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Making the grade: Inside the college admissions process

The case before the admissions panel holed up in a small room at Lehigh University was complex. The applicant had scored 1300 on the verbal and math portions of the SAT, on the low end for the highly selective, private research university in Bethlehem. He had taken only one of the 14 advanced placement courses offered at his high school in New England - not as rigorous of a schedule as Lehigh likes to see. And though he had a strong grade-point average, he received a couple of C's.

Bruce Bunnick (center), director of admissions at Lehigh University, counts the votes of the admission committee as it decides on a student's application. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Bruce Bunnick (center), director of admissions at Lehigh University, counts the votes of the admission committee as it decides on a student's application. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

The case before the admissions panel holed up in a small room at Lehigh University was complex.

The applicant had scored 1300 on the verbal and math portions of the SAT, on the low end for the highly selective, private research university in Bethlehem. He had taken only one of the 14 advanced placement courses offered at his high school in New England - not as rigorous of a schedule as Lehigh likes to see. And though he had a strong grade-point average, he received a couple of C's.

"This is where it gets rough," admissions staffer Neil F. Gogno told his 16 colleagues, while a summary of the applicant projected on a screen.

The teen, Gogno said, was a victim of a hazing incident, the details of which drew gasps from those in the room.

"Oh my God," one of the staffers said. The room momentarily fell silent.

The teen's application was one of about 100 the committee considered that late February day - crunch time in college admissions. Lehigh received more than 12,560 applications, and staff agreed on the fate of the vast majority on first read. It's the cases in dispute that come before the team where they are reviewed and voted on. Simple majority rules.

Deciding cases on the bubble is an age-old part of the process, one playing out on campuses across the nation as colleges craft their incoming freshman classes for fall 2013. Most colleges will have announced admission decisions by Monday.

During the last month, on two occasions, The Inquirer has spent a total of about eight hours in the room with Lehigh staff members as they made sometimes difficult and agonizing decisions. It was a window into a highly competitive, emotionally charged process, often kept secret. The Inquirer agreed not to identify applicants.

From their candid conversations, several things became clear:

Getting bad grades in senior year, even with a stellar record previously and sky-high SATs, could sabotage a student.

A student with a perfect SAT score could find himself on the bubble if he hasn't visited campus or shown other real interest.

Having a parent, grandparent, or sibling who attended Lehigh - known as a legacy - can help, but it's no guarantee of admission.

The student's high school can have a major influence on admission chances, depending on the rigor of the curriculum and whether a student took the intensive courses.

With so much competition, students must distinguish themselves, whether it's in the essay, in the interview with a staffer, or through an entrepreneurial activity.

Sometimes pure geography plays a role.

At Lehigh, the 15-member admissions team is a vibrant bunch: About half are age 30 or under, and that's by design, according to J. Leon Washington, dean of admissions and financial aid, because they relate exceptionally well with high school students. But the staff also includes several seasoned members, including Washington, who has more than 40 years in the business, and Bruce Bunnick, director of admissions, a veteran of more than 20 years. Six have received one or more degrees from Lehigh. Each is responsible for certain regions of the state, the country, and the world, as Lehigh over the last decade has extended its reach in becoming a national university.

Admission officers spent last fall fanning out across their geographic area, meeting with prospective applicants and their families. Since November, they have been reviewing the just over 1,000 applications that came in for early decision, a process in which a student applies only to Lehigh and promises to attend if admitted. More than half of early-decision applicants were accepted for the incoming freshman class, targeted at 1,200. That left about 680 open spots for regular-decision applicants.

Lehigh accepts 25 to 29 percent of applicants, making it much more selective than the national average of about 64 percent at four-year, nonprofit colleges.

The table was filled with water and soda bottles and an array of snacks, as the team prepared to tackle some of the toughest decisions of the season.

"We're here at this venue to make a decision one way or another," Washington said.

School performance

Wait-list the valedictorian?

The Montgomery County teen had won over the staff. He was strong by all measures, including a 1540 out of a possible 1600 on his math and reading SAT. But on a recent report card, he got two C's and a D with no real explanation.

"Oh boy, cats and dogs!" Washington said.

That applicant wasn't the only one to see his preliminary offer turn to a rejection. Another fell off after getting an F on a midyear calculus exam.

High school performance is one of the most important factors in the eyes of the admissions staff because it has proven a clear indicator of potential success at Lehigh.

"We tell students out on the road, 'You cannot coast in your senior year,' " Washington said.

Outstanding performance conversely can help a student overcome other problems.

The team debated the case of a student with an SAT of 1220 but who had the distinction of being class valedictorian.

When the committee appeared to be wavering, one member cautioned: "I just want to be mindful of the message we're sending if we wait-list the valedictorian." It would leave other students at the school with no hope.

The team unanimously agreed to admit the student. Washington was pleased he didn't have to raise the issue: "I've got good people around the table."


A question of balance

The applicant from Colorado scored a decent 640 on his math SAT, but 460 on reading. Collectively, he got an 1100, well below Lehigh's profile. Typical scores for Lehigh range between the low 1300s to mid-1400s on reading and math. (Lehigh doesn't consider the writing SAT.)

But there are exceptions on both ends.

"A kid who is doing everything he or she can in the high school, but just doesn't test well, we'd take the kid," Washington said.

In contrast, very high SAT scores are no guarantee of admission.

