Admissions veteran Grant Cushman divulges to SocratesPost how race and money truly factor into getting into college. How do admissions officers know every applicant’s high school? Should students and parents be reaching out to their regional admissions reps to build a relationship? What exactly does an admissions committee look like? Continue reading the final installment of our exclusive insider interview with Grant. Catch up from last week here.
Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Officer, Pomona College
SocratesPost: Earlier you said you every high school has its own context. What tools do you utilize to judge the context of the applicant’s high school, so as to better understand the implications of the student’s performance there?
Grant at Pomona: There are variety of tactics that we utilize. Almost all admissions officers are regionally divided. You have a certain region, so you might have the Southwest, you might have certain parts of Texas, you might have certain parts of California. And while there isn’t a general GPA scale for those areas, it basically means that you can get a deeper relationship with counselors and high schools that might have more nuanced ways of grading.
And so more often than not, when students are applying from schools, 9 times out of 10, we will not only know the school, but also be able to give you a breakdown of who’s applied here before, or, “We have a student from this school here, and their counselor comes and talks to me every single year when I come and visit.” So you have a pretty good relationship with high schools, so much so that now when I meet somebody, and if they come from one of the areas that I recruited from, I usually ask them what high school they’re from, because admission counselors have kind of an encyclopedic knowledge of high schools at that point — even more so than the college system, because high schools are the entry point for a lot of students. And so if you are divided by territory, it is your responsibility as an admissions officer to understand the high schools in your area, especially the high schools that will have a larger number of students applying from them.
If you have a new school that pops up, or a school that you don’t know or haven’t applied before, haven’t applied for three, four, five years, there are other tools that you can utilize to also learn. Every school is required to submit a secondary score report that gives a breakdown of the GPA scale they utilize, as well as how many, if they have any, Honors AP, IB courses there. And then the counselor letter of rec should also be able to elucidate for us, “How is the student doing comparatively to other students? How the students doing comparatively to their potential?” And so there is a deal of quantitative and contact space piece of evidence that we utilize to understand, “Is a 3.9 from this school strong? Is 3.9 from this school weak?” But ultimately it’s up to us admission officers to make sure that we are acting in good faith when reviewing academics and when reviewing these pieces.
SocratesPost: Does it make a difference if students have personal relationships with their regional admissions counselors or officers, either through phone or email?
Grant at Pomona: It’s different based off of schools. Generally, I would say it’s in our best interest to know who’s applying to the school. And so if a student has the ability to reach out and say, “Hey, I’m Grant, and I’m applying for Pomona. I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ Excited to learn more about the institution.” And that’s fantastic. It’s not going to necessarily be the thing that pushes you over the edge by any means, but it’s always helpful for us if students reach out, even just to say, “Hi.” If we are coming to your high school, if we are on the road doing a career fair, come and say, “Hi” to us. Not only does it help us put a face to the application, it also helps students kind of to humanize the process, to know that, generally, admission officers are pretty affable, genial people, and I think when students are applying to colleges, they just imagine a dimly lit boardroom of scary people stamping “yes” or “no” on an application. And that’s not generally the case. And so for them, meeting us also puts a face to the pair of eyes that will be a part of their application process when they’re crafting their essay, when they’re crafting their application, they can say, “Oh, yeah, I met Grant. He’s goofy. I shouldn’t be as worried as I am with this process.”
And then, for more selective schools, I don’t think they necessarily always will look at your knowledge of the school as a baseline for, “Would a student do well here?” But as I was mentioning before, it’s always good for students to know about the institution that they’re applying for. If the student’s just applying blindly to an institution, that isn’t always a reassuring thing for the admission office. So if they’re just saying, “Oh, I’m applying to USC because I saw you guys won. You guys are pretty good at football. So I want to apply because I like watching football.” That’s not as convincing as a student who is applying because they know about the communications department, they’ve looked at some of the course listings, they’ve visited the campus. We want students who can see themselves at the institution because it’s very compelling. Because ultimately the goal of the admissions process is to admit students, and for those students to enroll into the university. And so as they are more likely to enroll, because they know more about us, that’s also very compelling. At highly selective schools or medium selective schools, the more you’re engaged with the process, the more we’re compelled to know more about your application, to know more about you, and to have more first-hand experience about, “Oh, yeah, this student would do well. I met them, we talked,” or, “They emailed me and we talked.” There are a lot of low-effort ways to showcase that you’re interested in the institution.
SocratesPost: What’s the path of an application at Pomona? Does it go to you and then a second reader then a committee? How is a decision made?
SocratesPost: Are these senior admissions officers who are shaping the class also looking at factors like race, ability to pay, and geographic background?
SocratesPost: Got it. Tell us a little more about shaping the class using demographics.
SocratesPost: Does the class shaping happen after all the applications have been read and decided on, or while you’re reading apps?
SocratesPost: Speaking of the application, what are your thoughts on parental involvement in the application process?
SocratesPost: What’s a misunderstanding that you think college applicants and their families have about the admissions process?
SocratesPost: You’ve worked in admissions at 3 institutions and read over 30,000 applications. What’s your biggest takeaway from your career so far?