With surging numbers of applicants and a limited staff, admissions officers at colleges and universities across the nation have found themselves under increasing strain to find time for careful, holistic application review in recent years. This is especially true at Swarthmore, where several substantial changes in the application for the class of 2019 caused an unprecedented 41% rise in the number of applicants to the college last year, placing immense demands on admissions staff to comprehensively review each application. This year, however, in anticipation of further increases in the number of applicants due to a reduction in testing requirements, the Admissions Office instituted a complete overhaul of the reading process, transforming the long-standing method of at-home review by individual readers to a committee-based reading process that occurs in the office. While the new system substantially reduces the amount of time spent on each application, which some worry might diminish its ability to facilitate a holistic review of each candidate, admissions deans at the college believe that it will in fact allow for less stress, better decision-making, and more time for outreach efforts and recruiting.
The change in practice was inspired last spring by two visits to the undergraduate admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania by Director of Admissions JT Duck and Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90. Duck and Bock met with Yvonne Romero Da Silva, director of admissions at Penn, to hear about Penn’s newly installed application review process known as Committee Based Evaluation. Penn and Swarthmore are incredibly dissimilar in terms of the scopes of their applicant pools — applicants to Penn apply to one of seven individual schools, and Penn receives nearly five times the number of applicants that Swarthmore does — Duck and Bock hoped to use the Penn model as inspiration for much-needed changes in the admissions process at Swarthmore after a particularly demanding admissions season last year.
“The pressure to move quickly, as the numbers increase and the calendar remains the same, has been plaguing admissions offices nationwide for years,” Bock explained. “Many have been forced to pull back or amend their holistic review in an attempt to meet the demand. Penn created the model and were sharing it openly, and we are always considering best practices and other ways to achieve our objectives. We were glad to accept the invitation to witness the system first hand.”
Impressed by the way in which the Penn model was able to reduce the time spent on each application and better manage the review of transfer applicants, Duck spent the summer and much of the fall designing and implementing an iteration of Penn’s committee-based process suited for Swarthmore. The model was introduced in November for Early Decision admissions, marking a significant departure from the college’s traditional admissions practice.
According to Lee Paczulla ’05, who is in her third year as an Admissions Counselor at the college, in the past, each admissions reader was tasked with a daily quota of applications to read individually. Depending on the number of applicants as well as the time of year in the admissions calendar, this quota fluctuated significantly and at times forced admissions officers to take on a taxing number of applications.
“I would be the ‘first reader’ on all the files from my regional territory,” explained Paczulla, who is the Regional Director for Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, and parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania. “I would review the file, rate it in terms of competitiveness within our overall applicant pool, and write up a summary of my evaluation for a ‘second reader’ to review. Then the file would be routed through our online system to a second reader — usually randomly, to another Dean or Counselor on our staff — who would do the same thing…The two ratings then directed whether a file would move on to review by the full Admissions Committee or not, which met after all first and second reads were complete.”
During the particularly busy months of January and February, Paczulla explained, readers were able to evaluate applications from home in order to make the process of meeting the higher daily quota more comfortable. Though Paczulla explained that she appreciated the freedom to dress down or stay indoors on days with bad weather, the ability to bring applications out of the office and review at one’s own pace also made it acceptable for the workday to extend long after traditional hours.
“When reading independently, it was easy for the quota of daily files we each had to read to stretch into the 7pm, 8pm, sometimes 11pm hour,” Paczulla explained.
Wes Willison ’13, who worked as an admissions officer at the college until last June, and rejoined the staff as a part-time reader this winter, agreed that the old system was incredibly draining for readers.
“Before the change, the process was long and wearying,” Willison explained. “Massive amounts of time spent alone without interpersonal contact, reading highly emotional and complex applications for the purpose of judging and sorting. It was spiritually and emotionally exhausting for me.”
The unhealthy work-life balance imposed by the old system was a point of serious consideration for Bock and Duck while designing the new system. Bock noted that frequently, the stress of the particularly difficult months can undermine morale and reduce employee satisfaction.
“Often, the profession loses bright and upcoming leaders as the longer hours, particularly during reading season, push younger staff away from a rewarding career in admissions and education,” Bock explained. In order to create a better working environment for staff, Bock hopes that the new system will reduce the individual burdens placed on each admissions reader.
