Dean of Admission Daniel C. Walls demystifies the application process
B y John D. Thomas
Completing the application for admission to Emory College is a daunting, detail-oriented task. The fourteen-page form requires applicants to submit everything from standardized test scores and information about their after-school jobs to letters of recommendation and the answers to two essay questions. It takes hours to organize and finish, and according to Emory's dean of admission, Daniel C. Walls, many students want to know if anyone really looks at all their hard work.
"The way we do admissions is much more subjective and labor intensive than just looking at test scores and grade point averages," says Walls, who joined the University in 1983 after working in admissions and financial aid at Northwestern University. "Hopefully, we are building a class piece by piece that the University can be proud of, and that's why we ask for so much information. Once students understand how we make decisions and realize that they control more of their destiny than they might think, it can be empowering. We don't just look at a transcript and say that a student is in or out."
Recently, Emory Magazine sat down with Walls in his office on the first floor of the Boisfeuillet Jones Center to talk about getting into Emory College--how the process really works, what helps and what hinders, and just how competitive it has become. Walls says many things have changed in admissions since he arrived here, including a move from the Administration Building in 1986, but that the biggest difference may be the sheer increase in interest in Emory. In each of the previous two years, some ten thousand prospective students have applied. "In 1983, when we had 3,800 applications and a freshman class size of around 850," says Walls, "we didn't even dream of what we have now--1,140 freshman and almost 10,000 applicants."
The quality of the students applying to Emory has also steadily increased since Walls arrived. In the fall of 1984, the average freshman had an SAT score of 1138 and a 3.42 grade point average (GPA). In 1995, the average freshman score was 1234, and the average GPA for freshman entering this fall is 3.6.
But Walls says superior test scores and GPAs are not an end unto themselves at Emory. "I'm real comfortable with where we are in terms of selectivity," he says. "I read articles about the most selective schools that talk about the number of valedictorians they denied, and that's all well and good for them. I still feel like we can take a flier on a student who may not have all the numbers exactly where we'd like them, but who has some kind of a hook that we think would be a great addition to the class. We still can admit that student, whereas some of these other schools can't. There are many examples in our class of applicants whom admission staff members have reviewed and made passionate arguments that they should be admitted because they thought this person was going to give something very important to Emory."
University President William M. Chace agrees that attracting students just because they have higher scores is not Emory's approach. "Our goal is not simply to get students with higher GPAs and SATs," he says. "It is to get more students, from a broader and richer range of all good students in the United States and elsewhere, who can take maximum advantage of the educational opportunities that Emory presents. As we do so, we will inevitably watch the GPAs and SATs go up. But those indexes are not our goals. They are a way of tracking our own progress. Our goals are educational-to bring together the most richly diverse and talented students we can find, so that they can learn from everything we can offer, including each other."
Walls says one of the questions he is most frequently asked is who makes the decisions to admit which students. He describes the process as a "modified committee format." Basically, the twelve-member admissions staff, which is composed of the dean of admission, director of admission, assistant deans, and admission counselors, split into three groups and review the applications. Each application is read by at least three staff members, and a reading sheet is attached to each one. A numerical score is kept on that form and tracks items including academics, extracurricular activities, and essays. Academics get weighted most heavily, and a perfect score would be eighteen.
Walls believes it's a good policy that the admission staff makes the decisions. "You don't find many universities now where the faculty still make the admission decisions," he says. "We are the ones who are out there visiting the schools and doing the recruitment work, and we really know these students, their high schools, and their counselors, so it makes sense that we would be the ones actually reading the applications."
With competition as stiff as it is, Walls is invariably quizzed about what his staff looks for in an applicant. He says they place a premium on commitments outside the classroom, in anything from athletics to community service, and that an essay that reveals something of the student's personality is also key. However, the most crucial factor may be what classes the student took in high school.
"Probably the most important piece of information is the academic record, what the student has taken," Walls says. "You may have two students with identical grade point averages, but one is wait-listed or denied and one is admitted. And many times counselors will call and say, But they both have a 3.8. Well, one took the most rigorous program the school offered, and the other took the easiest. We would have some significant reservations about a candidate who has chosen a less-than-rigorous program because they are going to be competing here with students who have taken the best courses their schools had to offer."
Another factor that can work in a student's favor is showing a sincere interest in Emory. Walls says he and his staff are less attracted to students who are merely shopping for schools and have no real focus on Emory. "As our applicant pool has grown, we only have a limited number of admit spots to offer, and there are varying degrees of interest among students," says Walls. "Some students are applying to twenty-five colleges, and we're just one of twenty-five. Others have Emory very high on their list and will really do all they can to convey to us that Emory is a very serious choice. And we are persuaded by that interest."
This interest factor invariably leads to talk of students who apply for early decision, one of the hottest topics in college admissions today. Walls says that in some cases, students can make the system work to their advantage. "Each year there may be a dozen students in a gray area, but because they have gone early decision that's made the difference. What an early decision student is saying is that if you admit me I will enroll and I will withdraw all my other applications. They are saying that we are their first choice, and I don't know of any admission committee that would ignore that information."
The impact of being a legacy on the admission process is another topic Walls is frequently asked about. "It's another factor that we are very sensitive to and we certainly weigh very carefully," he says. "Historically, if you look at our overall admit rate for the class compared to the admit rate of legacy candidates--and legacy for us means that a student's mom, dad, brother, or sister attended Emory--the admit rate for legacies is higher. For this year's class, the admit rate for the class is roughly 45 percent, and the admit rate for legacies is almost 70 percent. So the numbers bear out the fact that there is sensitivity shown. We feel a strong commitment to the Emory family, and we are overjoyed when multiple family members choose to enroll. It's something we value very much. On the other hand, if you are a legacy, is that [an absolute] guarantee of admission? Of course not."
One factor that doesn't impact on Emory's admission decisions is a family's financial situation. Emory has a policy of need-blind admission, which, according to Director of Financial Aid Julia Perreault, "means that students are accepted based upon their academic merit, their leadership skills, and their other strengths, not on the family's financial strengths.
"Many schools these days have either chosen [to look] or felt the necessity of looking beyond the academic merits of the student. We take what I believe to be the higher road and continue to admit students on their merits and then award financial aid based upon need." (Perreault cautions, however, that just because a student is admitted does not guarantee the family will qualify for the amount of need-based financial aid they feel they deserve.)
One other piece to the admission puzzle that is unique to Emory is Oxford College. Located about forty miles east of the Atlanta campus on the spot where Emory was founded in 1836, Oxford College has an entering freshman class of about three hundred, almost all of whom finish their undergraduate studies on the Atlanta campus after their sophomore years. According to Jennifer B. Taylor, Oxford's director of admission and financial aid, Oxford offers students an important choice.
"The students who choose to come to Oxford typically want small classes and interaction with professors on a daily basis," she says. "They are looking for a smaller college environment and more opportunities for leadership during the first two years of college. Those students do very well here and then move on to the Atlanta campus." As an example of how well Oxford students do at Emory, last year 53 percent of the juniors elected into Phi Beta Kappa were Oxford continuees.
Taylor says the best way to determine whether the Atlanta or the Oxford campus is right for a student is to visit both. "It's just a different atmosphere and a different place," she says. "Instead of trying to compare them, we say go and look at both and find out where you think you would fit better."
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