Illustration by John S. Dykes
Photo by Bill Arsenault
Mari Fagel has been preparing for this moment for a long time. In September she will become a student at Northwestern, fulfilling a dream she’s had since the ninth grade.
“Northwestern stood out above any other university for me,” says Fagel. “I love being in Evanston, and I know that this is the best fit.”
Chris Eckels knows the feeling. Yes, he will miss seeing the stars and meteor showers in the desert sky. He’ll miss the smell of the red Utah clay after a spring thunderstorm. But he’s willing to give it all up to follow his acting dreams at Northwestern.
Fagel and Eckels join in a ritual almost as old as the Rock. Every fall a fresh crop of articulate, artistic, intelligent and curious undergraduate students comes to Northwestern.
As usual, some of the smartest students in the country will descend on Evanston in mid-September. They bring with them extensive academic preparation and the highest average SAT score in the history of the University, continuing a longtime trend of progressively increasing scores.
But as the bar continues to rise, the competition — among students for admission and among universities for the brightest students — gets tougher, putting ever-increasing pressure on the 17- and 18-year-olds who often spend hundreds of dollars on application fees and hours and hours on college essays to apply to as many as 10 or more schools.
A multibillion-dollar industry, with test preparation, admission consultants and all the trappings of expensive marketing, has sprung up to feed student fears — and offer supposed pathways to success.
“The relationship between the college admission office and prospective students has changed from an amiable one to more of a business exchange, or a competitive game,” says Rebecca Dixon, the former associate provost for university enrollment who retired in June. “But I wish students and families could cut through the hype and see more clearly the characteristics of various schools to find the right fit.”
Ella Yung came to the Northwestern information session at the Indianapolis Marriott North in September 2004 to “get to know the college a little better.”
Yung, then a senior at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, knew Northwestern from attending a Center for Talent Development precalculus honors program during the summer after her sophomore year. She liked the campus, its proximity to Chicago and the University’s national reputation. She also appreciated Northwestern’s academic climate, the scope and strength of its course offerings and the diversity of the student body.
In fall 2004 Yung was one of close to 150,000 students in the University’s initial prospective student pool. From there, the funnel to enrollment narrows. Through self-selection the initial pool was trimmed to 65,000 interested prospects. More than 30,000 took time to learn more about the University, either through campus visits and tours or hotel information sessions. More than 16,230 students applied, the second highest total in Northwestern history. The University admitted just over 5,000 students in the hope that two out of every five would accept the University’s invitation to attend. By early May, more than 2,000 first-year students had committed to enroll, and after the standard summer “melt” — when students who have paid the enrollment deposit decide later not to enroll for various reasons — Northwestern stood remarkably close to enrolling its annual goal of 1,925 students. (At press time the number was 1,975 students.)
While the first-year class is still taking shape, the focus shifts to transfer students. In a process organized by Margaret Miranda, senior assistant director of admission, Northwestern enrolls around 100 transfer students out of 800 applicants per year.
“It’s an enormous enterprise,” Dixon says. “You want to wind up with the right number of freshmen, your aid budget in balance, diverse and high-quality students distributed correctly among the schools. And you want to choose students who’ll stay here.”
Yung is one of those incoming students.
During the Indianapolis information session Sheppard “Shep” Shanley, senior associate director of admission, hit the Northwestern highlights and offered tips for admission. He also encouraged a campus visit.
Yung accepted the invitation. She came for Northwestern’s Discover NU program, a fall open house and overnight program for prospective applicants. Yung recognized Shanley as one of the greeters, and more importantly he remembered her. (see "The Face Of Northwestern")
“When he recognized me, I was really impressed,” says Yung. “I don’t know how many people he meets every day, but I’m sure it’s a ton, and the fact that he could recognize my face a few months after we first met was pretty cool. It gave me this sense of acceptance.”
Yung, a clarinetist for nine years, knew that Northwestern’s strength in a variety of disciplines would allow her to pursue her interests in biology and medicine without sacrificing her love for the fine arts. Convinced that Northwestern provided the best fit for her, Yung opted to apply early decision and was accepted.
