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Would I have been accepted?

The other day, I was shocked—shocked!—to read that Duke’s undergraduate admissions rate had fallen to 12.6 percent. Granted, undergraduate admissions hadn’t been a priority of mine since April 2003, but I seemed to remember that it was easier to get into Duke back in the day.

As it turned out, I was right. When I was admitted to Duke, as a member of the Class of 2007, 22.5 percent of applications for admission were successful.

This realization led to some serious questions: Who are these geniuses that can get into a school with an admissions rate of 12.6 percent? Are they smarter than me? Are they better than me? Were they created out of spare parts with mutant half-computer, half-human brains by an evil scientist deep in the bowels of University of Ingolstadt? Most importantly, if I applied to Duke today, would I have gotten in?

Racked with newfound self-doubt, I went to see Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, to see if he had any answers that would make me feel better.

I asked if the 18-year-old version of me would have gotten into Duke had he applied this year.

Unfortunately, Guttentag told me, my original admissions file was no longer available, since I was no longer an active undergrad; otherwise, we could have pulled my file out and compared it to this year’s admitted students. (The fact that I typed my application on an actual typewriter—seriously—could not have helped its shelf-life.)

Anyway, he continued, the easy answer is, “Yes, of course you would’ve gotten in.” He cited the fact that I had been admitted to Duke’s medical school as evidence that I had obviously been successful and should have been admitted. But I wasn’t interested in knowing with the benefit of hindsight whether I should have been admitted; I wanted to know if I would have been admitted.

This was a more complex question, though apparently one that Guttentag gets asked every five years by self-doubting alumni like me. He tells them that if they applied now with the same credentials they applied with when they got in five, 10 or 15 years ago, then there’s no way they would be admitted. “The older we get,” he says, “the more we look at these applicants and realize they are nothing like we were when we were in high school.” But, he adds, students applying now have opportunities that those applying years ago did not have—opportunities like more advanced placement and other advanced courses and summer science lab projects.

Basically, the kid that gets into Duke now is the same type of kid that got in a decade ago—same intelligence, same enthusiasm, same engagement—only these kids are more prepared and accomplished. Guttentag says that the new kids aren’t smarter, they just bring more appealing qualities to the table. They’re the more highly evolved version of the 18-year-old me.

But this seems just a little too simple. An admissions percentage has a numerator—the kids who get in—and a denominator—the kids who apply. Maybe the kids making up the numerator are largely the same, but the denominator is bigger. In 2003, I applied along with 16,704 other high school seniors for a spot at Duke; this year, there were nearly 30,000 applications.

For a variety of reasons—demographics, renewed appreciation of the importance of a Duke degree in an uncertain economy, the fact that students apply to more schools than ever before, the national media’s reporting on Duke’s initiatives to increase affordability and access, the Common Application—competitive colleges like Duke are receiving nearly twice as many applications as they received eight years ago. And having so many qualified applicants, Guttentag says, means that “we’re going to make a lot of great students and families unhappy.”

So would I have been one of the great but unhappy students?

“The real answer,” Guttentag said, “is that, if the qualities that you demonstrated as an applicant almost 10 years ago were applied to the opportunities our applicants now have, I expect that you would be similarly competitive.”

Competitive, yes. But would I have gotten the thick envelope or the thin envelope?

“We make admissions decisions on the basis of how someone appears in the context of that applicant pool that year,” Guttentag said. “When the pool changes quickly, it is entirely possible that students admitted one year are not admitted in another.... People now are approaching applying to Duke with a real sense that nothing is certain.”

So there’s the answer: If I had been born eight years later, I might have gotten in, but I also might not have gotten in.

Not as reassuring as I had hoped.

Alex Fanaroff is a fourth-year medical student. His column runs every Wednesday.

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