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Zimmer: How U-Chicago got hot

The University of Chicago is hardly a well-kept secret. Arguably the pre-eminent private university in the Midwest, U of C enjoys a reputation as a destination for smart students who want to work very, very hard.

It was something of a surprise, then, when U of C saw applications rise 42 percent in a single year, probably the largest bump at any nationally ranked university.

Admissions at the Hyde Park campus had progressed in orderly fashion throughout the last decade, from about 8,000 applications in 2002 to about 9,500 in 2006 to about 12,000 in 2008.

This year, applications swelled to 19,370. That's twice the number who applied four years ago. And it came without any loss of "yield," the share of admitted students who actually enroll. The university's admission rate has plummeted from 39 percent in 2006 to 18 percent today.

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(To lend some context, U of C's admit rate has now eclipsed that of neighboring Northwestern University, whose own acceptance rate has gone from 30 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2010. Admit rates are declining by a rate of about one point a year in the industry as a whole.)

I asked U of C President Robert Zimmer to explain his banner year in a recent interview at the Willard Hotel.

"I think, to be honest, we're just doing a better job in talking about the university," he said.

The university has been marketing itself and recruiting students like never before, trying to reach pockets of students around the nation who are a natural fit for the cerebral university but who may not have thought to apply.

Those kids have always been out there, and many of them already applied to U of C, Zimmer said: "We're simply making an effort to reach more of them."

There is also the Obama factor: Hyde Park, the South Side neighborhood the president calls home, has never been more visible. Before his candidacy, even some Chicagoans couldn't tell you how to get there. (Trust me; I was born just south of there, on 76th Street.)

But perhaps the most significant change is U of C's embrace of the Common Application two years ago.

This is a big deal. Chicago was among the last highly competitive colleges to eschew the Common App (Georgetown is another). Indeed, U of C stood for years in sharp defiance to the generic, one-size-fits-all application and called its own form the Uncommon Application.

The Common App simplifies the application process for students, who can fill out the form once and submit it five or 10 or 20 times, saving their creative energies for the supplementary essays required by individual colleges. Colleges that switch to the Common App tend to see applications surge, as the University of Virginia found when it embraced the form two years ago.

The downside: the Common App makes it easier for students to apply to 10 or 15 (or 20 or 30) schools, dividing their loyalty and sapping college yields.

Ted O'Neill, longtime admissions dean at U of C, was no great fan of the Common App. He loved the Uncommon Application and the opportunity to ask "uncommon questions."

One crop of applicants were asked, for example, "What would you do with a foot-and-a-half-tall jar of mustard?"

O'Neill is gone now. (Officially, he has retired. According to Inside Higher Ed, the Common App may have been forced on him.)

Zimmer contends what O'Neill prized was the uniqueness of the Uncommon Application. That, he said, has not been lost. There are still distinctive essay questions (students append them to the Common App) that distinguish U of C -- and its applicants -- from the crowd.

One current essay option is, "How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)"

Zimmer: "The main feature that was distinctive about our application was the set of essays that I would say were stimulating and challenging." That feature, he said, is "exactly the same."

There are obvious reasons for any college to adopt the Common App, particularly if you are a first-rank national university with an acceptance rate that -- at 40 percent -- might have looked a bit lackluster to industry observers and compilers of collegiate rankings.

According to Zimmer, U of C moved to the Common App primarily as a convenience to students, and particularly to reach a population of students from low-income families who are said to favor the generic application.

"There is an encouraging amount of flexibility in the Common Application," Zimmer said.

Students protested the coming demise of the Uncommon Application four years ago. Now, of course, those students are gone, and the current crop of students were not unhappy seeing the university's admission rate dip into the teens for the first time.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  June 28, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Access , Administration , Admissions , Marketing , Rankings , Students  | Tags: Common Application, U of C Zimmer, U of C admissions, Uncommon Application, University of Chicago, University of Chicago admissions  
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