Northwestern will enroll about 26 percent of its incoming class from the 1,084 early decision applicants who applied in November 2004. Early decision acceptance is a binding commitment — if you are accepted you agree to attend. There is a slightly higher acceptance rate (approximately 10 percentage points higher) for early decision applicants, perhaps because it’s a smaller applicant pool, but also because applicants show an indication of more motivation about the University.
The Indianapolis session at the Marriott’s Brady Room was the first stop for Shanley and associate director of admission Onis Cheathams on a two-state Midwest swing in September that also included a session in Dearborn, Mich.
Cheathams also leads a team, including assistant directors Landis Fryer, Antonia “Toni” Garcia (C03), Kenneth Hutchinson (SESP04) and Janet Olivo, that specializes in minority recruitment through high school visits, college fairs and hotel sessions. In total 16 Northwestern admission officers hit 48 U.S. cities and parts of Europe and Asia in the fall. (The 17th admission officer, associate director Alicia Trujillo [G91], monitors operations on the home front.)
“I feel like a military strategist, plotting admission officers around the country,” says director of undergraduate admission Keith Todd, who barely takes a breath when he discusses the overlapping 18-month schedules that admission staff members keep.
Shanley also takes his show overseas for at least two weeks of international recruiting in Europe, eastern Asia, the Middle East, Turkey or India. When he made his first international trip in fall 1980, just 14 first-year Northwestern students had attended high school outside the United States, Shanley says. “We had nowhere to go but up.”
Now 6.3 percent of the incoming class (125 students as of June) are educated outside the United States; 4.9 percent (96 students as of June) are citizens of other countries.
The majority of international students come from Canada, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
But a new international endeavor — managed by assistant director of admission Aaron Zdawczyk — to provide need-based financial aid for a small number of highly qualified foreign citizens attracted 321 international applicants and garnered 10 additional international students, largely from places where Northwestern does not recruit on the undergraduate level, including Bulgaria, Mainland China, Ghana, Israel, Kenya and Romania.
Snapshot of Northwestern
During an early August 2004 visit to the Office of Undergraduate Admission, a father and daughter scan piles of Northwestern brochures while a series of facts flashes on the screen at the front of the room. Ted Nugent, the rock star and political activist who spoke at Northwestern in 2003, appears on the screen. The father asks his daughter, “Ever heard of him?” She shakes her head no, and he chuckles. While members of this incoming class of 2009 might not know Nugent, they might find it amusing that former Friends star David Schwimmer (C88) and former Saturday Night Live cast member Ana Gasteyer (C89) were both students on campus the year most of them were born, 1987.
More than 23,000 prospective students and parents visited campus in 2004 for an information session, tour or overnight experience such as the fall Discover NU or the spring Preview NU programs, which provide a snapshot of life at Northwestern. The overnight experience does not increase an applicant’s chances of acceptance, though assistant director of admission Tom Menchhofer says the campus visit does add value to the student’s application. And prospective students say the overnight visit is the number one factor in their decision-making process.
Mari Fagel knew she wanted to attend Northwestern even before she set foot on campus. Coming to Evanston — even in the dead of winter — convinced her of her fit with the University.
By the time she applied, Fagel of Beverly Hills, Calif., had done an informal overnight visit in January of her junior year and attended the National High School Institute summer journalism program. She also participated in Northwestern’s online chats, attended an information session in the Los Angeles area and interviewed with alumnus Alexander Scarlis (J00), an actor who lives in Los Angeles.
Those repeated visits to campus and other contacts showed the aspiring broadcast journalist’s motivation for Northwestern (see “Why Northwestern,” page 31) and complemented her solid academic record at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, Calif. “Her application just came together in all the right places,” says Grant Thatcher, associate director of admission.
So Fagel will get to experience the next four winters in Evanston. “I don’t think the weather will bother me,” she says. “And sometimes the snow can be quaint.”
Other students never have the opportunity to visit Northwestern and come to know the University only through its online presence.
More than 80 percent of Northwestern’s incoming class applied online. It’s a point of increasing emphasis for Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Admission.
This year the University unveiled a series of electronic postcards to target engineering students, whose numbers have slumped nationwide. They also sent a sleek multimedia newsletter and a series of “myth buster” electronic postcards to prospective students of all interests. Northwestern’s Student Admission Council and admission staff hosted a series of targeted, informational, invitation-only Internet chats.
