March 7, 2011 — Perhaps no other department at the University of Virginia is busier this time of year than the Office of Admission. It's charged with selecting a new class of incoming undergraduates every year. And right now in Peabody Hall, it's crunch time to meet the April 1 deadline.
The 33 full-time staff members are handling their usual business – greeting hundreds of high school student visitors each week, leading daily information sessions, fielding 500 phone calls a day, responding to countless e-mails and managing stacks of postal mail – while simultaneously wrapping up evaluation of 24,000 applications, each of which will have been read twice, and preparing the offer packets to those admitted to the University.
"We consider it a great honor to be entrusted with the mission of selecting students who will shape the future of the University," Dean of Admission Greg Roberts said. "It's a huge task that involves every member of the admission team. I feel very fortunate to be working with an incredible group of experienced and committed professionals who sacrifice so much of their personal lives to ensure a fair and thorough evaluation of each and every application.
"While we understand that we might not be able to make each applicant happy, this is a personal process for us. All applications are handled with care and consideration from the time they arrive to the time decisions are released."
In such a high-stress environment, with long hours and a demanding workload, you'd think there would be turnover and morale issues. But that is not the case. The staff has logged a combined 354 years of service at the University, an average of more than 10 years per person, noted Roberts, who's been at U.Va. for eight years and dean for three.
"It's an honor to work here and to know you're making a difference in students' lives," said Merav Frazier, who's been in the office for two years, first as a receptionist and now as an admissions counselor.
In her first year as a counselor, Frazier has instituted an automated reservation system to better track who's attending information sessions. The system confirms visits with those planning to come to Grounds – sending welcome messages, offering additional information then following up with thank-you e-mails.
"We want them to know we care about their visit," she said.
Frazier and her colleagues each have specific responsibilities within the office – Frazier works with student organizations and supervises the office's four student interns – but all counselors and deans travel for recruitment purposes, read 30 applications a day during the evaluation season and take turns being "dean of the day," fielding calls, meeting with visitors and conducting information sessions.
Dominique Baker, a soon-to-be "double 'Hoo" when she earns her master's degree from the Curry School of Education next spring, loves her job as an admissions counselor. Working in the office's outreach area, she hosts or attends events for prospective students in Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., Hampton Roads, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and New England.
"Luckily, I'm an Air Force brat" used to living out of a suitcase, she said.
The question she hears most often?
"How do I get in?," she said. "I tell them, 'You've worked hard. You need to show us what you've got now, but whether you're admitted or not is not an evaluation of you as a person. You're going to go on and do amazing things with your life.'"
Baker also organizes on-Grounds events each fall and spring for prospective and admitted African-American and Latino students. The spring events are part of "Days on the Lawn," in which students accepted to U.Va. are invited to visit as they ponder which school to attend.
She participates in local college fairs, too, recently assisting with the NAACP college event at a local library and the "Super Saturday" financial-aid application event held last month at Piedmont Virginia Community College. "You can't ignore your back yard," she said.
Abby Self, a 2002 College of Arts & Sciences alumna, first served as administrative assistant to the late Dean of Admission Jack Blackburn before being promoted to counselor 3 1/2 years ago. With Parke Muth, an associate dean, she now focuses on prospective international students.
"With international students, it's more of an education for me," said Self, who occasionally gets to travel internationally. "You can't apply the same rules you would to domestic students, because you don't know if extra-curricular activities are even an option for them, or what their grading system is in a given school of country. I especially like learning from their essays, which teach me about their world and culture."
Of the sometimes-amazing essays that she and her colleagues read, Self said, "We open the files and fall in love." She keeps her favorites in a folder and uses them as exemplars when she gives presentations.
"They have extraordinary insight into contemporary literature and art, or they've overcome what seems like immense adversity or tragedy," said Self, whose reading load is two-thirds international and one-third domestic. "Yet they're normal kids who've managed to achieve in spite of things – so resilient."
At this point in the admissions cycle, there's lots of solitude for those reading applications, said Self, who will earn her master's degree from the Curry School this May. She likes that the staff gets together routinely from November through March for the human interaction and to keep morale up.
They do a variety of things, like "grazing day," where everyone brings in food to share. There's also a movie night, when Newcomb Theater is reserved for admissions staff only, and monthly birthday celebrations. Last year, a massage therapist also paid the staff a visit and gave seated chair massages.
And every year around April 1, when the incoming class has been chosen, the information posted and letters mailed, the staff heads to Mellow Mushroom on the Corner for a pizza party and celebration.
Five years ago, senior assistant dean Jeannine Lalonde arrived on Grounds, and Admissions has never been the same – in a good way.
Her first year here, she was responsible for working with the Universitywide Student Information System implementation group to make the admissions application process paperless. "That was a tough year," Lalonde said, but she's happy with the transition to the new system.
That same year, "Dean J" was born. Though blogging, tweeting and posting to Facebook were not official parts of her job, "it had to be done," she said. The office needs to keep up with technology, and that's how today's students communicate.
On the blog, originally meant to document her first year at U.Va., Dean J wrote about higher ed issues and Cavalier Daily articles, "but questions from readers always were about admissions. So that's how it morphed into what it is now," a resource for prospective students, Lalonde said.
What she's been able to do through a variety of social media – Twitter, Facebook, the blog, video clips – is tell students how the admissions process works. She also sets the record straight when she reads inaccuracies, tweets often about GPAs and anticipates student essay trends.
