Dean Scott Meiklejohn: Table for Twelve-Inside Bowdoin’s Admissions Committee

The applications, grades, essays, and recommendations are all in, and now comes the hard part: deciding whom to admit to the Bowdoin Class of 2015 from literally thousands of qualified applicants. As Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn explains, that work begins in earnest later this week, when a dozen admissions officers sit down together to present, discuss, and ultimately to decide on each applicant.

Applications to Bowdoin seem to be tracking the snowfall total in Maine this year-we’ve had plenty of snow and we have 6,551 candidates for admission, an all-time high. Our goal is to have 485 students in the class when they arrive in August. I’m sure every reader can do the math-it’s very competitive once again.

We’re excited about our candidate blizzard, an 8.8% increase in applications over last year. It’s a great return on all of the work we’ve been doing with 2011 high school graduates. The increase is also an important measure of Bowdoin’s expanding reach; the number of different high schools sending Bowdoin at least one application has increased by more than 50% in the past decade.

So”¦now what? How do we decide? What happens in Admissions Committee, starting this week?

If it were just numbers, I would be at Sugarloaf today and the computer would tell me who’s going to be admitted.

The process is relatively simple to describe, even if the decision-making is complex. We treat each Bowdoin applicant with respect. He or she has taken the time to complete the Common Application and the Bowdoin Supplement, perhaps tour the campus, interview here or at home, and to express a serious interest in the College. Everyone gets a thorough review. There is no weeding out based on GPA, or scores (or no scores, in our test-optional case), or grades. If it were just numbers, I would be at Sugarloaf today and the computer would tell me who’s going to be admitted. Instead, we spend thousands of hours reading applications, sifting through all of the greatness and accomplishment, and trying to identify the wonderful students who would be particularly wonderful at Bowdoin.

All files are read twice. The first reader takes extensive notes on all aspects of the file and summarizes the candidate using a combination of prose, bullet points, circles, underlines, and other elements, as well as the standard summary ratings we use to capture both academic and non-academic strengths. The second reader goes through the file and supports, disagrees with, or adds to the impressions of the first reader with additional written comments and ratings. Many files get a third review for one reason or another. I’m proud of the work that our staff does in the reading season; our reads are as thorough as they can be, and staff members really know the applicant pool at this stage of the process.

Beginning this week, we will discuss those applicants who are serious contenders for admission. Although we have been making some decisions along the way, by the time we start committee, the remaining number will still be in the thousands. There are twelve of us, gathered around a conference table in Burton-Little House, and I think we all agree that deciding which students to admit from among the many who are qualified is the most challenging part of our work.

In the committee round, we discuss every remaining applicant, state-by-state, school-by-school, name-by-name. Since we structure most of our work around geographic territories, staff members act as presenter and advocate for “their” applicants. When it’s my turn to present New York City, for instance, I will take everyone through Bard and Beacon and Brearley and Bronx Science and so on, orienting the committee first to important facts about the school. For example, this school has average SATs of 645/660/637; this school doesn’t offer AP courses; 78% of the graduates here go to 4-year colleges; anyone at this school with a GPA of 93.5 or higher is in the top 5% of the class, and other key points that highlight the learning environment at the student’s high school. Then, I summarize each applicant along with a suggested decision for the committee. “Okay, the next student is Joe Jones, and I think this is an admit discussion. What impressed me about Joe was”¦”

We want bright, edgy, curious, energized, community-oriented future Polar Bears who are going to do something cool with the opportunities here.

Sometimes the discussion moves quickly and the decision is relatively easy. Sometimes the conversation runs longer as members of the committee ask clarifying questions about course selection or teacher recommendations, and try to understand what makes Joe really interesting as a Bowdoin applicant-not just intelligent (everyone we’re talking about is smart), but also interesting. We want students who are going to do more than just grind their way to a nice transcript. We want bright, edgy, curious, energized, community-oriented future Polar Bears who are going to do something cool with the opportunities here.  We are not trying to admit just the students with the best testing, or all of the valedictorians, or most of the Eagle Scouts, or every student who’s never gotten a “B” grade. We are trying to admit the bright, talented, accomplished students who would be great at Bowdoin.

And of course we have way too many of exactly that sort of person in our applicant pool for the small size of our class. So, it is at the complicated intersection of amazingly talented applicants, absolutely limited space, abundant credentials, and our own reading of the files that the committee must operate.

Votes are rare in committee. My job is to manage our discussions, see consensus when it’s there, reach for it when we need it, and keep us all moving to the next candidate, the next school, to the next state.  We have a veteran staff, and everyone understands how tough it’s going to be starting on Thursday.  Each one of us, including the dean, is hoping that some of the applicants who appealed to us when we read them will be admitted, and we each know that some very strong students in our territory surely will not be admitted because applicants we haven’t seen yet, from another person’s area, will prove more compelling to the group.

…it is at the complicated intersection of amazingly talented applicants, absolutely limited space, abundant credentials, and our own reading of the files that the committee must operate.

One aspect of our committee discussions that is incredibly important to the outcome is that we don’t talk about money. Admissions decisions in this round are blind to financial need, and we’re able to respond to all of the different talents, backgrounds, and interests that our applicants present, and to all of the promise we see in them, without considering their ability to pay. Need-blind admission is perhaps its own topic for the Bowdoin Daily Sun, but we all know that we would be making different decisions if Bowdoin did not have the commitment to, and the financial resources for, its current level of financial aid.

We’ll be sending out our admission letters in late March. In the meantime, we’ll be gathered around our table, in committee, doing our best to bring the College a fantastic Class of 2015.

9 thoughts on “Dean Scott Meiklejohn: Table for Twelve-Inside Bowdoin’s Admissions Committee

  1. Don Doele '59

    I do quite a few “mock interviews” with students. One question I always ask is how she/he identified Bowdoin as a choice and what has been his/her experience. I am always impressed with their answers and that they are all certain that they made the right choice. You are to be commmended on your selection process.

    Don ’59

  2. Ana Priscila Laforet

    One of the best, most honest, and hope-inspiring articles about college that I have ever read.

  3. Larry and Jeanne Clampitt

    Excellent presentation of a most challenging task. It helps us appreciate what our daughter, Dean Martha Merrill, is going through right now.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Dean Scott Meiklejohn: Table for Twelve—Inside Bowdoin’s Admissions Committee « Bowdoin Daily Sun -- Topsy.com

  5. Alice T. Davison '83

    This was a terrific article and a good reminder that at the end of the day this is not a 2-dimensional process about statistics and strategies; it’s about people – amazing people applying to college and thoughtful people reading, discussing and making decisions. Thanks for the insights.

  6. paul ferenc

    Great article explaining a difficult process….how many of the 485 are early decision?

  7. Heidi Milardo

    Your thoughtful admissions process is why my son is a very happy and successful Bowdoin Freshman. Thank you for noticing this perfect fit!

Comments are closed.

thumb: