|Despite continuing laments over the stress of the college-admissions process, there is no sign of a letup. The numbers explain why: At Penn, for example, 25,000 or so high-school seniors vie for roughly 2,500 slots annually. And based on their grades, extracurricular activities, and other metrics, many, if not most, of the young men and women knocking at the University’s door are deserving of acceptance and would do just fine here if they were admitted.
So, how to stand out in this extraordinary crowd? One place that Penn alumni families can turn for answers is the Alumni Council on Admissions (www.alumni.upenn.edu/aca).
Elsie Sterling Howard CW’68, who chairs the ACA’s volunteer advisory board, calls it a “unique and special service” that is available only to Penn alumni. “No other university that we know of does this.” Though it’s been around for decades, the ACA’s role has shifted dramatically over the years, Howard adds.
It was born at a time—the 1970s—when the University saw a need to actively encourage alumni children to apply to Penn. Those days are long gone, however—about 1,800 legacies applied last year—and the ACA’s focus now is on helping alumni families evaluate whether Penn is the right place for their children or grandchildren, and, if so, how applicants can present themselves in the best possible light.
“We think we can provide the kind of concierge service that will actually assist parents and give them real information” throughout the process, Howard says, “not to provide leverage but a personal relationship, answering their questions and giving professional and correct advice.” Above all, that advice will be “Penn-specific,” she adds.
The question selective institutions ask about their highly qualified applicants is, “Which ones fit or match to us?” says Steve Hamilton, senior associate director for the ACA. “And admissions [officers] will tell you that all the time, but they don’t always give a definition to what they mean by fit or match, and we do.”
ACA volunteers and staff alike are emphatic that they have no decision-making role in admissions and no particular pull with admissions officers. But they do have special insights gleaned from close experience with the process. ACA staff sit in on a portion of an admissions committee hearing—the storied sessions in which applicants are judged—and they also get to see some of the applications students have submitted.
“All told, we’ll get a sampling of a couple hundred applications a year where we really get a feel for what they’re looking for,” says Hamilton. “We’ve learned about the nuances of the selection process,” he adds. “And we’re looking more deeply into each component of the application and telling legacy kids: This is what you can do to strengthen your application.”
ACA offers multiple daily drop-in advising sessions year-round for alumni families, timed so that they can be combined with the admissions office’s information session and campus tour. Hamilton estimates that 1,200 to 1,300 students attended during the most recent admissions cycle. While the sessions don’t offer individual advising, they tend to be fairly intimate, with a handful of families participating at a time.
Other services include a program called “Linking Legacies,” which puts prospective applicants in touch with another legacy student currently attending Penn. Alumni are encouraged to register and provide children’s names and birthdates through the ACA website in order to start receiving information as early as seventh grade. (Yes, really.)
The ACA is in the midst of creating printed materials that will incorporate more age-specific information—the better to alert alumni to the fact that, in the current environment, college planning really should start in middle school rather than junior year of high school. By that point, explains Hamilton, “it’s almost a game-over situation” in terms of curriculum.
This is especially critical for potential applicants to Wharton, Engineering, or those intending to pursue quantitative majors in the College, where advanced math courses are essential. But all applicants should consider seeking out advanced placement courses, if available at their school, rather than, say, just an honors curriculum.
Another tip: Deciding early provides an edge. Legacy applicants get “maximum consideration” at the early-decision stage, Hamilton notes. In general, Penn chooses to rely on the early-decision pool to form its class to a greater extent than many other schools, accepting 28 to 34 percent of all applicants over the last five years, according to statistics provided by the ACA. Qualified legacies did even better, with a 38 to 42 percent admissions rate. (That does not mean, Hamilton adds, that legacies are discriminated against in the general applicant pool, as has been rumored. Rather, legacy and non-legacy results are similar at that stage, at a 12 to 15 percent acceptance rate.)
Even with the best advice, of course, like everyone else the majority of legacy applicants won’t be admitted. What’s most important—understandable disappointment aside—is that alumni families feel they’ve been well served. “The way I measure success is how many people come through the door and appreciate what we’re giving them, regardless of the ultimate admission decision,” Hamilton says. —J.P.
| ©2010 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 8/25/10