I am often asked this question and while the answer is not simple, let me try and open the "black box" here and talk about the candidate selection process at Kenyon. I often say that our role in admissions is very similar to that of a midwife: We are to "deliver" those students who are a joy to teach in high school to the faculty at Kenyon. Because more than 80 percent of the students who apply to Kenyon can do the work in the classroom, our job then is to discover who will contribute the most inside and outside the classroom. Student investment in the classroom and the community is what fuels a place like Kenyon, and so our holistic review takes into account all the abilities and talents a student will bring to Kenyon.
We begin with the transcript; it is the heart of the student's application. We pull apart this document looking for rigor and performance. We create something called a "grade progression" so that we can assess how the student has performed across time. Is the GPA holding strong while rigor increases each year? What explains that dip in grades at the end of the sophomore year? Why did the student stop taking language his junior and senior years? And how is she doing in that top-level physics class? These are the questions we ask as we do our dissection of the transcript. We always keep in mind that the transcript is the best predictor of how a student will perform in the Kenyon classroom. We have studies that prove it!
Then we read the application and try and understand the "context" of the student's academic and personal life. We are very interested in the educational choices of parents and siblings. We are interested in the focus and rigor of the high school and where the candidate "fits" into that high school. Is he or she among the top students taking the toughest courses? We certainly hope so. And then we want to understand influences on the candidate's life and choices: How many hours a week does a student work or participate in athletics, music and theater? Does the candidate have special talents or learning challenges? The guidance counselors' and teachers' recommendations are great sources of insight into the candidate's choices, and his or her work ethic, character and learning style. We quote liberally from recommendations when summarizing candidates in the paragraph "write-ups" we create for each candidate. Teachers and counselors know students very well and, if we're lucky, they also know Kenyon and can provide insight into the "match."
If the transcript is the heart of the application, the personal essay is its soul. I have read 20,000 or more essays in my career, but I never tire of reading these insights into a student's experience. The essay reveals the way a student sees the world and his or her place in it. It is the one element in the application that the student has complete control over. Essays that are authentic, regardless of topic, will always speak to application readers.
While Kenyon requires an ACT or SAT score, we are not particularly score-driven in our selection as it does not predict as well as the transcript how a student will do at Kenyon. Once again, scores are good "context" for understanding a student's potential. While we don't require them, we also take into account the scores from AP exams and any SAT subject tests that are submitted.
After we've assessed academic abilities and fit, we look to see how the student will add to our community. What activities have he or she excelled at in high school? And at this point, we can become somewhat selfish in our decisions. If, in any given year, we are looking for bass singers, soccer forwards or physics majors, to name just a few examples, the students with one of those attributes get more seriously considered. Composing a class is a lot like creating a mosaic and picking out those who make the mosaic more complete and beautiful is part and parcel of the admissions officer's job.
The interview counts as does a student's interest in Kenyon. Once again, the interview tells us about "fit" and how the student will add to our community. "Demonstrated interest," be it a campus visit or an e-mail to an officer, tells us how well the student knows Kenyon. (We know that not every student can make face-to-face contact with us, and thus, once again, our assessment is contextualized.) While we understand how complicated demonstrated interest is, it has proven to be a predictor of who will ultimately enroll at Kenyon — and thus, we count it. We make it clear to students that it matters, too. All applications are read by two different admissions officers and given both an academic and personal rating. This is our attempt to make objective what is arguably a very subjective process. If the two readers agree, the decision is made. If it's split, then the application will go to committee where it will be considered by all officers. The committee meeting is a dynamic process where we apply the collective wisdom of all within a broader context. As you can see, when making admissions decisions, we are serving two masters. We strive to be precise, humane and fair to the candidate and to serve the short and long-term interests of the College. Clearly, this is not a simple task — nor is it whimsical or arbitrary.
Early Decision (ED) should be a choice of passion, not of positioning. ED is a binding decision: if we admit you, you have agreed to enroll in the fall. If you've fallen hopelessly in love with a college after visiting (a critical step), then ED might be the perfect choice for you. The benefit of applying ED is, quite honestly, that it simplifies the admissions process. If you're admitted, you complete only one application and know your "fate" earlier in your senior year. While your friends are writing their applications, and waiting to find out where they're admitted, you already know what t-shirt you're wearing in the fall.
However, if you begin a sentence, "I'm applying ED, I'm just not sure where ..." then you should question if ED is right for you. With that statement, you've revealed that ED is a strategy, not a heartfelt, carefully thought-out decision. ED can interrupt your research and the mental-emotional processing of your admissions choice.
Will ED give you an advantage? A large percentage of students are admitted ED, but that's not because it's easier to get in. Those students applying ED have self-identified as good matches with Kenyon, and after reading their applications, we agree. They've also expressed their strong desire to be in Gambier, and that means something to admissions officers.
You'll receive an identical financial aid package no matter when you apply — regular decision or ED. The only issue for ED students is that, having applied to just one school, they have only one package to review, not several. If you're concerned about paying for college, ED might not be right for you. If you are admitted ED and find that the aid package you receive isn't adequate, you may request to be released from the binding agreement of ED.
It seems that students today are encouraged to pursue as many extracurricular activities as possible. Sports, music, community service, summer internships, science research … the list goes on and on. They're all worthwhile. But when we read your application, we don't tally the total number of activities you've pursued over the years. Admission is based on quality, not quantity. Moreover, we're not looking for a specific activity or leadership position; there are no "winning" or "sure-fire" extracurriculars. We simply want to know what you are passionate about and how you spend your time outside of the classroom.
While the Common Application has been revised to include more space for activities, we are looking for the quality of your engagement in these activities. So, don't feel obligated to explain every single club and organization that you've joined, especially those you joined for only a short duration. If you have been in a leadership position and have significantly influenced the organization in some way, by all means tell us about your contributions. And remember that activities can include responsibilities beyond your school work, like holding part-time jobs and taking care of your siblings.
First, of course, we look to see if the student can be successful at Kenyon; have you had the preparation in high school to do Kenyon work? We look at your transcript and at your curricular rigor. How many top-level courses have you successfully completed in each of the key academic areas? We look at your grades and course selection within the context of your high school. We look at your test scores, of course, but they are a secondary element, because they tell us only what you did on a particular Saturday morning, not how you performed across the course of four years.
That being said, most applicants who apply to Kenyon are very capable of doing the academic work. So, what do we look for next? We look for all the ways in which you will contribute to our community, as student energy is the fuel that makes this place run. We look for academic engagement (often called “passion”), artistic talent (in music, writing, drama, dance, the visual arts) and athletic ability (including varsity sports). We also look for much more subjective qualities, like civic engagement and compassion (as expressed through your work in your community and your contributions to your family).
Your teacher recommendations tell us quite a bit about your character, and so does your essay. Your essay tells us how you see the world and your place in it. And essays that are authentic, regardless of topic, will always speak to application readers.