Under the committee-based method, a team of two admissions readers collaboratively review each application in the office, which facilitates dialogue about the competitiveness of each applicant as the review process takes place. In the past, admissions officers would write a synopsis of each application after reading it, summarizing their impressions in order to brief the second reader, but with the new team system, such written evaluations have become obsolete as readers can sit with each other and discuss their impressions in person. According to Bock, this has the effect of reducing the amount of time that individual readers — as well as the office as a whole — spend reviewing each applicant and reaching consensus on admission.
“The past redundancy of repeated individual reviews and often overlapping written summaries has diminished substantially and allows for more eyes to see each file in a timelier manner and allows more time for committee discussion for the most competitive files,” Bock explained. “Our application and file review process is web-based, so all deans have access to all files simultaneously, and this reduces the need for long written summaries and evaluations.”
“Having us both in the room looking at the application together removes a lot of redundant time from the process, and makes our review far more efficient,” she explained. “I can’t wear leggings anymore — but it is actually nice to read with a partner in the office. As an extrovert, I like being able to talk through a file with a partner — essentially, the ‘second reader’ from the old system.”
Creating dialogue around each application also has the advantage of diminishing the potential for individual readers’ subtle prejudices or unintended misunderstandings to influence the perceived competitiveness of an applicant. When an applicant arouses significant disagreement, their file is read and discussed collectively and in person so that each admissions officer can bring their unique viewpoint to the reviewing process.
“Every reader has strengths and weaknesses, biases, blind spots, etc. — we’re all human,” Paczulla explained. “The old process had checks and balances for that, but it makes me a better and stronger reader to have someone asking me the right questions as I read, right in the moment, to push back on areas where I might be tougher or more lenient in evaluating a student’s competitiveness in the process — and vice versa. We have diverse perspectives in our office that help us to build a strong and well-rounded first-year class. This process brings those perspectives into active, in-person engagement, which I think makes us all better at our jobs.”
“Having to defend, to someone else, why you find a student worth further consideration makes for a more robust evaluation process in all stages of reading,” Willison said. “There is less of a chance that students would be read hastily or with less care, which gives more accountability and focus. This is also in part because there are more breaks and more space to not read, which makes reading time more intentional and less draggy by mid to late February.”
Though many in the office are pleased about the changes that have occurred in recent months, others have hesitated to unequivocally support the new system. Some concerns have been raised that by prioritizing efficiency, the Penn model may risk sacrificing some of the thoughtful, intensive reading process that a holistic review of applications demands. Larger universities like Penn can have different admissions priorities than small colleges like Swarthmore, relying on data-based heuristics such GPA and SAT scores in order to more efficiently cull their sizeable applicant pools. At Swarthmore, while such numerical data is undoubtedly important, such factors have never been considered to be solely determinative of an applicant’s initial competitiveness.
“Employing a holistic review means starting with collecting a picture of a student’s personal biography and putting grades and standardized testing in context of opportunities presented and reviewing all essays, teacher recommendations, and other supporting documents,” Bock explained. “This is a labor intensive process that is neither static nor formulaic.”
Attention to detail during longer, individual reviewing periods has traditionally been the reading method pursued to keep the college’s admissions process in line with institutional priorities. As the college makes a concerted effort to increase the recruitment of low-income, first generation, undocumented, and minority students, some noted the potential for a more fast-paced review model to hinder these efforts.
“In the aggregate, we are able to review our files faster, and I think that was a worry for some people,” Paczulla explained. “Would we still be able to give students’ applications the time they deserved?”
Despite initial concern, however, Paczulla felt that the new system was ultimately advantageous for all concerned parties.
“While it does move faster, having seen the old way and the new way, I actually don’t think that’s a downside — for applicants, or for the college,” Paczulla said. “We haven’t changed what we’re looking for, in terms of the quality of students, or our institutional priorities. We’re really just working in a more efficient way.”
“Honestly, it’s an entirely better way of working,” Willison said. “As far as whether the class will actually be qualitatively different, I think that’s highly unlikely, but there’s still the necessary reflective work over the coming years on whether anything has changed.”
The Board of Managers announced this past weekend that the college intends to increase enrollment by another 20 students for the class of 2021, adding to a cumulative increase of 80 students over the past four years. With greater pressure to choose larger class sizes coupled with rising numbers of applications, Bock is excited about the potential that the new reviewing system may hold.
“In our initial year, we have achieved greater efficiencies and discontinued part-time readers, while the application count remains extremely high for the second straight year,” Bock explained. “With over 7700 applications this year, we are slated to release decisions on time in late March.”