Admissions staff read 9,000-plus applications, one by oneBy Josh Schonwald
At a University with world-renowned scholars, obsessive bibliophiles and thousands of high-achieving students, it is not uncommon to hear tales of reading marathons. Days spent squirreled away in libraries, weeks holed up in a dorm room, years of research.
But even at Chicago, the past eight weeks of Jenny Connell’s life are unusual. Since Friday, Jan. 2, Connell has roused each day at 6 a.m. to read. Her workday—typically eight hours—has been entirely devoted to reading. At the gym, on the Stairmaster, there is more reading. At home, during lunch, at the Divinity School coffee shop, on the El, Connell is poring over essays. As for bedtime, “I’ll read two or three essays before falling asleep,” she says.
Connell, though, is not spending 10 to 12 hours a day reading in a scramble to polish off her dissertation. Nor is she cramming for a potentially life-changing test. Connell, a 2001 graduate of the College, is an Assistant Director of Admissions.
For roughly 10 to 12 weeks, admissions directors are among the most voracious readers on campus, and that phase in the admissions process is appropriately called “reading period.” From January to late-March the Office of College Admissions staff experiences its own version of finals, with less than three months to evaluate more than 9,000 applications. “It’s certainly the time of highest pressure for the staff,” says Ted O’Neill, Dean of College Admissions. “We have to go through an enormous amount of material in a short period of applications from her territory, which covers Maine, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and downstate Illinois. But in addition to reading applications from one’s territory, each admissions director also functions as a second reader or sometimes third reader.
The second read is a second opinion, and it is mandatory for all applications. Connell, for example, will read between 80 and 100 of these files and will either agree with a colleague’s evaluation or write a counter argument. If there is a dispute, which Connell says happens in a slim percentage of cases, the application moves on to a third, or if inconclusive, a fourth arbiter.
The trickiest cases, though, ultimately come before a committee of admissions officers. At weekly Friday meetings, readers will make their pitch in roughly five minutes. Then the debate begins. Colleagues will question, request more materials and sometimes ask that excerpts from an applicant’s essay or teacher recommendations be read aloud. “It can be an emotional process,” says O’Neill. “It’s very hard to say ‘no.’ It’s just hard to give up on people from whom the University could benefit, and who could benefit from the University.”
The process of assigning second reads is often strategic. Connell or Zach White, also an Assistant Director, who both have theatre backgrounds, might be asked to evaluate students with an interest in performing arts. Likewise, other staff members with special skill sets may be assigned to evaluate students with other particular interests. O’Neill purposely seeks to assemble staff members who have a wide range of backgrounds and who can make insightful contributions about an applicant’s talents. People who have different backgrounds are valuable, says O’Neill. But, he adds, they ultimately have to check their sympathies in the interest of the overall goal.
Every Friday, O’Neill reinforces this message, discussing in philosophical terms what Chicago is looking for in its applicant pool. It is not a cookie-cutter message, Connell says. “Our jobs would be a lot easier, but far less interesting if it were.” Connell, who was active in University Theater, likens her role in admissions to that of a casting director. “You look at people with wildly different skills and talents, and you try to put together the ensemble,” she says.
But this casting process is not easy. Connell, who smiles fondly as she rifles through some of her memorable reads (Alex, who wrote about the mysterious “cult” of cross-country running; Christina, who worked at a Dairy Queen; Krishna, an aspiring economist from Colorado), says, from the admissions perspective, it is often frustrating.
“We’re asking them to boil their lives into 18 pieces of paper. Essays. Transcripts. Scores. Recommendations from teachers.” Questions emerge when reviewing files, Connell says. Inconsistencies pop up. “Sometimes grades change dramatically. And you think, wow, he woke up in junior year. Or grades go down; maybe there was a crisis at home.” You start telling yourselves stories about the students, says Connell.
Gerald Doyle, Associate Director and a veteran of the admissions process, offered Connell some advice on this phenomenon. “We tell ourselves stories about these kids, and sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re wrong. But what’s important is that we try to be right,” she says, Doyle told her.
As the admission season nears completion, Connell says she often wishes she could talk with the applicants, “because you know that five minutes on the phone would clear it up.” While she does resist those calls, she often spends a great deal of time on the phone during this final phase of the process. Each week, she makes an estimated 30 calls, tracking down stray materials, such as a missing recommendation or a missing grade report. She also takes frequent in-bound calls from high school guidance counselors, making final pitches for their students.
Then there is the flood of daily e-mail from counselors and applicants. A newly received accolade is quickly shared with Connell, such as when an applicant becomes a National Merit finalist. Other, more aggressive applicants will report on their progress almost daily. Connell and other admissions staff can only respond with a simple, neutral “thank you.”
Though the vast majority of the reading is over, the last weeks of March are perhaps the most intense phase of “reading period.” Many of the “close calls” get pushed to these final weeks. This is by design, O’Neill says. “It’s a top-down process.” The most-qualified applicants are admitted first, and as spaces become scarce, the focus then turns to tiebreakers. And increasingly, admissions staff must make tough decisions and debate.
As their reading demands ease, admissions directors look toward next year. Connell has begun to plan overnight visits for high school counselors and also is beginning to plot her travel schedule for another phase of the admissions cycle: fall recruitment.
Last fall, she spent two weeks visiting high schools in Ohio, Indiana and Colorado. This year, she is planning a five-week trip, beginning in September, to a whole new set of schools in New Mexico and Arizona.
“That’s one of the great things about admissions,” says Connell. “The job changes so much during different times of the year.”
Motels, rental cars and visits to three or four high schools a day will be a far cry from “reading period.”
“We spend a lot of time in March telling ourselves that there’s a ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’” Connell said. “And there is; it’s in April, when the admitted students will start arriving en masse, and we’ll get to meet the kids we’ve only been reading about.”