacies” (alumni children), minorities, or recruited athletes But even before all the admissions decisions are made, the effort to woo the best students—the ones any college would fight for—begins. Some 50 to 100 of these students are sent “likely letters” in the winter telling them they will probably be admitted and encouraging them to visit the campus. These letters are followed by a video and telephone calls from faculty members in the students’ fields of interest. “These are the hardest kids in the pool to get,” says Dahl, “and we pull out all the stops.”

After the acceptance letters go out in early April, “we have one month to wow them,” says Dahl. All admitted candidates get a letter with a hand-written postscript, a personal touch that Dahl says seems to mean a lot to students. They also receive phone calls from undergraduates and an invitation to “Bulldog Days,” the two-day on-campus event that is the centerpiece of Yale’s effort to persuade those who have been admitted to come in the fall.

Even Bulldog Days has become more elaborate in response to competition from other colleges. For the past two years, Yale has added to the schedule an academic fair held in the new Lanman Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium with representatives from all of Yale’s departments. Prospective students are also treated to a concert by Yale performing groups. All this is in addition to the traditional focus on letting prospective freshmen see what undergraduate life is like by pairing them with current students. “If you put a prospective with a Yale undergraduate, half of our job is done,” says Shaw.

After all the pitches have been made, Yale manages to convince two-thirds of its admitted students to attend. What happens to the other third? The majority are lost to a handful of other colleges, most often Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Harvard has long won the majority of students admitted to both Yale and Harvard, but Yale has traditionally won the competition for “common admits” with other colleges. Recently, however, Yale has begun to lose more Stanford common admits than it wins, particularly students from the Western states. “The dot-com world is a big part of the draw for Stanford,” concedes Shaw.

Yale and the other Ivies also face increased pressure from public and private universities that offer merit scholarships. “Merit aid is a real inducement as Ivy tuitions go up,” says Dwight Miller of Harvard, where the total “sticker price” of a year on campus is now $35,400, just $2,520 more than Yale’s. As a way of competing with elite private institutions and keeping home-grown talent from wandering, some state universities are also offering top students a chance to study in special “honors colleges,” elite programs with smaller classes and more access to leading professors than run-of-the-mill students enjoy. “It’s still not large numbers we’re losing to public universities,” says Shaw, “but we have to work harder to sell the Yale experience when people are comparing our cost with that of a public school.” (A year of in-state tuition, room, and board at Michigan is around $12,000.)

Money has become a more important factor in students’ admissions decisions ever since the U.S. Justice Department in 1991 ordered the Ivy League and MIT to halt their longstanding practice of sharing financial aid information. The goal of that practice was to make sure that a student admitted to more than one of the Ivy schools would receive similar aid offers, largely removing cost from the decision-making process. The government, however, viewed the practice as collusion, and the schools agreed to abandon it. Since then, the “price wars” that supporters of the policy had feared have been breaking out, however slowly. While all of the Ivies insist that their aid policies are “need-based,” they have begun to diverge in their approach to determining “need.” In recent years, Yale—which awards some level of aid to roughly 40 percent of its undergraduates—has been forced to catch up to other colleges’ liberalization of aid policies, changing the formula for how family assets are assessed and how outside scholarships are treated. (The financial aid office now exempts $150,000 in assets when calculating a family’s expected contribution, and scholarships from non-Yale organizations, which used to be deducted from whatever Yale was planning to offer, are now ignored in the calculations.)

The result is that students now routinely appeal the financial aid packages they are offered, often faxing copies of other colleges’ offers to bolster their cases. Shaw says his office will reexamine Yale’s offer when students make such an appeal, but that “they have to provide some new information,” such as medical expenses for grandparents or a cash-flow problem that couldn’t be explained on the standard financial aid form. “The candidates we most hate to lose are the ones we lose for financial reasons,” says Dahl.

While the cost of a Yale education is a deterrent to some applicants, perhaps the biggest obstacle the admissions office faces is New Haven’s lingering reputation as unsavory. While Yale officials argue that the reputation is undeserved, it persists despite the fact that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale’s campus had fewer violent crimes last year than Stanford and all of the Ivies except Princeton and Dartmouth. “The farther you get from New Haven, the worse the perception is,” says Shaw. The best way to deal with the problem, he says, is to bring students and counselors to New Haven to see for themselves. “This place sells itself if people come. We had a group of counselors from Cleveland here recently and we knocked their socks off.”

Another part of the solution is to educate current Yale students, who often have their own misconceptions about their host city. Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs, Bruce Alexander, notes that many of the negative reports about New Haven in the most popular college guides are, ironically, the result of Yale undergraduates’ positive experience in social service. Approximately half of the student body, he points out, takes part in some form of community activity, but much of that activity tends to be in the city’s most depressed neighborhoods. As a result, many Yale students never see the city’s more attractive areas, and can’t talk about them when interviewed by the guides. Alexander has seen to it that freshmen now get a tour of the entire city—including the New Haven Green and posh St. Ronan Street as well as Dixwell Avenue—as part of their orientation.

