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New book spotlights Emory’s admission process

Emory is one of three institutions featured in “Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” a new book by higher education reporter Jeffrey Selingo.

To bring critical first-person perspective to his book “Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” higher education reporter Jeffrey Selingo hoped to embed with the admission offices of a selective private university, a leading liberal arts college and a flagship public campus. 

Some two dozen institutions rejected his requests. But Emory said yes, joined by Davidson College and the University of Washington.

John Latting, Emory’s dean of admission, is unequivocal about why the university came onboard. “Selingo put his finger on a problem in higher education, that college admission can be a black box. We are proud of our process and always strive to be guided by transparency, fairness and honesty,” Latting says. 

“As a leading institution, Emory is committed to setting the right example, which is openness during the admission process coupled with the highest support of our students while they are here and after they leave.”

Selingo chose three entry points in the application-review process: at University of Washington, he got involved as staff were trained to read admission files; at Davidson College, he watched counselors debate early decision candidates; and at Emory, he joined in March 2019 as five regional committees reduced the number of applications that had been conditionally accepted for remaining seats in the first-year class.

Mark Butt, Emory’s director of undergraduate selection, applauds Selingo’s efforts, recognizing that “threading the institutions together takes skill,” but notes that understanding the broader context at each site is critical. “Selingo was present on certain days and narrowly focused on selection,” Butt explains. “He was not witness to the rigorous process of moving some 30,000 applications through our system between fall and spring.”

In-depth application reviews

At Emory, students can choose from four admission plans: Early Decision I, Early Decision II, Regular Decision and Fall Transfer. As Selingo notes, the number of students applying to Emory has been on the rise. In just four years, the university advanced from receiving 20,000 undergraduate applications a year to 30,000.

From start to finish, what does the undergraduate admission process look like and what values undergird it? It’s a conversation Emory’s counselors relish having, one that is carried out in full view on the Inside Emory Admission blog.

Long before COVID-19, the university held to a process of stringent yearly review of, and improvement to, its admission process. “We make appropriate changes on an ongoing basis,” says Latting. “When the pandemic hit, we had the fundamentals right. We are stress-tested.”

In 2016, Latting brought his team together to make a significant change: moving to committee-based evaluation. The benefit to applicants is increased fairness; this method expands the conversation about them and decreases any evaluation variables across admission staff.

From the beginning of “reading season” each fall, two to three admission officers review each application. They share territory expertise based on the belief that over time admission officers develop a keen sense of what academic excellence looks like in particular high schools, states and regions. 

“There is nothing more personal than walking into a school,” says Giselle F. Martin, director of recruitment and talent. “Our counselors do that month after month. It is like going into someone’s home, into their community.”

This summer, the admission staff invited researchers in to help them understand the challenges of working remotely for students in rural settings. That’s an outcome of the pandemic, but this sensitivity to variation across different parts of the United States, and indeed the world, always has been the case. Observes Butt, “Our job is to understand what is happening in particular schools and communities, and our staff has the excellence and experience to navigate that.”

High school seniors who apply to Emory University may select whether they want to apply to Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Oxford College or both. The Atlanta campus is home to Emory College, plus Emory’s graduate and professional schools. Oxford College, located 38 miles east of Atlanta on Emory’s original campus, offers a close-knit community solely for first- and second-year students, who transition to the Atlanta campus to complete their undergraduate degrees. 

At “second read,” as many as seven officers from Emory College and Oxford College come together. Once all applications for a given admission plan have been reviewed, the evaluators split into new groups and work on finalizing selection through committee again. This is where “shaping” occurs, which takes into account the fit of each admitted student.

Whereas initial reviews follow the regional model, the final committees can be formed around any number of specific goals and attributes wanted in the class. This final stage of the cycle is an important inflection point when, says Latting, “it is not about the sum of the individuals; rather, we are actively, thoughtfully building a class.”

The emotion inherent in this work comes out in the first scene of Selingo’s book, where he writes: “The three admissions officers huddled in a windowless conference room are on a mission. Ahead of them awaits probably the most unpleasant part of their jobs: dashing the dreams of 242 applicants to Emory University’s prospective Class of 2023 before official acceptance goes out in just a few weeks.”

Several times, Selingo remarks on the rapidity of the admission staff’s decisions. Latting stresses the need to have perspective, saying, “When staff gather at that point, you almost don’t need to say things out loud. There are analogs in other professions, the arts or athletics, for this level of teamwork. What might seem a boiling down to simple things is instead the opposite — the result of years of training and experience and a lot of prior work on that very file.”

Who gets in (at Emory) and why?

A student in the college-search process can expect to hear a lot about the concept of “holistic admission.” Although many schools subscribe to this approach, it nonetheless means different things at different places.

At Emory, holistic admission involves seeing beyond the application to the person behind it, recognizing that students are products of their environments and experiences — not just members of a high school but, as important, citizens and people. 

As to how applicants are evaluated, Latting likes to use the word “decoding.” The transcript, because it takes four years to create, is the highest-value document that students share. Counselor and teacher recommendations, student essays and time spent outside the classroom are relevant as well because they attest to the higher bar Emory seeks — namely, that students demonstrate a love of learning inside and outside the classroom. 

Latting urges the staff to push beyond “academic horsepower” to an awareness of engagement: how students demonstrate care for others and delve deeply into causes and pursuits that inspire them. “We are special,” he notes, “in the lengths we are willing to go to seek out these things about our applicants.”

Standardized tests as well as subject tests and Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate scores also shed light. But with disruptions to testing due to COVID-19, Emory suspended ACT/SAT requirements for first-year applicants for the 2020-2021 academic year.

For Latting and team, success is creating a diverse class across as many measures as possible, remaining true to Emory’s values and honoring the aspirations of gifted applicants by bringing them to a place where they can thrive.

One recent measure of Emory’s diversity is its presence on the Gilman Top Producers list for 2018–2019. The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program diversifies study abroad by providing scholarships to outstanding undergraduates who, owing to financial constraints, might not otherwise participate.

“I get so excited about a student who hasn’t had all the advantages but has all the potential and talent,” Latting says. “We are the best place in the world for a student like that.”

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