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MIT, Other Colleges Look Past Scores of Applicants

By Jenna Russell


As they face a rising tide of applicants who look highly qualified on paper, a growing number of selective colleges are trying to solve the same problem: how to look past high school transcripts and test scores to find the students who will thrive on campus.

For the first time this fall, MIT interviewers, who are alumni of the school, were asked to rank applicants on a scale of 1 to 5 on qualities including “culture match,” or how the student would fit with the university. Other schools, including Northeastern University and Hampshire College in Amherst, are revising essay topics and adding new questions to gain insight about applicants’ families, neighborhoods, and values.

“It’s been hard, knowing who’s the best match,” said Marilee Jones, admissions dean at MIT. “They all have such strength in math and science; they all have a balanced curriculum; they all have eight to 15 AP courses. They’re ballet dancers and building robots. You can’t tell who’s a natural fit anymore, and you need to know.”

Teachers who write recommendations for MIT are now being asked for information about the applicants’ “community, school, or background” to help place their accomplishments in context. A new essay question asks applicants to “describe the world you come from.” Essay readers look for traits like a sense of humor and “inner resilience” that could help students succeed in MIT’s competitive culture, Jones said.

Schools also are looking for students who will contribute to campus diversity and stay until graduation, helping to boost the retention rate, a crucial statistic used in national rankings.

Over the past several decades, colleges have moved away from the labor-intensive interview process. Most have now made interviews voluntary, and rely chiefly on a limited, mostly numerical set of data to skim the cream from their pool of applications. The most weight is placed on grades and SAT scores, then extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations are considered.

But in recent years, admissions leaders say, the pool has become, at least on paper, increasingly qualified. More students submit resumes rich with awards and summer programs; many take test-preparation classes and hire coaches to give their essays a nearly uniform polish.

As a result, some admissions officials say, they need to take new measures to figure out who the students behind the accomplishments really are.

The shift in emphasis looks in some ways like a return to the admissions practices of the past, but with a new set of priorities. When nearly all elite college applicants were young white men, personal qualities like “strength of character” were used by admissions officers as a way to boost alumni children with poor high school grades.

Modern admissions leaders, by contrast, say that careful personal assessments could help them increase diversity, partly because fewer applicants now choose to identify their race on paper. In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision allowing colleges to consider race in admissions but not to use impersonal “point” systems, experts expect more colleges to ask about applicants’ neighborhoods and family backgrounds as an indicator of race or socioeconomic status.

The revival of the interview on some campuses may be the most striking evidence of the appetite for personal information.

At the University of Rochester in New York, where more than 10,000 applicants compete for fewer than 1,000 spaces, admissions dean Jonathan Burdick expects alumni to conduct some 2,000 interviews this year, compared to about 200 last year. He has started sending staff around the country to train the volunteers. Illinois Wesleyan University has begun offering $200 travel vouchers to low-income applicants so they can interview on campus. Wake Forest University in North Carolina recently started interviewing applicants again, years after doing away with the practice.

“In 20 years, the greatest change I’ve seen in admissions is the decrease in the number of students applying who are not qualified,” said Martha Allman, Wake Forest admissions director. “We wanted students who were intellectually curious but also cared about humanity and human beings, and we found that was difficult to figure from pieces of paper.”

Admissions leaders said the interview makes or breaks candidates in a relatively small number of cases -- 20 or 25 percent -- but is especially useful when interviewers’ reactions are extreme, either positive or negative.

From the University of Denver, hundreds of trained staff, faculty, and alumni will fan out to hotels in 27 cities next month to interview 2,600 applicants to the university, choosing from four standard questions made available to students in advance. (Sample: “Tell us about a time you interacted with someone different from you.”) Interviews last 20 minutes, and interviewers are told nothing about students except their names, to eliminate bias based on high school or grades.

“They’re really trying to find out what kind of person this is, whether you would want this person as a classmate or roommate,” interim vice chancellor Todd Rinehart said. “It sounds difficult, but the students are brutally honest, and it’s usually pretty clear. You can figure out who would be a good fit.”

Face-to-face meetings can also build a bond between school and student, he said: At the University of Denver, students who are accepted after an interview enroll at a rate 10 to 15 percent higher than those who don’t interview.

During her University of Denver interview in Boston last year, Lawrence Academy senior Ashley Dickson talked about her travels in Costa Rica and Belize, and her plan to become a sports broadcaster. When one of the men in the room remarked that the job would be challenging for a woman, Dickson had a snappy comeback, telling him, “That’s because they haven’t seen me yet.”

“They were laughing, and I was like, OK, I’m not nervous anymore,” said Dickson, 18, who turned down Boston University to enroll at UD. “The interview gives you a lot more faith in the school. I never talked to anyone from BU. They just accepted me based on what they saw on paper.”