The focus is personal attention. “That’s the race these days — to show the students you’re really interested,” says Bob Henkins, director of information systems for University enrollment.
“We have to find the best way to deliver information,” says Dixon. “The power of the web has changed the admission business because people can now get information about Northwestern without ever talking to us. It’s a positive advancement, but it means we’re speaking to people very differently.”
It Takes a Wildcat to Know One
Each winter members of Northwestern’s Alumni Admission Council interview applicants around the world. The optional 20- to 30-minute conversation with a local alumnus enhances the student’s application.
“We read more than 16,000 applications over 15 weeks. The interview gives us the opportunity, through your eyes, to get to know the students,” Allen Lentino, the senior associate director who oversees the Alumni Admission Council, told the 23 Chicago AAC members who gathered on campus to interview in January. The interviews are part of the AAC’s work in more than 90 chapters around the world. Founded nearly 40 years ago, the AAC and its estimated 4,000 members also represent Northwestern at regional information sessions and high school college nights, and in the summer they host new student welcome parties for enrolling students, sometimes in collaboration with local Northwestern alumni clubs.
The interviews allow alumni like Andrew Kerr (C88) an opportunity to give back. “Northwestern gave me a tremendous opportunity both academically and financially,” says Kerr, an architect with the Chicago firm Valerio, Dewalt Train Associates who met his wife, Stephanie O’Connell Kerr (C89), at Northwestern. “That opportunity is a debt that needs to be repaid. It will take years to pay back that debt financially. I can donate my time and donate my knowledge and my passion for the school.”
For Penny Levin (WCAS77), her love for Northwestern was something she couldn’t help but pass on.
When Levin, a psychologist who lives in Lafayette Hill, Pa., enrolled in fall 1973, she began a lifelong partnership with the University, where she met her husband, Phil Rosenberg (J75, GC77), today a pharmaceutical market research consultant. She started volunteering in the admission office as an undergraduate, and today Levin is one of two co-directors of the Philadelphia AAC chapter.
So when it came time for their daughters, Sarina and Brenna, to look at colleges, “both went through their ‘anywhere but Northwestern’ phase,” says Levin.
Looking for an institution with a strong science curriculum and a solid music school, Brenna, a saxophone player, finally visited Northwestern. “And I fell in love,” she says. “I feel like I have lived here my entire life. I said, ‘I feel like I’m home.’”
Both will be students at Northwestern in the fall — Sarina a sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism and Brenna a first-year student in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Despite her connections to the Northwestern admission process, Levin knew her daughters would be evaluated on their own merits. And Brenna, who graduated third in her class of 400 from Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, says she hopes her Northwestern classmates understand that she earned admission on her own.
But being a child of an alumnus does count for something. More than 471 incoming students have family ties to the University, including 187 with at least one parent who attended Northwestern.
“Where all other things are equal, legacy status is a plus and can make a difference,” says Keith Todd, director of undergraduate admission. “It’s a slight advantage. It’s not a wide-open door.” Todd, along with dean of undergraduate admission Carol Lunkenheimer, reads every application recommended for denial from children of Northwestern alumni, faculty or staff.
A Human Process
When senior assistant director of admission Kevin Byrne received his first batch of early decision applications in early November, he encountered Chris Eckels, an energetic, likable senior at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah, an outpost along Interstate 40 near Dinosaur National Monument in the northeast corner of the state.
Eckels, an aspiring actor, had considered Northwestern his top choice since the beginning of his college search. But during a campus visit and tour of the theater department, the student host told him that theater at Northwestern is so exclusive it is nearly impossible for nonmajors to be involved and theater majors have almost no time for any nontheater studies. That would leave little opportunity for Eckels to fulfill his passion for history. His enthusiasm for the University quickly cooled.
Then in July 2004 Eckels was performing at the weeklong American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference in Salt Lake City. Rives Collins, associate professor and chair of the theater department at Northwestern, happened to be in the audience. Collins was so impressed with Eckels that he waited around for three hours after the show to talk with him. “He very gradually brought up the fact that he was chair of the theater department,” Eckels says. “For him to sit and wait for three hours to talk with me, it’s just another example of the attitude at Northwestern. It’s very personable.”
