The Contenders

No one grows wheat in Wheatfield, Indiana. They grow corn. They grow soybeans. And in this rural farming community with an official population of 772 grew Matt Wicker. Wicker, senior class president at Kankakee Valley High School, one of Jasper County's two high schools. Wicker, a member of the Environmental Club, a Kougar Krazie, a National Honor Society selectee. Wicker, a Blue Devil? He hopes. And waits for April.

Admissions at Duke have become increasingly competitive as the applicant pool broadens and the University's reputation builds with consistent top-five placement in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings.

This year 19,282 high school seniors from around the globe applied for admission to the class of 2010. That's 4,572 more applicants than five years ago. Only around 3,000 will be admitted.

Maggie Bashford is one of the lucky ones. The senior from Raleigh already knows she's going to Duke. The Millbrook High School student with the 4.88 GPA and the 2230 new SAT score was admitted via early decision into Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

"I was really worried because I heard they had a record number of applicants, and I didn't think my application stood out," she says.

Maybe it was her four years on the tennis team. The Spanish club. Playing the flute in the wind ensemble. Her eight Advanced Placement courses. She will never know what exactly it was that stuck out to Duke's admissions officers. But the evening she found out she was going to Duke sticks out prominently in her mind.

"I counted down," she says. "In my room I have all these posters my friend made, saying things like '10 more days,' '9 more days' and so on. I counted down everywhere. It was in my agenda."

Bashford and some friends had stayed late after school for a Spanish club meeting that December day and were driving up her driveway at the same time her father was driving up the hill with the mail.

"We were stopped in the middle of the road, and he said he had a letter for me," she says. "I saw that I got in, and I started screaming and crying. I didn't expect it to happen like that. Had it been a rejection letter it would've been pretty devastating."

irtually all of the characteristics about the applicants in this year's admissions race seem more competitive and intense than ever. More than 1,000 applicants had SAT scores above 1550, more than double than the number of such applicants for the Class of 2006. International interest is also up, with 1,985 applications-almost double the number of applications received from outside the U.S. five years ago. From the number of applications to Pratt (3,343 compared to 1,000 five years ago), to the number of Native American, Latino, African-American or Asian-American applicants, numbers are up, up, up. For Duke, this is good news. For applicants, it means winning the college admissions game here has gotten even more strenuous.

A highlight of Duke's admissions process is that it's looking at the whole, not just individual parts. That translates into the development of a class, not simply 1,640 students with impeccable resumes and extracurricular padding. Each year Duke needs fresh radio deejays, club lacrosse players and biology lab assistants. While most students come to Duke unsure of their academic plans, a class too full of potential art history majors or sociology students or budding physicists would be unbalanced. This is the context of admissions at Duke.

The admissions game is a mystifying maze of paperwork. Amid the filing, evaluating and discussing, Duke seems to have it all down to an art. Every complete application is filed into a folder, with each piece of paper specifically ordered for the process. The office randomly assigns each application to one of roughly two-dozen "first readers" who evaluates it. These initial evaluators are temporary staffers hired for the admissions process-separate from the year-round admissions officers-and includes people closely aligned with Duke, like graduate students or faculty spouses.

The applications are then read by the admissions officer responsible for the geographic area where the applicant resides. For Bashford, it was Associate Director of Admissions Nancy Austin. For Wicker, it is Senior Admissions Officer Jennifer Dewar. Admissions staffers don't necessarily represent contiguous states or geographic sections of the country. They each cover a variety of states, which allows for a more balanced load of applicants and even more diversity; Dewar, for example, is responsible for Colorado, Indiana and New York.

After the second evaluation, the applications are divided into groups based upon the overall "picture" of the applicant, not by quantifiers such as GPA or SAT score. Some schools may use these numbers as ranking guideposts-scoring applicants against a rubric or awarding points for this or that quality. But Duke has no minimum score guidelines. The result is that a breadth of students enroll at the University; 55 of the 715 applicants for Duke's class of 2009 who were ranked below the top 20 percent of their class were admitted.

