I Laugh, I Cry, I'd Love To Admit Them All
By Kelly Herrington, associate dean of admissions, Union College
From The Washington Post
Sunday, March 28, 2004; Page B04
SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — They tell me their greatest accomplishments. They discuss their life goals. They say who inspires them. They address their weaknesses. They make me laugh. They cause me to shed a few tears. And they consistently evoke my admiration.
I am not their parent. I am not their teacher. I am not their coach, sibling, grandparent, best friend or religious leader. I am a college admissions officer, and “they” are my applicants.
I know that for thousands of them the mystery of selective admissions provokes immense anxiety. But they should rest assured that their files are being read by admissions counselors who are both humbled and exhilarated by what they find inside. Every winter, when I sit for hours at a stretch at the small desk in my apartment reading the applications, I find myself entering a world of hope, hard work, resiliency, accomplishment and promise.
I learn about students like Sarah, whose college counselor describes her as a combination of “Jane Goodall, Mother Theresa, Diane Sawyer and Jodie Foster.” I'm intrigued by essays from students like Matt, who begins, “The person I admire most in life is a convicted felon.” (The felon turns out to be an international human rights advocate, and Matt's ultimate goal is to become a human rights lawyer.) I review college interview reports that describe students like Dave explaining how their classroom experiences have been “transformed” by teachers who “dress up as Einstein to make physics cool.” I smile when students like John send articles about contests they have won. “The six hundred crazed students crammed into the gym were incredibly loud,” John explains. “The training was endless, but the war would be decided in an instant. I vied for the crowd's undivided attention and nothing would stand in my way. In two short minutes I stood up and proclaimed victory. I won East High School's Pie Eating Contest.”
“Reading season,” as that time of year is called, allows those of us in college admissions access not only to outstanding students, but also to altruistic, artistic, athletic, ambitious and downright zany young men and women. We spend our days with students, teachers, communities and families at their best.
If only it would last. But reading season culminates inevitably in “decision time.” The delight I have just found in students and educators quickly evaporates. Parents force their children to make last-minute visits to campuses before deposit deadlines. Principals proudly tout the numbers of their students who were admitted to select institutions, thereby devaluing the rest. Admissions deans rave to their trustees about the increased SAT averages in the admitted applicant pool, yet gloss over the creativity, leadership and commitments to community service unmeasured by standardized test scores. Journalists run articles about the stress related to making “one of life's most important decisions.”
It is at this time of year, in the dreaded month of April, that I long to return to the cocoon of my apartment. And I want to invite the world to join me there. I would like the panicked parents, the sensationalizing reporters, the worried students and the SAT-obsessed admissions deans to sit down and read the applications of the students I have spent several months admiring.
Oh, I know that in the competitive college marketplace, where the supply of talented applicants far exceeds openings, the students I must reject will often include some of my favorites. But I would like others who have a stake in the process to understand that, whatever the outcome, the work ethic, kindness and, yes, creative craziness these students have already shown will continue in college and for the rest of their lives.
Keep that in mind this spring and, if you know a few college-bound seniors, please congratulate them not on where they are headed in the fall, but on what they have accomplished so far and will undoubtedly achieve in the future.
Kelly Herrington is associate dean of admissions at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. He has been reading about 1,000 college applications a year for the past six years.