When 2,014 high school seniors opened their admissions decisions on April 5, they found an exciting message of congratulations, signed “Sincerely, Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions.”
Duke saw a record number of applications during the 2020-21 admissions cycle, increasing from 35,478 last year to 44,481 this year. In the midst of this surge and the COVID-19 pandemic, the University’s undergraduate admissions team grappled with the challenge of thoroughly reviewing each candidate’s application.
With the hard work of the admissions office, Cristoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions and the regional admissions officer for Manhattan, was able to ensure a successful round of Regular Decision applications and find the positives in what often felt like an overwhelming amount of changes.
A new way of working
Although Guttentag said he does not believe that any of his staff tested positive for COVID-19, there were still pandemic-related disruptions as they made admissions decisions.
After many years of in-person application readings, committee meetings shifted to Zoom. However, because the committees were generally small, Guttentag said that people felt the virtual meetings worked well for the most part and the process of making decisions was “fairly unaffected.” The meeting roles, such as the person chairing or person presenting, remained the same, and everyone was able to look at the applications at the same time since they were online.
“I feel like most people felt that very little was lost due to an online process,” Guttentag said, noting that his staff “felt like they had the opportunity to participate.”
According to Guttentag, selection committee meetings typically lasted from about 9 a.m. to anywhere from 3 to 6 p.m. In order to limit the effects of fatigue from nine hours of work, staff members were encouraged to take a “hard stop” at 6 p.m. as well as hourly breaks.
Despite the increased stress, Guttentag said that the admissions officers stepped up without complaint and with “incredible” work ethics.
“This process is so much a testament to the professionalism of the staff,” Guttentag said. “They really felt a responsibility to the applicants involved, the University and their colleagues.”
One of those who stepped up is Nikki Baskin, senior assistant director of admissions and the regional admissions officer for Africa and India. She leads training sessions for officers and seasonal part-time readers, which this year included education on what the pandemic and community disruptions meant for the applicants.
Baskin said she maintained an effective schedule for managing her applications: she woke up, showered and was at her computer by 7 a.m. to begin reading. Beginning this way gave her a sense of accomplishment to start the day, she said. Then she drank coffee, returned emails, read more applications and ended her work day at 5 p.m. If she had energy after dinner, she would read more applications. If she was tired, she would work on another task, like a presentation, as she admitted she wasn’t effective at reviewing applications once she was tired.
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Baskin said she never set timers for applications, as “there is so much texture in applicants” and “so much to learn, read, and understand,” especially this year. She said that some applications take longer to parse through than others, so the amount of applications she read per day varied anywhere from 10 to 25.
Guttentag said that although they expected the Regular Decision numbers to be high after the increased Early Decision numbers, they did not expect the difference to be “completely off the charts.”
“You don't realize it until almost the moment that it happens,” Guttentag said. “So many students wait until the last week to apply, sometimes literally the last day. You really don't anticipate [the high number of applications] until they've all been essentially dropped on your doorstep.”
Baskin said that reading one application at a time helps prevent admissions officers from feeling stressed due to the large volume of applications. She said one way she dealt with stress was by working from different rooms in her house, including her office, living room and porch.
Baskin also made sure to spend her time away from applications doing activities that she enjoys, including cooking, watching HGTV and completing jigsaw puzzles. One of the most vital sources of joy has been her pug, Pippa, who she loves and said has saved her throughout her work.
“It's no secret, Duke employees love their pets,” Baskin said. “Yesterday, we were in a staff meeting, and we saw a pet rabbit and other little dogs and cats. Meetings like those connect people in a different way, because we literally have a view inside someone's home and can ask ‘How are you doing?’”
In between the business of planning meetings and reading applications, Guttentag also found ways to reduce stress, including cooking with his wife, exercising and solving New York Times crossword puzzles.
“Fridays and Saturdays are still beyond me, but I have a reasonable expectation that I can solve Monday through Wednesday,” Guttentag said of the puzzles. “A bunch of the time I can solve Thursday, and some of the time I can solve Sunday.”
Maturing through a pandemic
One key difference in this year’s admissions process was the test-optional aspect of the application. With 44% of students not submitting SAT or ACT scores, the admissions office needed to ensure equality of both types of applications. To avoid favoring one over the other, test results did not play a factor in the application evaluation, which normally includes standardized test scores as one of its six rated components.
“Even if somebody submitted test scores, we saw the score, but they didn't get a rating,” Guttentag said. “We felt like what was important was to look at everybody using the same rubric.”
Guttentag said he is looking forward to the “robust number” of students that will be on campus next fall who did not submit standardized testing scores. He said that having those students as part of the campus community will allow admissions to learn a lot about how useful these scores actually are in determining academic potential.
Many of the applicants’ last two academic years were disrupted by the pandemic, which resulted in online classes and canceled extracurricular activities. Many also faced the death of a relative or the loss of a job. Guttentag said that many students used their essays to describe the adversity they experienced and their response to it, which in turn reflected their values and what mattered to them.
“The qualities we were looking for were resilience, initiative, making an impact, being kind, having a sense of community,” Guttentag said. “The normal places where we might see that weren’t there, so we had to think carefully about how those things might manifest themselves.”
Whether it was helping their families, tutoring or volunteering, Guttentag said that the degree to which students found ways to overcome difficulty and help other people was impressive. He believes that the Class of 2025 has the potential to be a very “mature class,” as “they’ve all been through a lot.” Approximately 10% of the entering class was admitted to Duke a year ago but opted to take a gap year.
The record-low acceptance rate was required to meet Duke’s desired class size, and Guttentag said that it was difficult to turn away many impressive students, especially when thinking about how they might feel upon reading their decisions. However, because these applicants were such bright students, he is confident they will all have good choices of colleges to attend.
The admissions team learned some lessons for the future, Guttentag said. One lesson was reviewing applications in light of the different circumstances students face. Guttentag said the pandemic has made inequities more evident.
“It's always been an important part of our evaluation process that we look at students within their particular context and that we don't assume that everybody's coming from the same set of opportunities,” Guttentag said.
He said that the admissions team also learned that they are able to adapt well. Just because some things have been done in a certain way doesn’t mean they have to continue that way, he said, giving the example of adjusting the dates for releasing decisions and accepting offers of admission.
Though the admissions team was able to carry out the application evaluation process from home, they still missed the community that comes from working together in person.
Baskin said that because her office is in the corner where information sessions are held, she normally overhears prospective families as they walk back to the parking lot raving about the kindness and intelligence of the students and the beauty of the campus. She misses that experience while being virtual, as well as seeing her colleagues and running into students she knows on campus.
“When we get back to the office at 2138 Campus Drive and we get to see each other, it's just going to be so much fun, and I think we're going to really appreciate each other more,” Baskin said. “I think we're going to really savor the conversations that we have and stopping in each other's offices, sharing lunch together—those things that we used to really enjoy doing.”