After Collins convinced him that he was misinformed by the student host, Eckels scrapped his list of 10 final schools and applied early decision to Northwestern. His file was directed to Byrne.
In Northwestern’s admission process, teams of individual readers determine the outcome for each applicant’s file. While some colleges and universities take every application to a committee vote, Northwestern admission decisions are determined by reader ratings in a round-robin format.
Each file receives an individual read. The first reader makes comments on the application, then sends it on to a senior admission staff member who serves as a second reader. If their decisions mesh, the decision is complete as an admit or deny. In the case of a split — which according to Byrne happens fairly infrequently — the application moves to a third reader, always a senior-level staff member. In rare cases an application will go to a fourth reader.
While every institution has its own system for admission decisions, Todd says the Northwestern process is tailored to meet the University’s needs and the priorities of the six undergraduate schools.
As a first reader, Byrne spent 12 to 15 minutes with Eckels’ application, reviewing the file in four major categories — academics, with attention to rigor of the curriculum and test scores; initiative, with a focus not only on activities, but also leadership, engagement and recognition; communication, specifically an evaluation of the applicant’s short-answer statements, “Why NU?” response and 400- to 500-word personal statement; and motivation, with emphasis on contacts with the University, personal connections and overall enthusiasm for Northwestern.
Academically, Eckels had solid scores on the standardized tests and graduated third in his 128-member class. Outside the classroom he was an award-winning actor. He worked in Xan Johnson’s (GC78) theater education program, Youth Theater at the U at the University of Utah, where he was also recruited to work in university productions. He is also a jazz musician, teaches saxophone lessons and earned his high school’s Louis Armstrong Jazz Musician of the Year award. He also played soccer and served as a tutor.
On the writing portion of the application, Eckels connected with Byrne on the “Why NU?” response, where Eckels discussed his meeting with Collins. “He was really enthusiastic about Northwestern,” says Byrne. “That came through.”
In terms of motivation for the University, Eckels had visited campus on his own. He met Collins. Finally, a glowing recommendation from his guidance counselor set the stage for a positive overall rating from Byrne.
Nine days after Byrne completed his analysis of Eckels, senior associate director Allen Lentino also reviewed the entire application in the same manner as the first reader and noted his thoughts on the inside back cover of the file. He largely agreed with Byrne, and Eckels became a member of the class of 2009, making him the first student from Union High School ever to attend Northwestern.
In this way the readers combed through 16,231 applications, reading every word of every file, giving each applicant individual attention.
“Once we determine a candidate is academically viable, then it really does become a human process,” says assistant director of admission Tom Menchhofer. “Clearly we like students who like us, and that comes across in the essays, the letters of recommendation, the student’s knowledge of and interest in the University, their activities — the passionate side of the application.”
All applicants, even those recommended for denial, receive a second reading on the “chance that you might catch something that the first reader, in all good faith, might have missed,” senior associate director Shep Shanley says.
The Northwestern process of individualized review is in line with the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action policy upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, which allows race to play a role in an admission decision. In the Northwestern process, each application is read in context, unlike the former University of Michigan undergraduate policy that awarded points to African American, Latino and American Indian applicants. The Supreme Court struck down Michigan’s undergraduate process in 2003.
“We have always done these individualized reviews, which is why Michigan lost the undergraduate case, because they had everything on the point system,” says Lunkenheimer. “We were never doing that. We were reading everything in the file cover to cover. We were reading each file as a whole person.”
“No one applies in a vacuum,” says Todd, who points out that Northwestern looks for students who add diversity in every sense of the word — diversity of talents, diversity of opinion, diversity of interests. Ethnic heritage can’t be all that they bring. “Every applicant is viewed in the life he or she leads.”
One Last Look
In late March the Office of Undergraduate Admission sends out its decisions, though not exclusively in the thick — or thin — envelope of yesteryear. While Northwestern still sends decisions in the mail, today’s students have the option to view their notification on the web. Northwestern was one of the first schools to offer electronic notification five years ago.
After the admission decisions arrive, the balance of power shifts to the admitted student. “I think a lot of people think admission counselors have big egos — ‘You have such power, deciding who gets in and who doesn’t,’” says Keith Todd. “Everything changes when the student has that acceptance letter, and he or she says, ‘Why should I go to Northwestern and not another top college?’” he says, his arms crossed indignantly. “So we have to go to the students we reviewed and chose over the winter and now explain why they should choose Northwestern.”
