This weekend, most of the nation's campuses are sending out the thick packets of acceptance and thin letters of rejection that will determine where approximately 1.6 million American college-bound high schoolers will spend the next several years.
For students, it is a time of anxiety. For colleges and universities, it is near the end of 16 months of travail that will define the flavor of their campuses.
At the Johns Hopkins University, that means whittling a record 8,503 applicants to a pool of 3,450 students from 41 states and two dozen countries offered places to make the Class of 2000. It means not only going after high-achieving students, but building a class of 915 students with diverse interests -- including, among others, roughly 275 engineers, about 45 black students and a few good midfielders for the men's lacrosse team.
"It's not easy because you want to take all these kids," said Dr. Robert J. Massa, the university's dean of enrollment management, who oversees the school's undergraduate admissions and financial aid offices. "I don't mean to be flippant about it, but that's what selective admissions is all about."
While the process resembles those at other selective universities, there is a single, simple truth that undergirds the toughest admissions decisions at Hopkins: Would-be physicians make up the largest single group of applicants and about one-third of all undergraduates. The university looks hard for a reason to deny students who intend to become physicians. And Hopkins looks equally hard for a reason to accept qualified students who do not.
"Everything else in terms of numbers is secondary," Dr. Massa said. "These [the aspiring doctors] are in many ways our bread and butter at Hopkins." But, he added, Hopkins rejects "kids that you just don't want to turn down because they're so good."
More than a year ago, Hopkins officials began to brace for this year's applicants. They paid for a list of high school juniors who scored well on the PSAT the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test. They sent 72,000 small brochures with glossy photographs and glowing descriptions of the campus. About 2,000 of these targeted students applied.
By a mid-November deadline last fall, more than 500 students had applied for early decision, a process that binds student and campus in something like a contract. More than 53 percent of students applying early were accepted this winter, a significantly higher rate than for the total pool. By Jan. 1, nearly 8,000 more applications had rolled in.
Each applicant was reviewed in a three-stage process. First, one of 10 admissions officers reviewed each student's files, looking at the notes of an interview, reading grades and board scores and essays and recommendations. Then, a small group of admissions officers met in "committee," to review the recommended verdict as they sorted through applicants. Finally, Massa and admissions director Paul T. White looked at the big picture of what kind of freshman class would be created, and they fine-tuned it, adding a student here, cutting a student there.
A Sun reporter was permitted to sit in on several "committee" sessions, with the agreement that applicants not be identified by name.
During the first round this winter, every student was marked on a 20-point index, using categories that mix what can be measured with gut reaction.
Grade point average was not the sole barometer of academic record. How tough was the high school? Counselors also looked at the number of college-level courses a student took in high school, compared with the number offered.
The admissions officers scanned the extracurricular activities and tried to sort the meaningful from the meandering. Did someone briefly join three clubs and assume no leadership in any of them? Did a death in the family or a part-time job affect a student's record? Mr. White has tried to encourage a newer breed of Hopkins students to help dispel the school's image as a haven only for "grinds" and workaholics, so he has encouraged his staffers to look for applicants showing creativity.
The admissions officers were highly sensitive to what they call a "school group" problem. If the university accepted a student with significantly a lower grade point average and academic rank than a classmate who applied unsuccessfully. other students would question whether Hopkins acted fairly.
In general, a student with lower than a 10 on the index was unlikely to be considered seriously. For premeds, the barrier was typically 15.
During the second round of the process, in February and early to mid-March, the committee met to review the first recommendations. Those sessions were held on the first floor of Garland Hall, the university's administration building, in a room set up like a small lecture classroom.
Some of next year's crop of applicants waiting for campus tours were seated on couches and chairs in Garland's foyer outside, unaware of the decisions being made a thick pane of glass away.
It was at those Garland Hall sessions that the hardest battles were fought. At times the arguments about students among admissions counselors, however civilized, reflected national debates about race, privilege and society.
During one session in early March, three admissions officials -- Mr. White, assistant director Audrey Mastrangelo and intern Todd Ries -- sat around a table on which stacks of thick manila folders were bordered by bags of pretzels and Pepperidge Farm cookies.
For nearly 15 minutes, they weighed a senior from a prestigious Northeastern preparatory school. The college placement director at the school had pushed Mr. White to accept the student, whose grades were mixed: mostly B's, several A's and a sprinkling of C's.
