Duke balances competing goals in admissions

To Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag, there are ultimately two factors that determine the size of the envelope an applicant receives: what Duke can do for the individual and what the individual can do for Duke.

With the luxury of highly competitive applicant pools, Duke and other selective institutions do not only consider merit in the traditional sense when making admissions decisions. Instead, they also practice “institutional engineering”—admitting students to fulfill other university goals.

“If things matter to the University, we would not be doing our job if we didn’t take that into account,” Guttentag said.

Several factors can give an applicant an edge in the admissions process: race, athletic and legacy status, residence in North Carolina and a special talent in music or the arts are among them, Guttentag said. Preference is also given to first-generation college students as well as to applicants coming from “families that have already been generous to Duke.”

For a school of Duke’s size and caliber, about 40 to 50 percent of the student body is likely to be some sort of “special applicant,” said Don Betterton, former director of financial aid and a former admissions committee member at Princeton University.

Yet what makes a special applicant is in constant flux.

“These are dynamic tensions within any institution,” said Steve Goodman, Trinity ’85 and an educational consultant and admissions strategist. “Which is why admissions is more of an art than a science because it’s hard to nail this specifically. In one given year, the football coach has more sway than the soccer coach, and the alumni folks have more sway than someone else. It depends on the people who are applying that year.”

Shifting priorities

Indeed, some highly controversial institutional priorities have diminished in importance over the years. Although a few still exist, the number of development cases—students from families that have donated significantly to Duke or have the potential to do so—has dropped in the last 20 years, Guttentag said.

Part of the reason Duke admitted so many development cases in the 1980s was because it was going through a phase of “outrageous ambitions”—in the words of former president Terry Sanford—seeking to transform itself into an internationally-renowned university. In addition, Guttentag said the Office of Undergraduate Admissions did not have its current level of autonomy during that time period.

Departmental lobbying

Nevertheless, there are several University departments that currently advocate on behalf of certain special applicants. Individuals from these departments identify the “strongest” applicants in their respective categories and then relay these choices to an admissions officer. Some of these priorities have remained constant for decades.

Because the University prides itself on a strong athletics program, there has been a long-established relationship between the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Department of Athletics.

The admissions process for athletes is year-round. Guttentag said he handles football and basketball, and two other associate admissions directors split the remaining 21 sports.

Initially, coaches assemble a list of athletes they would like to recruit along with those students’ academic information, such as grades and SAT scores, and present this list to an admissions officer, Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Kennedy said. The admissions officers then let coaches know whether they should recruit a given athlete, with an understanding that “recruit” does not guarantee acceptance, Guttentag said.

“There is no commitment to admit until the application is in,” Guttentag said. “Eight times out of 10, once we’ve given the green light that it’s OK to recruit, typically that student is going to be totally fine and we’ll be able to admit…. [But] we could find out that someone who looked fine academically is personally problematic or that someone who is applying junior year is suddenly taking lousy courses in their senior year.”

As the University continues to work to build itself as an elite institution, Guttentag also personally works with the Office of University Development and the Office of Alumni Affairs. Sterly Wilder, associate vice president for alumni affairs, wrote in an e-mail that representatives from the OAA make a case for all legacy applicants and “want to make sure that the admissions office is aware of our most active and committed alumni.”

She added that participating in alumni events, advising and mentoring current undergraduates and interviewing admissions applicants are considerations aside from financial donations that determine whether an alumnus is active.

Although Wilder declined to comment on how top legacy applicants are determined, unofficial observations are just as important as official designations, Goodman said.

“It would be hard to ignore a person who gave $100 million to Duke,” he said. “That’s different from the family who gave $50.”

Other institutional priorities have only recently become prominent factors in admissions. Reflecting Duke’s recent push to strengthen the arts, artistic talent is now given special attention in the admissions process.

Since about five years ago, faculty from five different art departments have assessed artistic submissions from applicants and rated them on a five-point scale, said Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth. Each department then compiles a list of the top 25 to 50 applicants in each program.

“Those are the ones most highly prioritized by the department,” Lindroth said. “These are students who have displayed remarkable ability in the arts, and we ask the [Office of Undergraduate Admissions] to take those into account as much as they can.”

From process to practice

Not all special applicants have departments advocating on their behalf. Still, some of those priorities are given equal or more weight in the admissions process. Race is a prime example.

Guttentag said that although there is no specific department officially lobbying for underrepresented minorities, these applicants still receive significant consideration.

Using the academic profile universities report for the 25th to 75th percentile of the student body, the extent to which certain factors are given preference can be visualized, said Betterton, who also works as an independent college counselor. When looking at the academic profile alone, underrepresented minority applicants should compare themselves to the 25th to 50th percentile of the current student body to gauge their chance at admission, and legacy and early decision applicants should measure themselves against the 40th to 50th percentile.

Regular applicants with no special tags should compare themselves to the top 75th percentile of enrolled students, he added.

The Deciding Factor

Even though it has to accommodate competing University interests, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has the final say in who gets admitted.

Guttentag said that if he believes an applicant cannot succeed at Duke, he does not admit that person under any circumstances.

“[Guttentag] really understands how to walk the line between helping us be competitive and admitting people who can do the work and graduate,” Kennedy said. “We understand how the pressure comes to bear on him.... I don’t think anyone on campus has a harder job.”

Following admissions committee rounds, Guttentag said he reviews all of the “least clear” applications, making the final admissions decision. These are applicants who would have been denied had they not possessed a significant special factor.

Throughout his time at Duke, Guttentag said he has disappointed every department.

“My job is the equitable distribution of unhappiness,” he said. “The more people I disappoint, the better job I am considered to be doing.”


This story is the second of a three-part series that will explore different facets of the admissions process. • Part 1 examined how the University's undergraduate admissions process functions. • Part 3 will look at 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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