Lee Stetson

Lee Stetson

The Undergraduate Admissions Office is Penn's front door. The man in charge describes how he and his staff decide who is welcomed in.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

When it comes to college admissions, the one thing everybody knows for sure is that fat envelopes bring good news and skinny envelopes are bad news. Even that no longer pertains. On April 2, beginning at 5 p.m., applicants to Penn who couldn’t wait for the mailman could get the news online.

This year, throughout the Ivy League, decision letters were mailed at midnight on April 2. For the Undergraduate Admissions Office, it meant that they have completed a critical step in what Dean Lee Stetson describes as “sculpting” the Class of 2007.

During the month of April, many of those accepted students and their parents will be on campus for Penn Previews. They will get a chance to walk the Walk, talk to faculty, check out the dorms and food and, by May, make their own decision about whether Penn is the right school for them. For Stetson and his staff, it will be the culmination of a year-long effort to identify and recruit another outstanding group of young men and women who will make up next year’s freshmen class.

Although Admissions is one of Penn’s most public faces, interacting with tens of thousands of people each year—many of whom will never set foot in West Philadelphia—internally its practices remain a little mysterious. As prospective students descend on campus in the next few weeks, it seemed a good time to ask Stetson to help de-mystify the process.

Q. What are the statistics for the Class of 2007?
We are still in the midst of completing this year’s class, but we estimate a class size of about 2,385 to 2,400. We will be choosing that group from a pool of 18,816. 47 percent of the class is already in under early decision. The quality of the class will be exceptional… as it has been in recent years.

We will probably see a class coming from all 50 states. 10 percent will be from the international community. Probably 37 to 38 percent will be students of color of all types of backgrounds and walks of life. It will be students who not only excel in the classroom, which is the number one element that we are looking at, but also those students who will make a mark outside in different ways.

Q. Prospective students fill out an application, then what happens?
Applications arrive usually in the summer between a student’s junior and senior year.

As the application arrives, either in paper form or online, and we are seeing an increasing number of students applying online—maybe 35 percent this year and expect it to be close to 50 percent next year—a folder is created. Once the folder is complete, usually in November, it goes to the admissions officers to be read.

They then spend a number of weeks reading all of the folders, making judgements about the students, reflecting a bit on their strengths and weaknesses, especially their academic record, their non-academic involvements, their ability to write and express themselves and their recommendations from various people—from alumni interviews and from interactions with the admissions office. They then summarize that on a reader-rating card.

Q. How do you divide up responsibility with the Admissions Office?
. We have 19 admissions officers [including the Dean] assigned to 15 different regions of the country, four are assigned to international [one is assigned to transfers, which has a separate process] and they see all the folders for their region.

The admissions officer is the mentor for the students applying from his or her region. The admissions officer is the one who helps champion their chances for admission before a committee that includes the chair—several people chair the committee; I do some of the chairing—the associate deans [for admission] and representatives from each of the four undergraduate schools.

The admissions officers come to committee with a recommendation to admit, deny or wait-list the student. In many cases, they are unclear. We talk about all the various aspects of the applicant and we try to find a reason to admit as many students as we possibly can. We go around [the table] and together by consensus decide who will be admitted.

Q. How are members of faculty and staff families handled?
We look at faculty and staff cases separately. We also look at alumni cases separately.

We look at them to be sure we are being fair and equitable to everybody. Under the rubric of “choosing the class” and making sure there is a reasonable representation from students from those backgrounds, we give every faculty and staff case a very thorough review. There is no requirement that they are automatically admissible, but we encourage them…try to be helpful and admit as many as we can.

Q. Is recruitment an important part of the admissions process?
We continue to look for new opportunities to tell students about Penn. In April and May and then again from mid-August to early November, admissions officers are traveling nationally and internationally to reach out to students who might have an interest in Penn.

In one successful venture, we have traveled with Harvard, Duke and Georgetown for the past ten years arranging programs in different cities around the country. We saw 23,000 students and parents last year through that program.

Q. How has Penn’s high ranking in the annual U.S. News list of top-rated universities helped recruitment?
The visibility of the University has been a terrific help to us. The city of Philadelphia is a great asset. The vitality of West Philadelphia and the campus environment have been very successful in telling the Penn story. The fact that we are as highly rated as we are by a number of groups means that students say to their mothers and fathers, “Hey, I want to explore this place called Penn.” It allows us to see more students in the applicant pool.

In addition, the numbers of those who say yes to our offers [referred to as the yield] has gone way up. We are now one of the top five or six in the country, with a 62 percent yield. The national average is in the 30s. It tells you how successful we have been.

Q. It seems that the media has suddenly discovered admissions—The Wall Street Journal and USA Today now cover it avidly and Jacques Steinberg from The New York Times has even written a book about the process. Why?
There has been a great deal of controversy around early decision. There has been a great deal of discussion about affirmative action [which was argued before the Supreme Court on April 1]. Since there is such a mystique about how students are chosen, which ones are chosen and why they are chosen, the media would like to unravel that.

I would say that 85 percent of the students that apply to Penn would thrive academically here. Therefore, the discriminator in the process tends to be all the other variables that they offer. Those are the interesting elements of their application. Those are important in the process and speak to what kind of student they will be and as alumni

Above: Stetson (left) with Admissions Officer Quenby Mott
(center right) and Director of Multicultural Recruitment Canh Oxelson (right).

Originally published on April 3, 2003