Fewer than the top ten percent of the applications-identified as the top applicants who receive "admits" from both evaluators-land on Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag's desk for a final admissions review. The applicants are not automatically admitted, however; Guttentag can still pull an application to be discussed later.

Similarly, the weakest applications in the pool, typically less than a third, go to an associate admissions director for review if both readers independently recommend a "deny." The rest of the applicants are reviewed by a selection committee. After the committee-comprised of at least three staffers and Guttentag or an associate director-makes its decisions, Guttentag reviews the class on the whole to look for gaps. Then the notifications go out.

hen Alaina Pleatman read the top of the screen, she couldn't believe it.

"I knew for a while it was going to be on December 15 at 6 p.m.," says the senior from West Bloomfield, Mich. "We were counting down the days. At 6 I logged on. And then I saw it. 'Dear Alaina, Congratulations, Duke is now your university!'"

She knew she wanted to join Pratt's top-ranked biomedical engineering program. But she wasn't sure if she would get in early.

"It seems like this year everyone got deferred," she says. "The class president, my friends who are perfect, they all got deferred from Harvard and Princeton and Yale and M.I.T., and I found that out the day before a lot of them got deferred. I thought I probably had no chance."

So why Pleatman, with her 3.9 unweighted GPA and a 33 on the ACT?

She thinks it's her breadth of experiences and interests. She's been in school musicals, on the quiz bowl team and in the National Honor Society. She plays tennis and golf for her high school and founded a chapter of B'nai B'rith there, too.

"I'm not like the star at anything," she says. "I'm not the number-one person at anything. I just do a lot of different things."

And that is exactly what she thinks Duke is looking for.

"I think they want people who are really well-rounded, but they can't just do one thing," Pleatman says. "You have to have everything: community service, good recs, president of something, play a sport, do music."

If this is indeed Duke's formula, it's one that rejected Pleatman's friend-a varsity basketball player with a 29 ACT-during early decision this year.

Although 514 miles away from the campus she will soon call home, Pleatman, like many of the applicants in this year's class, is already full of ideas about what her Duke experience will encompass.

"I think it'll be really cool to be around people who want to learn and have a good time," she says. "Around here it's one or the other. Kids are really studious and that's all they do, or they slack off and hang out all of the time."

hen several top universities changed their early admittance programs for the fall of 2003, Duke stayed the course. Stanford and Yale both changed to non-binding so-called "early action" programs that don't require their applicants to commit early. Similarly Harvard changed its early action program so that applicants could only apply to one school early. The changes seem to not have affected Duke's early admissions process very significantly; roughly 500 members of each class are still traditionally admitted early each year. By admitting slightly less than a third of the class in December, Duke ensures that its yield rate-the number of accepted students who matriculate at the University-stays high.

In the past Duke has struggled to entice students admitted at peer institutions to enroll here instead. Traditionally the school has utilized the Angier B. Duke Scholarship to pull the "best and brightest" away from the Harvards and CalTechs of the world and land in Durham. But even the scholarship-which offers full tuition, research opportunities, summer study and mentoring programs-is not foolproof. There are only 10 A.B. Duke scholars in the Class of 2006.

The University also uses other scholarships-the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship for North or South Carolina residents; the Trinity Scholarship for applicants from certain parts of North Carolina; the Robertson Scholarship for outstanding leadership and top intellectual inquiry-to make Duke a bright student's most appealing destination. But the University has also made concerted efforts to attract the smart, well-rounded students who fall into the broad category of Duke acceptances, the students who previously may have dismissed Duke for a comparable school like the University of Pennsylvania or Cornell.

One part of that move was a switch in marketing techniques for Duke's admissions publications. When Duke's current seniors were applying to the University, Duke's guidebook prominently featured Krzyzewskiville on its cover, with arrows pointing to various tents identifying many of the activities and facets of what students "do" in K-ville.