By some measures, it would seem that Yale has little to worry about in today’s admissions competition. The College’s yield—or percentage of admitted students who matriculate—has gone up in each of the past six years, to a record 66.3 percent this year, and the rate of admission has dropped from 20 percent in 1995 to 15.8 percent. But other statistics last year were less encouraging, leading the Yale Daily News to declare in an editorial that “major improvements are needed in Yale’s admissions efforts.” First, the number of applications fell 3 percent—a figure that Shaw describes as statistically insignificant and not part of a trend. But Harvard’s went up 3 percent, Brown’s 14 percent, and Columbia’s 3 percent. And while Yale’s admission rate fell slightly, those of Brown and Columbia went below Yale’s for the first time, putting the College fifth in the Ivies in its percentage of applicants accepted. (Harvard and Princeton are first and second.) In Brown’s case, the switch from a binding early decision plan to a non-binding one may have made the difference. As for Columbia, Shaw points to a dramatic decline in New York City’s crime rate and a “very active Madison Avenue public-relations campaign.”

Shaw concedes that “One response is to say that Yale is losing ground” to schools like Brown and Columbia. “But the proof of the pudding is in comparing commonly admitted students. We win hands down when it comes to making the final decision.”

Still, the admission rate is a statistic that is commonly cited as a measure of a college’s quality (U.S News & World Report uses it as one criterion in its rankings), and as such it may be cause for concern. Shaw suggests that if Yale’s number of applications continues to drop, he might consider additional efforts to boost that number. One way could be by signing on to the so-called common application process, by which a student can fill out one application form and have it sent to all the participating schools that he or she chooses. Says Shaw: “The question is, would we see more strong candidates with the common application? We don’t want to encourage more students to apply, and then have to turn them down.” Besides, the effect on the more important statistic—yield—would likely be negative.

However the numbers are calculated, they are prone to some level of manipulation. But whatever the internal complexities of the process, Yale must reckon with the fact that today’s high school seniors are far more sophisticated at the admissions process than their predecessors, which means the effort to attract the best ones will have to become not just more aggressive, but more creative.


Expanding Horizons

The name Ranjan Goswami is a familiar one at the office of undergraduate admissions. Goswami, a junior from Hong Kong, has been a one-man bandwagon for better recruiting of international students since he came to Yale, offering advice to the admissions office and op-ed pieces to the Yale Daily News. One of Goswami’s crusades has been to persuade Yale to send its glossy view book to prospective students abroad instead of a smaller, cheaper brochure tailored to an international audience. This year, the admissions office listened: The view book (albeit on lighter paper stock) will now be mailed to international prospects.

Yale is new enough at international recruiting that such input can be of great help. The University’s number of international applicants is now steadily rising, thanks to a larger financial aid budget and more trips abroad by senior admissions officials. (Shaw went to Southeast Asia last year, and associate director of admissions Diana Cooke went to South America this fall.)

In order to sell Yale to these students, most of whom don’t have a chance to visit the campus, Cooke has for the past five years conducted an annual phonathon in which international students at Yale call prospectives and encourage them to consider Yale. “It’s very effective,” says Dahl. “A kid from Pakistan gets a call from New Haven—maybe someone from his country or even someone he knows.”

The results this year were especially impressive: The Class of 2004 has 103 international students representing 44 countries, and, says Shaw, from a “broader socioeconomic spectrum” than in years past. But Yale is still hampered by the fact that, unlike Harvard and MIT, it does not have need-blind admissions for international students. Yale is rumored to be on the verge of announcing a similar need-blind policy. Says Shaw: “We’ve asked the administration to consider it, and they haven’t slammed the door in our faces, so we’re hopeful.”


Early Birds

Once, students applying to an Ivy League college sent in their applications in December, got a yes, no or maybe from colleges in April, and decided where to go by May. But the admissions season has been complicated in recent years by the proliferation of early action and early decision programs, which are responsible for filling up an increasing portion of school’s classes. Under early action, a school decides by December 1 whether to admit or reject an applicant (or defer him or her to the regular decision pool), but the student need not commit to attend that school. An early decision model, like the one Yale implemented five years ago, allows a student to apply early only to one school, and to sign a document promising to attend if admitted. (Students who are caught applying to more than one college are removed from each college’s applicant pool.)

Yale has gone to the more restrictive model while Brown moved last year from early decision to early action, causing its number of early applicants to increase by 65 percent. (Yale’s early decision applicants were up 3 percent.) Whatever type of plan, though, schools are taking more and more students before the regular admission season begins. Harvard admitted about 55 percent of its class early last year, Yale 40 percent.

Statistically, it would appear that early decision increases one’s chances of admission, since Yale accepted 36.6 percent of early decision applicants and 15.8 percent of those applying regular decision. Richard Shaw says those figures are misleading because the early decision pool includes a disproportionate number of alumni children and recruited athletes—who tend to settle on a college earlier. But admissions consultant Michele Hernandez believes there is an advantage to applying early, since a student might be more likely to shine in what is generally a less qualified pool, and since schools can’t help but favor students who are in effect “birds in the hand.”



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