The Decision

The Decision

With more than 4,000 applicants for 490 spots, Colby's Admissions Office finds a way to decide who gets in

By Alicia Nemiccolo MacLeay '97 | Photos by Fred Field

Colby looks for students who will come and be involved in the community, says Steve Thomas, director of admissions, who oversees the approximately 1,000 international applications Colby receives each year (see sidebar on p.17). Given the choice between the 1500-SAT international student who's been an active volunteer and the 1600-SAT "bookworm," Thomas would and does choose the student who's been involved in the community. "There's nothing wrong with that person," said Thomas of the solely academic applicant. "But are they going to be able to lend part of their culture into the culture here and vice versa? Occasionally you get the whole deal, but that's pretty rare."

Accomplishments and activities outside the classroom are carefully rated, too. "It's not a personality thing," said Beverage. "We all have biases, but we try to put them aside to see what the student has accomplished." A student who rates a 1 for non-academic involvements is not only outstanding but the rare exception, perhaps an Appalachian Trail through-hiker or published author. A 5, at the other end of the scale, has few activities or interests. In the middle is the non-academic 3 student with above average extracurricular activities.

#schoolmove932#left#300#While a small amount of subjectivity inevitably creeps into the evaluation process, Beverage and his staff try to look at quantifiable evidence, like awards and transcripts, when judging applicants. If an applicant had to work 20 hours a week to help support his family "you'll factor that character, that grit, into the decision, but you can't be overly subjective," said Beverage. A student's multicultural background or legacy status (if they've had relatives attend Colby) also is considered.

At the beginning of each reading season all of the admissions readers review four or five applications together for practice to be sure their academic and non-academic ratings are close. "So one person doesn't give an application a one and another a four for the same student," said Beverage.

While many applications are obvious admits or denies, what about all of the perfectly capable applicants,student body presidents, honors students and varsity captains,who fall in the middle? With each reader spending just a half hour to decide whether to recommend admission to Colby, how can an applicant make himself or herself stand out?

A host of college guidebooks claim to have insider's knowledge and trade secrets, but "there really aren't any tricks or formulas that work," said Erik Bertelsen, associate dean of admissions and financial aid, who worked as a high school guidance counselor for 20 years. "A lot of kids are over-packaged. That doesn't work. Be yourself."

That doesn't mean a student can't be unique. Montgomery remembers an application from his first year in admissions when a student's optional picture of himself (usually a family photo or yearbook photo) was of the applicant, as a child, holding a large octopus in his outstretched arms, grinning like he'd won the lottery. The applicant's essay explained that his father was an octopus expert and that the applicant was interested in marine biology. "It was so unique and interesting that I remember it years later," said Montgomery. That student, by the way, was admitted.

So, short of an octopus, what are admissions officers looking for? Passion, they say. Passion for academics, passion for extracurricular activities and passion for Colby. There is no guaranteed script, and a writing style that works for one student might not ring true for another. "I think, for the student who writes the essay from the heart, you can just tell," said Becky Downing '01, assistant director of admissions and financial aid. "Be yourself. Be yourself. Be yourself. That's what we always say in information sessions. At the same time kids are reading all these books about 'the essay that got me into Harvard.'"

While the essay is important, it is only one part of the entire package that liberal arts colleges like Colby look at. If an applicant has a polished essay and the reasons for applying (known as the "Why Colby") response is poorly written, red flags go up, says Judy Brody '58, associate dean of admissions and financial aid. "I always tells kids, 'remember, everything you write is going into your folder.'"

Technology has made putting that application folder together more convenient, allowing students to submit applications online, edit essays more easily and check spelling. It also can lead to costly goofs. Tales abound of Colby essays that begin "Because of your location in rural Vermont . . ." or conclude "I can't wait for the chance to set foot on campus and become a Bowdoin student in the fall."

"We're not so naïve as to think no one's applying to any other schools," said Beverage. "But it's a mistake they make that they shouldn't make."