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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 01/19/2010

Broaddus: Reading college applications

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Henry Broaddus, admissions dean of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va.

By Henry Broaddus
Babies, wine and retirement are among the few things left that require waiting more than three months for a result after finishing all of the preparations. For high school seniors and the parents of high school seniors, there’s another: college admissions decisions.

To anyone conditioned to expect immediate responses of the sort received when placing an order on Amazon or updating a Facebook status, the delay between pressing the submit button on the Common Application’s website and learning the final outcome may seem interminable.

Unfortunately, technology hasn’t yet provided a shortcut that sufficiently accounts for the merits coded in recommendations, the strength of voice evident in writing samples, or the positive grade trends that belie overall averages.

Until such time, we’ll stick with a time-tested slow way, which requires the establishment of unique context for every application and ensures at least two different readers for each of them. Tomatoes grow faster, and sports seasons end sooner, but trust me, we need the time. Intentional inefficiency sometimes serves a higher purpose.

Every January, admissions officers begin a steady pace of reviewing four to five applications per hour. It’s less like a marathon than it is like a form of meditation. In William & Mary’s admissions office, each staff member completes evaluations for 150 applications per week through the end of February, a phase referred to affectionately (or sometimes grudgingly) as "reading season."

Every reader flips through approximately 3,000 pages every seven days. Although the text is rarely as challenging as what one encounters in a Faulkner novel, the shifts in point of view from student to counselor to teacher, the demands of deciphering a transcript, and the effort to synthesize disparate kinds of information require constant focus. They constitute a sound and a fury of their own.

Conservatively, if one counts only the students’ essays and the minimum recommendations, reviewing 150 applications per week equates to 600 pages of straight reading, the non-scannable variety. That’s aggressive even by the standards of most graduate students.

Reading season can feel like time lapse photography between winter and spring, but the white space between glimpses of seasonal change is filled with application forms, school profiles and test scores. Friends and spouses see less of us, and most of what we see during waking hours and in dreams is stacks of folders or, in increasingly many admissions offices, paperless in-boxes full of scanned documents and electronic records.

None of this warrants—nor should it warrant—much sympathy from families anxious to learn the results. After all, that look of frustration on the person at the end of a long checkout line is not an expression of sympathy for the clerk.

We live in a win-now, fast-results, me-first society. For better and for worse, speed and efficiency have become dominant virtues.

Meanwhile, my colleagues across the country and I are left pleading for patience from those who are experiencing urgency. It’s an unwritten responsibility in our job description. Good things come to those who wait? Not always. But waiting can be good for those to whom almost everything else comes so quickly.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 19, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Why don't the college authorities just admit that there is very little chance of predicting which high-school students will do well in college? Colleges that have admitted students without considering SAT scores find that at the end of the freshman year there is no way to tell which were admitted without scores and the others, and all professors know of poor students who suddenly "caught fire." Why don't the colleges just require certain minimum academic standards and maybe a relative crime-free past (no serial killers, for example!), group the applications by gender, geography, intended major, or any other category they want to "balance" on the campus, and admit a certain number from each group by lottery. It would probably work about as well and save the officials' eyesight and the non-admitted students' egos.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 20, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

It's "The College of William and Mary," not "William and Mary College."

Posted by: blkenn | January 27, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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