“I sat on a panel and one kid stood up and said, ‘I’m taking six APs every semester,’ and before he could say anything more, one of the deans said, ‘Why?’,” says James Madison U. admissions dean, Michael Walsh. In our nearly 2-hour long discussion, Michael shares his frustrations with the college admissions industry, most memorable applicants in a 35-year long career, stories of recommendations letters from every president from Ford to Obama, and the dangers of a pre-programmed high school life.
Michael, thanks so much for joining us. What inspired you to start a career in admissions?
I started out in housing back in the ’70s. I actually coached women’s volleyball at a small college. The thing with housing was that you get called at two or three in the morning sometimes, and I had a one-year-old and came home one morning at five o’clock for the second or third night in a row. My one-year-old and my wife were sitting in the rocking chair, and my wife looked at me and said, “You need a career change.” So I switched over to admissions for a couple reasons.
What were those reasons?
We were the first non-financial office computerized at the university I worked at. Admissions needed to be computerized, and they had a position. Initially, I was going to go into admissions for a couple years and then figure out where else in the university I wanted to be. But I enjoyed it.
And here you are almost 40 years later! What is something most people don’t know about your job as an admissions dean?
We read to admit students; we don’t read to deny people. Even when I worked at a public university in another state that admitted 9 out of 10 applicants, we still read to admit them. We read to look at who could be successful here. There are some people who work in certain admissions offices who have the attitude of: “Are you good enough to be in our institution?” but most of the people in my profession are more like, “Okay, what do I do to make sure we can open avenues for people to give them a chance?” My staff gets more upset over people they can’t admit than people they can admit, because they double down; they look at students and look at different things. And we can’t admit everyone.
Speaking of your staff getting upset over being unable to admit certain applicants, what happens your team disagrees on whether to admit a candidate or not? Does a fight break out?
There are debates, but I don’t think we ever had a fight. They all understand that we can’t admit everybody. Sometimes I have to try to explain that to a parent, who says, “My son or my daughter’s done this, this, and this.” I have to say, “I understand, but they along with about 4000 other people have done that, and I can’t take them.”
But the other side is that we will enroll a freshman class of around 4700, and we’ll admit a transfer class of about 1000. A significant number of the transfers actually applied here out of high school, and then they decided they were going to come back by way of transfer route. Now, some of the kids we admitted, but for financial reasons or personal reasons, they couldn’t come, so they went to another school or community college and came back around.
How many applications would you estimate you’ve reviewed in your career?
I’ve been doing admissions since ’85. I would say that in the first nine years, we probably averaged about 4000 a year. The next six years, we probably reached closer to 8-9000. And then since 2000, we’ve probably averaged 19-20,000. I’ve looked at my share. I don’t look at every one; we have a staff that does that.
What exactly are you looking for in all those applications?
When you look at admissions processes, because of the wide variety and large number of people reading, we have kind of strict guidelines. We want consistency, but we also understand that not everyone is the square peg that will fit our square hole, so everyone has the ability to bring forward to the supervisor someone and say, “Hey, look, this person doesn’t meet our guidelines, but there’s something about it we want to look at.” Those are the ones that end up eventually coming to my desk; we look at and we talk about them. Being a public university, we have a service to the state and also to the individual.
What happens if the applicant is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole?
There are times that we can admit in these situations; other times, the student needs to work on X and Y, and if they want to go to a community college and do X and Y, then we will be able to seriously look at them again in a semester or a year. That’s one of the things I’ve been able to do with the universities I work at: we’ve been small enough that our focus has been enough on the individual. We do look at the individual, and those are the people who, when they walk across the stage, I’ll grin because someone saw something on their app and said, “There’s something about this person; they can be successful.” There’s no such thing as a typical application today as there was in the ’80s or 90s.
What do you see in an application that makes you or your staff go “wow, we have to admit this student?”
It’s a little bit of everything. Something maybe in a rec or something in their essay, something that shows determination, something that shows this person has had many challenges.
What are some examples of determined applicants you’ve encountered?
They range. There was a young lady who was the oldest of five, and starting in seventh grade, when both parents went to work, she had to come home and take care of her siblings. She talks about how she wants to be a teacher, about turning after school into a schooling for the younger kids. She talked about doing X and Y at home, working with their homework to the point that on nice days, her parents let her take them to the museum. Her mom and dad had to work, and she made it a positive experience for everyone.
Can you tell me about a memorable applicant you still remember to this day?
I remember some of the stories. She was a young lady in a rural area whose high school didn’t offer calculus. Every morning, she drove to another high school for calculus and then drove back to her high school to take the rest of her classes. It was 30 miles each way on mountainous roads. She was determined that she wanted to do this, and she was a good student; she could handle calculus. This was before they could do things virtually or anything like that; this was back in the mid-’90s. She made it successfully.
There were people who worked full-time jobs while in high school and were contributing 40% of the family income. They did very well in high school and we deferred their starts for a year until they could help wean their families off of their income.
