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FERPA request gives inside look at Duke admissions process

With admissions decisions for the Class of 2019 just around the corner, a look at a Duke admissions file shows an attempt to summarize applicants efficiently while still evaluating them holistically.

This reporter, a sophomore, recently submitted a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act request for his admissions records. FERPA—a federal law—allows students to review their personal records held by the University. The documents turned over by the registrar’s office as a result of the request included an annotated copy of this reporter’s application, a cover page summarizing the application and a data form containing information about the application and about this reporter. Internal scores and ratings used by the admissions office were included in the application summary. Although the registrar’s office let this reporter review his records in accordance with FERPA, it did not give copies of the records.

“Each application is summarized differently,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag wrote in an email Thursday. “What makes one application compelling is different from what makes another compelling.”

At the top of the cover page were ratings of the application by Senior Admissions Officer Elizabeth Harlow and Robert Everhart, a member of the applications reading staff who does not work in the admissions office. Although the admissions office employs about 20 admissions officers, the office hires additional part-time readers during application season, Guttentag said.

"We pay the greatest amount of attention to the grades received in academic courses, and to the rigor of a student’s curriculum, but we don’t ignore any grades." —Christoph Guttentag

Six components of the application—high school curriculum, academics, recommendations, essays, extracurriculars and test scores—were rated on a scale of one to five by each reader. The sum of the readers' ratings was also noted on the cover page.

Guttentag said that the scores did not directly determine the outcome of any student’s application.

“Scores are suggestive but not determinative,” he wrote. “They help us get a general sense of an applicant’s strengths, but they do not determine the decision. There is no threshold that determines a decision.”

In a December interview with Forbes, Guttentag said that roughly half of applicants are determined to be uncompetitive after an initial reading of their application, before the application is given to two admissions readers to evaluate.

“[A regional admissions officer] will make a preliminary assessment about whether that candidate is a competitive candidate or not,” Guttentag told Forbes. “It’s a way of making the workload manageable. Of the half the applicants that are competitive, they then get two full reads, one by a member of our reading staff and one by an admissions officer.”

In addition to rating an application, the admissions readers also each write short summaries of the entire application. These one-paragraph summaries attempt to briefly cover the entire application, from essays to academics to extracurriculars to test scores.

In the written summaries of this reporter's application, one reader noted that he was good at “inciting high level dialogue,” while the other said that this reporter’s extracurricular activities were “not unusually deep.”

The cover page also contained information about applicant test scores and classes. In particular, the number of “solid” classes taken by the applicant was noted on the page. Guttentag said that the admissions office refers to academic courses as “solids” to distinguish them from subjects like physical education or art.

“We pay the greatest amount of attention to the grades received in academic courses, and to the rigor of a student’s curriculum, but we don’t ignore any grades,” Guttentag explained.

After the cover page, the documents provided by the registrar’s office included a copy of this reporter’s application with highlights by readers in certain sections. There was also a data form several pages long which contained information such as test scores, potential major interest, and applicant classification information. The form had spaces to note the types of activities that the applicant might have participated in as well as different backgrounds—such as first-generation college, first-generation immigrant, “economic diversity,” “adversity” or LGBTQ orientation—that might describe the applicant.

“The application isn’t an autobiography, so students have to make some really careful choices about how they present themselves."—Ari Worthman

Although the purpose of each classification in the data form was not always clear, there were no obvious mentions of applicant legacy status.

Ari Worthman, this reporter's college counselor and director of college counseling at Lakeside School in Seattle, noted that Duke’s admissions file is fairly standard for college admissions offices.

“The written comments about each application are more extensive than what we did when I worked at Haverford 10 years ago,” he said.

At the invitation of the admissions office, Worthman has observed a day of admissions committee deliberations at Duke. Although much of the session was covered by a confidentiality agreement, he said that committee sessions went deeper into each applicant than the admissions file appears to.

“I was actually really wowed by how, despite the volume of applications, they got to know each applicant,” he explained. “If they had a lower grade, they asked, ‘Why did that lower grade occur? What was the story behind it?’”

Worthman noted that the condensing of an application during the admissions process does require applicants to make sure they stand out to colleges and emphasize the aspects of their lives which colleges are looking for. He compared an admissions application to a job application, which should articulate why a candidate is a good fit for a position.

“The application isn’t an autobiography, so students have to make some really careful choices about how they present themselves,” Worthman explained. “Students have to think about their many experiences and, by selecting one or two of them, succinctly articulate why these stories are meaningful and what they suggest the student would add to campus.”

Guttentag emphasized that there is no one set of characteristics which admissions officers are looking for during the admissions process. He noted that this is not necessarily widely understood outside of the admissions office.

“There is no set priority of importance among factors, and each application is considered within the specific context of that individual and the context of the applicant pool as a whole,” he wrote. “People think that there’s a formula that that determines the decision and there just isn’t one. Each decision is always made individually.”

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