Application increase overwhelms review system


Nearly two decades ago, before Duke had become an internationally renowned research institution, the University crafted a personalized admissions process to evaluate prospective students.

Designed to handle 12,000 applications, the model entails multiple readers, a preliminary rating system, a committee session to discuss applicants and a final review process.

Now, with 26,731 high school seniors applying to the Class of 2014, the system is beginning to show signs of strain. Although the decades-old admissions model served to select this year’s class, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said the process was not made for today’s hyper-competitive college admissions environment.

Multiple readings and ratings

After a prospective freshman turns in an application, all submitted materials are read twice—first by individuals trained to read applications, and second by regional admissions officers responsible for reading all of the applications from a given geographic area.

Guttentag said it takes about 30 minutes to “first read” an application and 15 to 20 minutes to “second read” an application. Regional admissions officers in charge of the largest regions with 1,800 applicants spend about 45 to 60 hours per week reading applications from January through the first week of March.

“Both of those are very careful, word-by-word, and course-by-course, analyses of the details of the application,” Guttentag wrote in an e-mail. “These are close reads.”

But reading applications is not an entirely qualitative process. Both readers assigned to an application rate an applicant on a five-point scale in each of six categories: curriculum, achievement, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and personal qualities, essay and standardized testing.

This rating system helps admissions officers magnify what would ordinarily be considered minute differences among applicants, Guttentag said. A student who scores a 750 out of a possible 800 in all three sections of the SAT—critical reading, math and writing—would likely fall in the 99th percentile for testing. But the competitive nature of its applicant pool means Duke admissions officers make a distinction finer than the top percentile in the nation.

Indeed, the threshold for achieving a five in each of the six evaluation categories is high. Receiving the full five points in test scores, for example, would require SAT scores that fall in the high 700s across all three categories, Guttentag said.

In “Admissions Confidential,” a book that describes the admissions process in place at Duke 10 years ago, author and former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor writes that receiving a five in the extracurricular activities category typically entails accomplishing something on the national level.

When asked what the average admitted student receives in each of the five categories, Guttentag did not provide a specific number.

“The typical Duke matriculant is a smart, very smart, talented, engaged person,” Guttentag said. “Not fives across the board.”

Scoring points only goes so far

The rating system, however, is not the deciding factor in the admissions process. Instead, it serves as a guide to help admissions officers make decisions.

After the second rating, the regional admissions officer recommends that some applicants be automatically admitted or denied. These applications are then sent to either Guttentag or a senior associate director who usually follows the regional officer’s suggestion.

Guttentag added that such decisions are never made based on the ratings alone.

 “What we find is that as a rule, the higher somebody’s ratings are, the greater their chances of being admitted,” he said. “But the day we have a hard cutoff is the day we are doing something wrong. That is an anathema to me.”

The remaining applicants are then discussed in admissions committee rounds. Admissions committees are organized by region and last seven to 10 days, Guttentag said.

“The thing that always amazes me about it given the number of applications we get is how well we know each applicant,” said Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Donna Lisker, who sat in on the California committee this year. “The files are read and re-read, and since we read state by state, we go into it knowing the school, the guidance counselor and the principal.”

In committee, regional admissions officers advocate for their applicants in front of other admissions officers, including either Guttentag or a senior associate admissions officer.

Although Guttentag said most conversations in committee fall into a three-to five-minute range, some are as short as two minutes and others as long as 10 or 15.

“You get very territorial,” former Duke admissions officer Laura Sellers said. “Everyone talks about ‘my kids’ because you really identify with students whose applications you’ve read.”

Following committee rounds, there is a 10-day period during which Guttentag “sculpts” the incoming class, changing some of the decisions made in earlier steps of the process. Admissions officers re-evaluate certain applications and then send a subset to Guttentag for reconsideration.

Many of these alterations are made based on a complex mathematical analysis, accounting for expectations in class size and yield, Provost Peter Lange said.

For instance, Guttentag said Duke initially over-admitted applicants into Pratt School of Engineering this year but under-admitted applicants into the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Guttentag said he consequently changed the admissions decisions for 500 to 1,000 applicants.

A strain on the process

Although this year’s record-low acceptance rate of 14.8 percent makes a Duke degree all the more enviable, it also underscores the stress a large number of applicants places on the University’s 20-year old admissions model.  

With 6,000 more students applying since 2008, Guttentag said Duke has experienced a larger increase in applications in the last two years than it had in the previous 10.

“It’s an incredible workload,” he said. “Over two years we have had a 30 percent increase in applications with no additional staff.”

In previous years, the largest regions comprised 1300 applicants, Guttentag said. This year, typical regions had between 1400 and 1800.

Because of the sheer volume of applicants that needed two readers this year, Guttentag said he delayed the start of committee rounds by a week.

Logistically, the high number of applicants also restricted the number of individuals who were discussed during committee. In 2006, Guttentag estimated that the top 5 percent and the bottom third of the applicant pool were sent to him to be either automatically admitted or automatically denied, respectively.

This year, admissions officers collectively recommended that more than half of the applicants be denied without review in committee, Guttentag said. He added that admissions officers only recommended that 500 to 700 applicants be automatically accepted.

“I’m not happy with the pressure there was this year with the number of students we could talk about in admissions committee,” he said. “When I arrived 18 years ago, I think we talked about every applicant.”

This year’s larger pool also made the decisions at every point in the admissions process less certain, but also allowed admissions officers to revisit their decisions multiple times, Guttentag said.

“So is there something to fix? I think we’ve made excellent decisions this year,” he said. “But it was through a process that was designed for a much smaller number of applicants. It was a different model.”

This summer, in a meeting where deans of undergraduate admissions at selective universities convene, Guttentag said he hopes to discuss the decades-old admissions model in light of today’s highly competitive applicant pool.

Click here to continue reading ADMISSIONS IN DEPTH PART 2: Duke balances competing goals in admissions


This story is the first of a three-part series that will explore different facets of the admissions process. • Part 2 will examine how different goals the University sets for itself influence the admissions process. • Part 3 will examine how the University’s aim to achieve socioeconomic diversity manifests itself in the admissions process and in the composition of the student body. 


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