I remember one particular situation where a young man should have been killed in a car accident. He and his best friend were going with his parents for a soccer game, and he was the only one who lived. He was in a coma for quite a while and he would remember as he was laying there listening to the doctor saying, “Oh, he’ll be back to taking the trash out.” He was young, maybe sixth or seventh grade. He’d hear his siblings laugh, say, “He goes out the door and puts the trash down 300 yards short of the trash can.” He never finished anything he started. When he woke up, he was determined to finish what he started. His application, his essay, and his references talked about his commitment to finish what he started. And he would say, “I shouldn’t be alive, but I am, so I’ve got to make the best of it.” Those are unique situations, but there are many other ones that we’ve looked at it and have impacted the staff to look at in different ways. Some are not quite that dramatic.
Those are incredible stories. Ironically, many students write in asking “How should I approach my college essays? I’ve lived an uneventful childhood and nothing traumatic has happened to me.” What do you think?
Most people haven’t had something like that happen. That’s happened to 5-6%. Write about something that gets you excited. Write about something that you’re committed to, because a residential campus wants you to give 110% in the classroom and they also want you to give 110% outside the classroom because residential campuses are as exciting as the student body makes them. Write about something you have a passion for; write about a challenge.
It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering. A friend of mine who works at a very selective school says that he can’t tell me how many essays start out with a really cool first sentence, but by the fourth sentence, he loses interest in it. All you have to do is just focus, and sometimes you don’t need quite that big hook sentence if you can’t follow up. Tell students to be themselves.
What a great reminder that a hook isn’t everything. It’s what comes after. What is an example of a non-earth-shattering challenge you remember an applicant talking about?
This is a true story: A young lady had everything she needed, and a couple of her classmates dared her to take an advanced math course that she didn’t need. She didn’t need it to get in; she didn’t need it for her major. She wasn’t concerned with GPA. So she took it, and the reference talked about her. She didn’t need to take this class, but she came in. Her first test in this math course was an F. The teacher said, “I counseled her to maybe seriously consider dropping it, and she said, ‘No. I have to be able to tackle something I’m not comfortable at. Can I come in once a week and go over things with you?’ And then she lined up one of the other students to tutor her. In the end, she got a B; I think was the only thing below an A on her entire transcript. She was going to get in wherever she went, but that essay and that reference got her a scholarship. Somebody got out of her comfort zone; somebody showed determination. Not everybody does that.
Some families hire college consultants or private coaches to help their children’s college applications shine. Can you tell which apps have been doctored by professionals and how does that affect your evaluation?
I know for a fact that we have students from affluent suburbs using private counselors. In some cases, the high schools are affluent, they’re overwhelmed, and the only way they can get individual attention is a private counselor. We don’t ask the questions, but colleagues of mine who asked specific questions 5-10 years ago, like: “Explain to us how diversity impacted your life,” told me that they could tell who was coached. How many 18-year-olds have thought about that, “how diversity has impacted my life?” They could tell who were coached on their essays because they took a similar approach.
Another weighty aspect of the application is the recommendation letter. What types of recs help applicants stand out?
When I first started admissions back in ’75, Gerald Ford was president. Yeah, I’m very old. I have received references from every president since Gerald Ford through Barack Obama. I have received references from most of the federal senators from the states I worked at and from other elected officials, mayors, etc. Only one of them has ever impacted a review.
Most students would dream of a recommendation letter from a famous politician. Why didn’t they impact your review?
Most of them start out with: “While I don’t know Michael, I know his parents.” The only one who impacted me was a newly elected senator to Rhode Island about 12 years ago. He submitted a reference for a student. His office called me, and it was a hectic time, so we set up a time so I could call him back. I called him back, and he was on the floor at the Senate. They said, “Don’t move. He will call you back in five minutes.” They ran to the floor and brought him out. When I was in grad school, I did an internship with a state senator in Michigan. They only come off the floor if it’s a really important phone call. So I was impressed.
What did this senator say in his reference for the applicant?
This senator got on the phone and says, “I just want to make sure you got the reference. I said, “Yes, we did.” He spent a few minutes on the phone and said that he appreciated me calling; it was a very humble phone call on his part. It was a brief conversation, I thanked him, and he thanked me back. But what made that reference so important that it impacted us was that he had been the young man’s scout leader for five years before he ran for office. So his reference talked about watching the young man grow as a young man. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was a federal senator from rural Iowa. If the recommendation starts out, “While I don’t know Michael, I know his parents…” most admissions people won’t finish it.
As someone who has reviewed applications since 1985, what are some of the pros and cons of private counselors and consultants?
I don’t necessarily think the private counselors are negative, although I think some private counselors can oversell their ability to get somebody into a particular school. In some cases, it’s because the regular counselors are overloaded; in some cases because mom and dad don’t trust the high school counselor. They get a private counselor, and they want their son or daughter to get into X or Y school. I deal with both public school counselors and private counselors. Overall, I would say that I like most of their focus; they care about the students. In many cases, especially for school counselors, they won’t win the argument that a student doesn’t need to take as many APs as the parents want them to.