Mr. White blanched at accepting him, but promised the school's counselor, a significant figure in admissions circles, that he would talk about the applicant with the committee.
The student was the well-liked son of working-class immigrants from the Pacific Rim. His physics teacher wrote that the student's relatively low grades reflected a background of disadvantage.
"I don't understand his point. [The student] has had the educational advantage for four years," Ms. Mastrangelo said. "If we're cutting kids with a C in ninth grade, I don't see where it is that we that we need to [give] this kid a break, other than the fact that they're very emotional about him," she said.
"I would probably cut him, but I think [the college adviser] would have a heart attack," Mr. White said. "Let's wait-list him, but I think he will die on the wait-list."
Sometimes the university is willing to take a chance. Sometimes valedictorians do not get the nod.
An aspiring doctor, first in her class from a District of Columbia suburb school with 1410 out of 1600 on her Scholastic Assessment Test but few outside activities, did not dazzle the admissions crew. She was wait-listed because of her class rank, but otherwise would have been rejected.
A few minutes later, however, a California premed with solid, but not stellar, grades was admitted. She was a "legacy," the daughter of a Hopkins graduate, and she had four years of involvement in orchestra and girls basketball. The deciding factor: She intended to seek a double major in philosophy and biology and wrote in her essay that she hoped to become a medical ethicist.
In the third and near-final stage of the admissions process, in mid-to late March, some committee decisions were reversed. Mr. White, a Georgetown University-trained lawyer, and Dr. Massa, went through the numbers during what Dr. Massa calls "blood on the table time." This year, they decided they had admitted too many humanities and science majors and too few African-Americans to get the enrollment figures they desired.
"What happens is that the slightest blemish at this level takes on exaggerated importance," Dr. Massa said. "You may have [to reject] a kid who has a C plus in 10th-grade algebra, when you're looking for a reason to cut someone."
At Hopkins, as at many schools, the sons and daughters of alumni are admitted much more frequently than others -- about ** 70 percent get the green light. But the pressure from legacies is not overwhelming, because only a few more than 100 legacies applied.
Some common pressures on admissions staffers do not exist at Hopkins. Hopkins does not have a big-time sports program, except in men's lacrosse. So varsity coaches are each likely to receive only a few questionable "admits" each spring. And even then, Hopkins officials said, they will not admit anyone who clearly cannot do the work.
While officials said they had no quotas, factors such as race and home region, like athletics, can offer a boost, particularly in the final stages, when Dr. Massa and Mr. White were sculpting the final form of the class. About half of Hopkins' students come from the Eastern seaboard, from Virginia to New York. All things being equal, a student from Montana is not as likely to be cut in the final rounds as one from New Jersey.
About 41.5 percent of all applicants were accepted this year, according to the latest tally. Of those, approximately 28 percent will enroll next fall.
Mr. White would like that figure to rise, but he cannot dwell on it. High school juniors already are scheduling interviews with his office. There are parents to talk to, high schools to visit.
The process to shape the Class of 2001 has already started.
Pub Date: 4/01/96
Do's and don'ts
Some suggested do's and don'ts for students seeking admission to selective colleges. They are culled from observing the process at the Johns Hopkins University, but generally are applicable to all selective schools.
Proofread your application. Every year, some students write about the JOHN Hopkins University. Every year, Hopkins counselors notice. One hapless applicant wrote: "There's no place that would ever be the best place for me like Penn." That awkwardly constructed sentence might be a crowd-pleaser at the University of Pennsylvania, but it only irritated Hopkins admissions officers.
Visit the campus. Officials are particularly dubious about students from Maryland or nearby states who did not take the trouble to do so. "I have visited many universities around the East Coast of the United States," wrote an athlete from Pennsylvania. "But not ours," one staffer dourly noted after checking his file. College is at least a four-year commitment, counselors reason, so why not waste a day on a trip?
Stress your interests and strengths, but don't pad your application. Staffers quickly dismissed one student's involvement in the once-a-year fund-raiser for Oxfam, the international relief agency, for example. It's nice, but does not show sustained commitment, they said.
Figure out why you want to go to a specific school. It helps, in your essay, to explain why a certain campus would be a good choice for you even if you aren't certain what you want to do in life. One young man praised Hopkins' business program something the university does not have. In contrast, a woman showed her interest in foreign affairs and her knowledge of the university by citing articles in a publication of Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Most students have not heard of the Nitze school, much less read its publications, one staffer marveled.