An applicant from Schuylkill County with a 1600 and otherwise stellar record had one flaw - he never visited Lehigh. Students who visit often end up enrolling. Those who don't rarely do, Washington said.

The university would rather give that spot to someone who genuinely seems interested, which also has the potential to raise the "yield" - the percentage of students offered admission who enroll. For Lehigh, that percentage is typically 33 percent, compared with 38 percent nationally.

The staff offered admission to the 1600 student, but some others with similar scores were cut.

Jessica DeSantis, associate director, advocated for the student with the 460.

"He does fine in his English courses and his writing is good," she said.

The teen had a 3.95 GPA. He's a legacy; his grandfather attended. And he started his own business. He purchases sweatshirts, cuts them up, and sews differently colored pieces together. He sells 10 to 20 of the sweatshirts per month, cutting and sewing on his own.

"The question is," DeSantis said, "do we let the critical reading decide this or do we let the other aspects counterbalance it?"

Staff voted 10-2 to admit, with three to wait-list.

High school rigor

'Double-edged sword'

The applicant was from a Connecticut high school the committee knew well. The student struggled gradewise even though she took hardly any rigorous courses. Yet, she had more than 1500 on her SAT.

"She could have a 1600 for all I care," said Majed Dergham, director of diversity recruitment. "That rigor . . ., I can't believe we're even considering it."

In addition to the high school transcript, rigor is the other strong predictor of a student's success at Lehigh, Washington said.

A school with a rigorous curriculum can prove a "double-edged sword" if students fail to take the advanced coursework.

"It leaves an admissions office, particularly a selective admissions office, wondering why did they not get involved in that more intense curriculum," Bunnick said.

New Jersey students face a particularly fierce competition because they have great schools, Washington said.

The student from Connecticut? Denied, 7-2, with others voting to wait-list.


A 'hook,' but no guarantee

As soon as the case flashed on the screen, Bunnick sighed. "This is a tough one."

The applicant's mother is a Lehigh graduate and she really wants the same for her son. She was unhappy he was wait-listed for early decision.

The teen scored under 1200 on the SAT and did not rank in the top third of his class.

The committee debated, wait-listing him again.

"The more we put this off, the more phone calls we have to make," cautioned Sarah Knechel, associate director. "What's worse - ripping off a Band-Aid once or ripping it off three times?"

Legacies make up 17 percent of a typical class. Lehigh hosts a program for legacy applicants in September. There, Washington lays it on the line: "Legacy is a real hook. However, it will not replace low rigor, low grades, low testing, laziness, and a sloppy application."

The student with the persistent mom? Denied, unanimously.

Other times, legacy was the charm. The team took a California student with a 1220 SAT and strong interest, mindful she has a sibling at Lehigh.


It pays to be unique

A student with a 1340 SAT but a C-plus in math - the subject he wants to study - got a second look by the committee. The teen's mother died when he was 6 and he had been a ward of the state, largely thriving.

One more thing about him: He happens to be the only applicant from this Southern state.

"So no pressure," Knechel told the group.

Another staffer questioned his interest.

"OK, but he also literally has no support whatsoever," Knechel said.

The vote was unanimous. Accepted.


You have to be serious

The New Jersey high school student was on the fence by a lot of measures, and as a result drew one of the longest conversations of that day.

But one thing that really got the team: He never opened his portal. The portal is the online site where students check on the status of their application and receive updates. The staff sees it as a major indicator of how serious a student is about Lehigh. The teen also never visited.

"He's first generation," a staffer said. The team cuts some slack for students whose parents did not attend college.

In this case, however, the teen has a sister at another university. So while his parents may not know the ropes, his sister does.

"I had some friends who had siblings helping them through the process," one staffer noted.

The comment frustrated another staffer: "What if he hates his sister?"

The case drew one of the closest votes of the day, 9-7, to wait-list.

Other factors

Character and community

The applicant was an academic standout, but rather rude - that's according to his high school guidance counselor. The counselor had given the student below-average marks in the area of character, prompting the Lehigh staffer, Dergham, to call.

"She told me he was basically rude to her for four years. She did say she has never before in her career given a student below average on anything."

The student already had been admitted to other highly selective schools.

Other factors, such as character, can influence decisions. What students write on the essay - and how they write - can have impact, too, as can service to the community.

As the team evaluated a candidate who had little demonstrated interest in Lehigh but quite a service record, Bunnick, the director, quipped: "Five hundred hours of community service? That's like Lindsay Lohan." He got in.

Sometimes, life experience plays a role.

The committee voted to admit an applicant who had been serving in the Israeli army for three years. Some were concerned the gap in education may hinder performance, but the majority believed engineering training offered by the army and life experience outweighed that.

And the rude student? Wait-listed.

When the team finished preliminary decisions, members analyzed the admitted group, paying attention to gender and racial balance, academic quality, and enrollment in majors. Preliminary admissions to business were running high; some were cut.

"This is like pulling teeth, but it's something we have to do," Washington told the team.

On Friday, Lehigh posted decisions online and mailed fat envelopes including offers of financial aid to 3,284 students.

One of those who will receive a fat envelope is the hazing victim, whose case stirred the committee.

"Those C's . . . probably disqualified him from taking AP courses his senior year," Gogno said. "I don't think we can hold that against him."

The vote? Admitted, unanimously.

"It's really a human process in the end," Washington said. "It's not just a down-and-dirty number kind of thing. We look at human beings and consider the human situation."

on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at blogs/campus_inq.