The basketball emphasis is gone. Instead a revamped website, termed "The D," allows applicants, or potential applicants, to ask admissions officers or students questions, find out more information about Duke or Durham and apply online. The site is personalized to the applicant; when first registering a student indicates what areas-such as the arts, the sciences, athletics and so on-most interest them. Then the site automatically adjusts to those interests. An applicant who selects the arts, for example, may be offered sidebars on the newly refurbished arts warehouses. The site seems to aim to present a picture of Duke that may not come across on a postcard: audio clips of red ruffled lemur calls, lots of vibrant, colorful photography and a splashy, clean design. It also has a quirky, personal side that had been previously missing from admissions publications. One sidebar-"You Know You're a Duke Student When."-includes a list of Gothic experiences such as "You've determined the precise stride you'll need to the scale the Gross Chem stairs," "You've been tempted to play the piano in Wil Rec, even if you can only pay Chopsticks" and "You have a playlist called 'Marketplace Music' on your computer."

But while the school uses these techniques to bring students to campus, what about the students who try their hand at convincing Duke to give them the chance?

Samantha Stach knew it was going to take all she had to get into Duke after the deferral letter came last December. So she vowed to inundate Duke with everything she could.

She sent in eight additional letters of recommendations.

She made countless phone calls to her admissions officer.

She wrote a personal letter.

And in the end, the Trinity freshman from Waxhaw, N.C., got an admittance letter in April.

"I seriously stalked these people-I don't think anyone could have sent them more crap or called them more times than I did," Stach says.

She doesn't think she would have been admitted in the spring had she not filled the admissions office mailbox.

"I don't think they felt that I really went outside the box," she says about being deferred during early decision. "I really hadn't. I think in sending in so much they saw a lot of different sides of me. It gave them a more complete picture."

Stach, who says she considered the deferral a rejection at first, is one of many current and potential Dukies who see admissions as a game of luck.

"So many people here applied to Ivy League schools, and I think any of those schools, or here, for the vast majority of people, it's just a matter of how lucky you are, whether the admit counselors are having a good day or a bad day," she says. "No one ever knows."

Online discussion boards are full of this sentiment. Seniors write of their acceptances-and rejections-with a focus on this lottery aspect. One such college freshman reports says he was admitted to Yale, M.I.T., Dartmouth, the University of Chicago and Rice. But he was waitlisted at Duke.

he waiting has made Matt Wicker's anxiety grow even more as April nears. He is full of questions about Duke, a school he has never even had the opportunity to visit due to financial constraints. But he's convinced that if he gets a Duke admit letter, he will be heading to North Carolina in August.

From Wheatfield-where he says there's "not much to do" and the nearest movie theater is half an hour away-Wicker has utilized the University's websites to find out about the East Coast school he dreams of attending. It's a journey he's making alone; neither of his parents-his father is a phone technician, his mother, a homemaker-went to college.

"I didn't really get any insight from them," he says.

It's also a journey that he may make alone; no one has ever applied to Duke from his high school, let alone been admitted.

"Our valedictorian 10 years ago went to Cornell," he explains.

Most students, like his friends, stay in state for college. Agricultural technology is a popular major.

In the meantime the student council leader at Kankakee Valley is shepherding his classmates to charity scavenger hunts and hog roasts. With a 4.6 GPA and a 1390 SAT score, he's hopeful but not overly optimistic about his chances at being admitted.

"I think I've got a pretty decent shot," Wicker says. "It's just that it's kind of a long shot for anybody to get in. I'm going to be pretty shocked. And if I don't get in, I'm not going to be really mad. I mean if I didn't apply in the first place, I wouldn't be that upset. At least I tried."

So Wicker will wait until April. He will mull over Duke, over the pros and cons of going to college hundreds of miles away from his little brother, over whether he will fit in here, where the Midwest and all that it stands for can seem so very far away. He might listen to Bob Dylan, replaying the songs from "Highway 61 Revisited" that inspired his application essay. And like Dylan's album-groundbreaking for its fusion of electric and folk-Matt Wicker will be striking out on his own come August. Duke or not.


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