She knew it was only a matter of time before a certain pop icon would enter into an application essay. When it happened, she tweeted about it: "Just got my first Lady Gaga essay." When a student tweeted back asking if that was bad, she said she replied, "No, it's not a bad thing. What's important is what you write about it."
The busiest night for her blog is the day notifications are released (students get first word electronically; the "fat" or "thin" envelopes arrive a little later by snail mail); she got 400 comments last year.
Lalonde is also the liaison with the Common Application's national committee and travels to Northern Virginia for recruitment, where she visits 44 public and more private schools.
A positive take-away she has from these visits, which started three years ago, are that comments in the Washington Post related to college admissions issues are more accurate. "People are much more aware now. That's very refreshing."
Applications begin trickling in as early as August, with the bulk of them arriving at the end of December, just before the Jan. 1 application deadline. "August through November is recruitment time, we spend weeks on the road meeting with prospective students and families," Roberts said.
The reading process begins in early Noevember. Counselors and assistant deans make the first evaluations; Roberts and his three senior associate deans, Doug Hartog, Ryan Hargraves and Amy Jarich, do all of the second reads. The 30-per-day mandate kicks in during peak time, from January through end of March.
"By the beginning of March, we've read all 24,000 applications at least twice," Roberts said, noting that 99 percent of them are now electronic. With the University's new growth initiative, the goal is to enroll 120 more first-year students this year than last fall, for a total of 3,360.
After all the applications are read at least twice, the committee review begins, Roberts said. Teams of deans and counselors review, meet and discuss candidates by undergraduate school. The committee votes and selects candidates to add to those already accepted after the first wave of the review. High school students are accepted into the College of Arts & Sciences and the schools of Engineering and Applied Science, Nursing and Architecture.
"We'll send out admit notices by the end of March," Roberts said. "Our review is holistic; we read every document a student submits. We are looking to build a class of interesting, smart, fun, honest, hard-working students who come from many different backgrounds." Roberts said.
With the acceptance letters are invitations to open houses in April.
"It's chaotic around Easter when high school juniors are here taking a look at U.Va., and seniors are visiting to make their decisions," Roberts said. Admissions is also reading transfer students' applications during this time.
By May 1, students must pay a deposit to reserve their space. And by June 1, Admissions' work is "mostly done," Roberts said.
"Then we have a retreat to regroup and plan, take vacation and gear up for August when it all starts again," he said.
This summer won't offer much of a lull. The office will be busy preparing for the new early action program, to be implemented Nov. 1, he said.
Saving Space and Trees
Besides the counselors and deans reading the applications, another group in admissions enjoys the paperless system: the application processing unit, which handles the office's files and mail.
Fran Bossi, supervisor of application processing, started working at U.Va. three years ago, when Admissions still employed a paper-based system. "Manually filing all paperwork for the 23,000-plus files took up lots of space," she said. Employee workstations have since replaced the maze of filing cabinets in Peabody's basement.
Students apply online through the Common Application, and recommendations and transcripts can also be received electronically, she explained. The information is always up-to-date. It "feeds through to us every night." As a result, the office handles 100,000 fewer pieces of paper.
Bossi's staff consists of an IT person, an administrator who handles financial and paper applications, three full-time employees who scan and link paperwork, five seasonal temporary workers, and one full- and one part-time person in the mail department.
"One-third of applications arrive between Dec. 31 and Jan. 1," Bossi noted; 99 percent are electronic.
Then there are the books.
Students send "total books of their life, particularly students from Asia," Bossi said. "They have these beautiful books made. Other students send high school yearbooks tagged with every page they're on. One student sent a photo of herself in U.Va. pajamas with a note saying, 'I'm dreaming of coming to U.Va.'"
Once the letters are sent out April 1, there's a collective "whew" in application processing, she said. "Then transfers begin, and you have to make sure all final grades are received for matriculating students, and by July, we can say we're done."
But now, in this particular time in the cycle, deans and counselors agree that the hardest part of their job is having to say "no" to a prospective student.
When 24,000 applications are received and only 7,700 can be offered admission, "You have to say 'no' a lot, and that does not feel good," Lalonde said. "You want to admit people."
"The people in our Office of Admission work incredibly hard at this time of year," U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan said. "We see the result of their work each fall when the first-year class arrives. Year after year, we admit a remarkably intelligent, remarkably diverse incoming class. Our colleagues in the Office of Admission have the difficult job of selecting these students from among the many highly capable high school students and transfers who apply for admission each year."
How do they know when it's right?
Deans and counselors say their decisions about the incoming class are validated in a number of ways throughout the course of the students' time here.
"This experience for me happens during Days on the Lawn," Lalonde said.
Self agreed. "You get to go outside. Stand on the Lawn. Talk to students. Feel the energy. The students are at the place where they get to make a decision about where they'll spend their next four years." It's a transfer of power, she said, from U.Va. to them.
Baker likes coming to orientation and move-in weekend to "see the results. It's very personal, especially because this is my alma mater. I believe in Mr. Jefferson's University. I know the incoming class will have the best four years of their lives."
For Roberts, knowing it's right comes later, the year they graduate. Hearing the president share stories at Finals of some of the amazing work of the students is when he knows Admissions got it right.