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MAY 08, 2021
This blog is the first in a three-part series of Frequently Asked Admissions Questions answered by former Dartmouth College admissions officer, Ben Schwartz. In part one, Ben answers the following questions:
Ben studied Government and Education Policy at Dartmouth, and after completing a post-graduate fellowship in West Africa, he returned to the university to serve as Assistant Director of Admissions. Ben has also served on the Dartmouth Alumni Council and chaired the Admissions and Enrollment Committee. Additionally, Ben holds an MPA from Harvard and an MBA from MIT. Today, he runs youth leadership development through a nonprofit organization called Sage Experience.
Like many Admissions Officers, I wore multiple hats, often depending on the season. In the summer I focused on our on-campus visitor programs; come fall, I would travel across the US to visit and learn about high schools and recruit students; by November I would begin reading early applications. After the new year, the whole office would be fully immersed in “reading season,” each of us reviewing over one hundred applications per week. April was always my favorite month, as we got to meet many of the students we admitted during our accepted student programs; then May would bring the start of summer and the cycle continued.
The public often thinks about our role as reading applications and making decisions, but the job requires a range of skills, from public speaking to organizing programs, empathizing with applicants to educating the public. Reading an application requires understanding the context, from details about the applicant’s school and its curriculum and clubs, to the broader community and the opportunities and challenges its students face. Every year we must calibrate our evaluations of each file based on the entire pool of applicants, recognizing trends in academics, extracurricular activities, and beyond.
Some schools, like large public universities, may lean on standardized testing to do initial screenings — but at Dartmouth, like many other selective colleges, we have been committed to the holistic review of every applicant’s candidacy. This means even students with less than stellar scores still had someone review their applications. We recognize that students may demonstrate their talents in any of many dimensions, and standardized testing does not reveal the full story. We want to give every applicant a fair chance, even if they may struggle with testing or have limited opportunities to prepare, whether due to limited internet access, financial constraints, or other circumstances. There is strong evidence that high school grades are a better predictor of college performance, so if we had used a cut-off SAT score, some of my favorite admitted students would have been missed. And in the COVID era of test-optional admissions policies, holistic admissions is more important than ever.
The first thing I would look at in a student’s application is the family demographic information, allowing me to understand the student’s context. Where do they live? Who do they live with? What work do their parents or guardians do? A student attending a public school in rural Indiana and living with a single parent who is a doctor will require distinct consideration from a scholarship student at a private school in Philadelphia, whose parents never attended college. Everything else in the application is considered in the context of this background.
Next, I would look at a student’s academic performance, taking time to carefully understand the story the transcript tells. How academically strong is the student within the school? How has the student grown academically over the four years in high school? Has the student taken advantage of the most rigorous courses? What are the student’s academic strengths and weaknesses? Then I look at standardized test scores hoping to confirm the transcript’s story. If I am concerned about something I see in the academic record, I will look to see if there are explanations in essays or recommendations.
My favorite part of the application is a student’s extracurricular activities. By showing me how they spend their time outside of class, candidates reveal their values and potential for impact through the activities list. Next I typically read the personal essay, which helps me hear the applicant’s own voice to benefit from more nuance and texture to the applicant’s whole story. Rarely does a personal essay change the trajectory of an application, but it helps fill in our understanding of the real person behind the black and white forms.
Lastly, I would turn to the recommendations, which I find are a critical part of the full application as they help translate academic performance into a sense of genuine intellectual curiosity. I want to see that students not only challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous courses available, but also aim to go above and beyond the basic assignments to really dive into the quest for knowledge.
NEXT WEEK: Read Ben’s advice on common mistakes students make on their university applications, the advantages of applying early, how to choose where to apply, and the most important part of the application!
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