At the end of April, Rachel Vaughn was waiting to be convinced.
Having already visited Boston University, Vaughn — and nearly 1,000 other admitted students, including more than 100 highly talented, low-income students whom Northwestern flew to Chicago — came to campus last spring for Preview NU, an invitation-only opportunity for a two-day last look at Northwestern before student enrollment decisions were due May 1. It’s also a last chance for Northwestern to roll out the red carpet.
Vaughn had applied regular decision to the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and by mid-February her file landed on Janet Olivo’s desk. With almost all A’s, Vaughn ranked in the top 2 percent of her class at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, Mo. Her activities included four years playing clarinet in the symphonic band and serving as president of the school debate team and captain of the color guard.
Though she was already a solid applicant, Vaughn’s academic achievements and activity level became more impressive after Olivo read her personal statement. Vaughn talked about dealing with crisis. She spoke from personal experience.
“On November 13, 2004, I was diagnosed with stage one Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” she wrote. A “practical person” who was accustomed to success, Vaughn decided she would deal with the cancer, undergo treatments and move on — stick to the plan. Sure, she knew that she would lose her hair, but Vaughn did not plan on the emotional toll that cancer would take. The chemotherapy wiped her out, but if she took time to recover, she missed valuable class time. Her grades soon reflected her absences. The stress of falling behind increased.
“I began to realize that I could not do it all and that trying to would continue to endanger my health,” she wrote. So Vaughn reprioritized her life, setting realistic goals for her schoolwork and cutting back on activities.
Olivo was impressed with Vaughn’s maturity. Second reader Onis Cheathams was similarly impressed, and Northwestern offered Vaughn admission.
Preview NU gave Vaughn the opportunity to learn about campus life. She stayed in a campus residence hall and attended an information session on the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. By the time she returned home, Vaughn had made up her mind.
“It will cost my family $4,000 more a year for me to attend Northwestern,” Vaughn says. “This is quite a bit for my family, but we decided it’s worth it. The education and degree will be so much better from Northwestern. … The opportunities for student life, education and internships were amazing. I really think I made the right choice!”
So Vaughn is coming to Northwestern, where she’ll join Okechukwu Chika Jr. of Stone Mountain, Ga., who says his Preview NU visit bolstered his commitment to study electrical engineering at Northwestern. During Preview NU he met electrical and computer engineering professor Allen Taflove while wandering the Technological Institute. “The professor made a good impression on him,” said Okechukwu’s father, Okechukwu “Okey” Chika Sr., who lives in Nigeria. “It made him make up his mind where he wants to be.”
Yira Melissa Vilaro of Mérida, Mexico, in the Yucatán, will be here, too. Like her mother, Yira Fantauzzi, and stepfather, Alberto Gómez (KSM91), Vilaro will study in the United States. “We want the best possible education,” says her mother.
Mary “Katie” Wright, a Lake Forest High School graduate from Lake Forest, Ill., and daughter of Cathy Raines Wright (KSM78), will come to Northwestern to study history and to pursue her aspirations of directing a nonprofit organization focused on educating women and children around the world.
For some students, like Sybil Ottenstein, of Potomac, Md., Northwestern will wait a year. A graduate of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., Ottenstein fell in love with the University the moment she walked on campus. But Ottenstein is deferring her enrollment to live for nine months in Israel for Young Judaea’s Year Course, where she’ll study in Jerusalem, volunteer in Tel Aviv and possibly train with the Israeli army.
This fall, like every fall for more than 150 years, some of the best and brightest will come to Northwestern. The students can’t wait. And after so many months seeking and selecting the incoming class, neither can the admission staff, if only they had time to celebrate.
“It is very exciting, having read the applications of so many talented young people, to know that more than 1,900 will be joining us in the fall. I think back about how enthusiastic I was when I read their files, or when I met them at Preview NU — these students are really amazing,” says Todd. “But the cycles for each incoming class overlap, so even as we await students’ acceptance of our offers, we are already out again around the country, recruiting the junior class. There’s no time for resting on our laurels.”
Sean Hargadon is senior editor of Northwestern magazine.
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