Due to a massive increase in applications to Duke, the admissions office has expedited the decision-making process for candidates whose applications may not meet the University’s standards.
In this year’s early and regular admissions cycles, regional admissions officers, who are in charge of subsets of the applicant pool, are now the first University officials to read a given application and have the ability to recommend a prospective student be rejected without further in-depth review. This replaces a system in which no applications were rejected before they were read by two readers and considered by either a senior officer or an admissions committee.
Admissions made these changes to relieve stress on a process that was designed to handle 12,000 applications annually, said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. This year, Duke received 31,565 applications, which itself is a 6 percent increase from last year.
“Ideally, we want to give all applicants three chances, but given the sheer volume of applications, we have to be practical,” Guttentag said. “It was time we adopted [a system] which made straight-forward decisions more efficient and focused our attention on those that were complex and nuanced.”
He added that each year there are a portion of applications that clearly indicate that the applicant is unfit for the institution. Under the streamlined process adopted this year, regional admissions officers denied admission to about one-third of the applicants after the first read, Guttentag said.
Regular decision applicants will receive their admissions decision Thursday evening. In December, 648 of a record high 2,641 applicants were accepted under early decision.
Many of Duke’s peer institutions have experienced similar growth in the volume of applications. The University of Pennsylvania received 31,127 applications this year—the second consecutive year when the count exceeded 30,000. Cornell University received 37,673 applications this year, up about 3.5 percent from last year.
Although no two institutions are the same, Guttentag said, a number of schools similar to Duke have already adopted new models to adapt to the high volume of applications. The changes Duke made to the admissions process should not compromise its ability to select the best applicants.
“In a way, the method in which colleges rate students is not as significant or critical as the quality of the decision of the university,” he said. “As long as you have thoughtful, insightful and hardworking admissions officers and a sense of qualities you are looking for, any admissions process will do.”
The new model
The tweaks will allow admissions officers to focus on applicants hovering on the borderline of acceptance and rejection, Guttentag said.
The new process benefits applicants because regional admissions officers—experts on specific areas—consider their applications first, he added. Adjunct admissions staff—trained individuals who are hired as part-time readers—still review applications to give another perspective, but their input comes later in the process. Outside readers often include former admissions officers from Duke and other institutions and long-time community members. Before, the first person to read an application was the outside reader among the two other guaranteed reads—one by the regional officer and one by either a senior associate director or by the committee.
“We want to make sure that the first person to look at the application has a strong impact on how applications are viewed,” Guttentag said. “This year, the first overall review is conducted by someone who knows the applicant and his or her context well.”
He noted that the role of the first read, which generally lasts about 30 minutes has remained the same. Regional admissions officers, who are often in charge of about 1,800 candidates, spend 60 to 70 hours per week working from the end of December through the first couple of weeks of March.
The elimination of a mandatory second read has made the process more efficient.
“Instead of using the time to review applications that we know from the start won’t make it, we instead use the professional time of the admissions staff to pinpoint and analyze those of more competitive students,” said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education.
The growth in applications also prompted admissions to hire two more associate officers in time for this cycle, though this expansion does not match the exponential growth of applications of recent years, Guttentag said. There are about 20 associates and senior associate admissions officers.
Still, both Guttentag and Nowicki said the lack of admissions staff was not the guiding decision behind the change in the review process.
A high standard
The applicant pool has become increasingly competitive, as the Duke’s regular decision acceptance rate fell from just under 22 percent in 2005 to 10.8 percent in 2011.
In addition to the qualitative review of applications, readers still rates applicants on a five-point scale in six categories: achievement, academic curriculum, essays, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and personal qualities. Although top scores from the rating system—a feature preserved in the updated admissions process—do not solely determine the fate of the application, Guttentag noted that such measures help officers magnify what would ordinarily be minute differences among applicants.
“[The rating system] is only one of my guides that help us make our decision,” Guttentag said. “If an applicant has a high rating in the categories, their chances of being admitted are increased.”
Guttentag said the bar for acquiring a top score in each of the categories is continually increasing. Seven or eight years ago, five Advancement Placement exams with a score of five would warrant the top score in Duke’s achievement category. Today, about half of the applicants meet this standard.
This raises the need for continued questioning of the role of the rating system in the application process, he added.
“To what degree are the criteria serving our purpose?” Guttentag said. “It’s up to much discussion, but it may be time to evaluate the rating system itself.”