Issue 44: Hopes from a Carnegie Mellon admissions director, plus what happens when you eliminate test scores

“It used to be when I pulled up a student’s application, I would see how many times they interacted with us. I don’t see that anymore.” Carnegie Mellon admissions director tells SocratesPost about changes to the admissions process, the insider peek into the waitlist procedures, and the most memorable essay she read this year. Readers who submitted questions for this interview will read her answers in next week’s publication.

Exclusive Insider Interview: Assistant Director of Admissions, Carnegie Mellon University

Mercy at SocratesPost: Deborah, tell us about your experience working in college admissions.

Deborah at Carnegie Mellon: I’ve been in undergraduate admissions for four and a half years. I’m an assistant director of admission at Carnegie Mellon. 

Our travel process is a little bit different. We don’t have territories. We actually just travel to new places every year, which is really nice, because I get to now understand the different school systems that are out there.

When it comes to actually reading applications we read by academic college within the university. So at Carnegie Mellon, you have to apply to specific ones. Every year, I read either the applicants for the College of Engineering or the Humanities and Social Sciences, or Computer Science. That way, you’re really getting to see all of the different students that are applying for that specific college. I also have a specific focus in the Fine Arts. And I’ve done that for the last several years.

Between traveling and reading, that takes up about half of the year. Within the Office of Admissions, my team focuses on on-campus recruitment events. So for the past year and a half, I’ve been responsible for 35 of our paid student ambassadors. We just worked to revamp the campus tour last year, responsible for their day-to-day activities. And then my team plans overnight events and then our info yield events. We spend a lot of time going over data at Carnegie Mellon. We love data, so we do a lot of strategic planning for the next academic year and do non-evaluate counseling sessions to answer students’ questions about the process.

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s perfect. In the last four and a half years that you’ve been working in undergrad admissions, and how long have you been at Carnegie Mellon?

Deborah at Carnegie Mellon: Three years.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How do you think that admissions at Carnegie Mellon changed in the last three years you’ve been there?

Deborah at Carnegie Mellon: Good question. There have been a lot of changes. I would say, most notably, moving away from demonstrated interest in our admission process. Especially since Carnegie Mellon is in Pittsburgh, and it’s not exactly a waypoint for many people, it’s more of an intentional destination. Unlike a place like DC, Philadelphia, or Chicago, there’s not a lot of schools that would work. There’s not a lot of cross applicants with the other schools that are in the city of Pittsburgh. If you’re coming to Pittsburgh to visit Carnegie Mellon, you’re probably only coming to Carnegie Mellon.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How does Carnegie Mellon view the fact that the campus is in Pittsburgh as a downside?

Deborah at Carnegie Mellon: We were finding that a lot of the students that were visiting us were more familiar with the college admissions process, whether they’ve had families who went to college and they had school counselors. And so we’re finding that there’s a huge gap, especially in terms of the needs of students who came and visited us. We really wanted to be conscious about eliminating some of these gaps in the applicants and we didn’t want students who were coming from less disadvantaged backgrounds to be held back in the admission process. So we took that out.

Mercy at SocratesPost: What other admissions changes have you seen during our time as admissions director at Carnegie Mellon?

Deborah at Carnegie Mellon: We no longer keep track of students who come to campus or not. We also moved from evaluative interviews to non-evaluative interviews. We also stopped considering supplementary submissions and stopped accepting application updates, especially when it came to the waitlist. So that was all a big change in the process.

Mercy at SocratesPost: What has been the response to all of those changes?

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Mercy at SocratesPost: What was the thought process behind moving from evaluative interviews to non-evaluative interviews?

Mercy at SocratesPost: How did you find this information to make such a big change?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That makes sense. And that’s really interesting, because in some of the other conversations I’ve had, admissions professionals would say every point of contact they have with a student, whether it’s an email, a phone call, a visit to campus to the office, is tracked. And it sounds like you guys aren’t tracking the interactions anymore.

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s interesting. What kind of data did your office collect to guide you into this new way of doing things of not tracking the encounters or campus visits?

Mercy at SocratesPost: In these lengthy quarterly strategy meetings, what tools or software did you use to track admissions data and make changes to your processes?

Mercy at SocratesPost: What other factors contributed to the changes led by the data you collected from that software?

Mercy at SocratesPost: And why did you originally start using that data collection software if now you’ve realized it’s not a good fit?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Now, that definitely makes sense. It kind of skews the student population of using the program. Earlier, you were talking about the waitlist and how you’re trying to make it more transparent and fair for the students. Can you tell me more about that?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Can you give us an insider’s peek into what it’s like waitlisting students from your side?

Mercy at SocratesPost: How many students did you admit off the waitlist this year? More or less than previous years?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Sure. And everyone gets the opportunity. And aside from the additional prompts, how does the review process for the students on the priority list differ from the review process for regular application?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Sure, okay. It’s because you have those initiatives to admit more women, so it makes sense that is something that you’d be looking for.

Mercy at SocratesPost: That is interesting. Do you know how that individual got accepted off the waitlist so late?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s good to know. Okay, so I want to talk a little bit more about you. Tell me, what do you think is a little known aspect of your job working as an assistant admissions director?

Mercy at SocratesPost: It’s unique that you had that experience yourself as a homeschool student. And so when you’re connecting with students on the road, or if you’re meeting them, even just virtually you can share that you’ve been there.

You were talking about the thousand applications you read this season. What’s the story or essay or profile or individual that really stood out?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Why do you think that student’s story stuck with you so much?
Mercy at SocratesPost: When you read an essay or an application like that, are you also looking for clues that it’s authentic and that a counselor or consultant hasn’t helped with it too much? Or is that not something you really look for?
Stay tuned for the rest of our exclusive insider interview with Deborah, a Carnegie Mellon admissions director!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from Julie:

“Is it better to take harder classes but get slighter lower grade, resulting in lower GPA, or take the easier class and get the better grade to help your GPA. For example, AP Calc BC is harder than AP Calc AB. If someone challenges himself/herself with BC, but gets B+ vs. another person taking AB and gets A, how would admissions view the 2 candidates, all else being equal? There are many other examples like AP Art History considered an easy AP course vs. AP U.S. History.”

Julie submitted this question in response to the Carnegie Mellon interview question call. Although this question wasn’t selected for the interview, it touches upon an important topic regarding course rigor.

It’s better to take a harder class and get a slightly lower grade. Taking the harder class shows the admissions officers you care more about learning difficult concepts and challenging yourself academically than maintaining an image of a GPA. The college experience is more than just maintaining a certain GPA and they want to recruit students who’ve already been living in the mindset. 

All of the exclusive insider interviews we’ve done with admissions professionals have taught us that application readers are turned off by students who try to do something “just to get into college.”

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SocratesPost is always on the frontlines scouring the news for relevant updates in the college admissions landscape. We look for anything that can help shape our understanding of the latest trends in admissions and help our readers see the direction in which we’re moving. Questions we explored this week:

  • Filling out the complicated FAFSA form might lead to college financial aid, but a lot of families still don’t submit it. Here’s one state that’s now requiring all students submit a FAFSA.
  • Here’s what happened to UChicago as a result of eliminating standardized test scores.
  • This top college is eliminating student loans for incoming students with family incomes under this amount. What college is it and what’s the income cap?

Get answers below.

July 10, 2019 — Texas.

The second state after Louisiana to require all students to fill out FAFSAs, Texas wants to increase the number of students getting financial aid. More financial aid usually means more college grads, which is better for the economy. It’s a complicated form that many students avoid for that very reason.

What does this mean? More work for applicants and their families, but possibly greater reward and more exposure to funding they never thought possible.