Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2003


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Finding the right fit

Finding the right fit

Thousands of travel miles, thousands of applications and thousands of decisions all add up to the fact that college admissions is more than a numbers game. It´s intensely personal.

by David Treadwell

If you think that college admissions officers spend their days casually sifting through applications while sipping latte and arbitrarily deciding who earns the “Admit” stamp, think again. And again. And again.

College admissions today is one of the most challenging professions imaginable – not just on college campuses but anywhere. Admission professionals must be, at once, marketers and soothsayers, strategists and showmen, hand-holders and number-crunchers, ambassadors and educators, bankers and counselors, orators and writers, technicians and humanitarians. In sum, they must walk – sometimes run – on water.

And sometimes at the end of the day – or more accurately the admissions year – they must be satisfied with something just short of perfection. Institutions such as Connecticut College are competing with other elite institutions, schools that are trying to land the very same top students from all over the world. Moreover, they must deal with the inevitable disappointment of students who don’t get accepted – and their parents and counselors.

On the frontlines at CC are Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Martha Clampitt Merrill ’84 and a crackerjack team of professionals. Moreover, they’re not just staying even in the increasingly competitive admissions market; they’re steadily lifting Connecticut College up the ranks of selective colleges. The most recent admissions year represents just another step upward.

Casting the Net

It’s true that many inquiries and applications would arrive at the admissions office in Horizon House even if the staff did nothing to promote this process. Many more, however, are generated through the College’s extensive and well-conceived outreach efforts. To recruit the Class of 2008, for example, admission officers visited 642 high schools in 28 states and 17 different countries. Dean Merrill, herself, has trekked to London, Istanbul and Geneva to get out the word about CC. Staff members have visited Latin America and Asia.

Another fruitful form of outreach is “Eight of the Best,” a consortium of top colleges that hosts group sessions in different areas of the United States each year. In addition to Connecticut College, this elite group includes Claremont McKenna, Colorado College, Grinnell, Haverford, Kenyon, Macalester and Sarah Lawrence.

Other constituencies – such as coaches, faculty, current students, and graduates – submit a steady stream of names for follow-up by the Admission Office.

The College taps alumni to assist in ways that go well beyond providing names. A nationwide herd of 400 Camels makes significant contributions by attending college nights, conducting interviews and making phone calls. These loyal ambassadors help extend the reach of the staff in Horizon House.

The Drive Towards Diversity

The College and the Admission Office have established increasing student diversity – both racial and geographic – as a top priority. That commitment has paid off. In the last three years, the percentage of students of color (domestic) has averaged about 15 percent, versus only 10 percent in the three preceding years. Moreover, the College now receives more than 500 applications a year from international students, versus only 300 six years ago and fewer than that in the preceding years.

The innovative Partnership Program created with several schools in the Bronx, Manhattan and, most recently, Bridgeport, Conn., exemplifies the College’s willingness to try new approaches in the quest to attract a more diverse student body. Members of the Admission staff along with the dean of freshmen and CC faculty visit these schools several times a year to discuss the admissions process, give advice on college interviews and essays and, most important, raise the aspirations of students at these underserved schools. The College also provides bus transportation for students from these and other inner city schools to visit the campus.

The Campus Visit

As any student or parent who’s experienced the college admissions process knows, the campus visit plays a critical role in the ultimate college choice. That’s why Connecticut College carefully selects and trains its 26 tour guides (“We encourage them to tell real stories, give real anecdotes,” says Dean Merrill) and 12 Admission Fellows, seniors who conduct some of the on-campus interviews.

The Admission Office often directs students to certain people on campus to discuss specific interests in depth – to an English professor, say, or a soccer coach. Or they may introduce them to one of the College’s distinctive Centers for interdisciplinary learning: The Ammerman Center for Arts & Technology, the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts, The Goodwin-Niering Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies or The Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy.

During the visit and, indeed, throughout the process, the key is making connections, revealing the College’s philosophy in human and personal terms through the people who experience it every day.

Many Happy Returns

Early in the fall, the applications begin coming in, first in a trickle, then in a stream. And, in this high tech age, it’s no surprise that about 30 percent of the students apply on-line (please confirm this with Chris Hensman). Many students opt to apply for Early Decision, which means they’re committed to attending Connecticut College, if accepted and will withdraw any active applications to other schools. Indeed, about 40 percent of the Class of 2008 gained entry through the Early Decision route. The applications keep pouring in up to the deadline for regular admissions (January 1), and sometimes beyond for special cases. This past year the returns were rosy by any measure: 4,503 applications were filed, a new Connecticut College record.

But numbers tell only part of the tale, at least in terms of student creativity in presenting their case to the College. In addition to applications, they send films and CD-Roms, drafts of novels and tapes of music, slides and photographs. One student even sent a video along with some microwave popcorn.

Sometimes the overtures might be considered, er, extreme. One student sent a picture of herself with her tongue painted blue, as in “I’m bleeding CC blue.” Another found an old Camel cigarette ad and had it framed and sent to the Office. Still another had her essay cut up like a puzzle, so that the Admission Office had to reassemble it to read it. (“I was tempted to cut up her admit letter,” laughs Martha Merrill.)

The Decision

How does the Admission Office decide which students earn the coveted “You’re in!” letters? Well, there’s a first reader of the application, usually the person responsible for the geographic region where the applicant lives. Then, always, there’s a second reader and sometimes even a third reader. Then Dean Merrill reviews each application, essentially placing the folder in one of four piles: Admit, Deny, Wait List or Committee.

Nearly one-third of the applications fall into this last group: The Committee. Virtually all of these students could do the work and would benefit from a Connecticut College education. It’s the Committee’s job to winnow down the pile.

The Committee discusses and then votes upon each folder. Inevitably, certainly this past year, too many students get put into the tentative Admit pile, only later to be moved back to the Wait List or, possibly, the Reject Pile. (“That’s the worst day,” Dean Merrill bemoans.)

Incidentally, deciding upon how many students to admit, given the competition and a host of individual factors, is an art and a science in itself. Obviously, Connecticut College doesn’t matriculate every accepted student. Indeed, only about one-third of the students granted admission select Connecticut College. Experience with the whims and ways of the college decision process gives Merrill and her staff an edge in deciding upon the “right” number of students to admit, in calculating the “yield.”

Then, after final decisions have been made, the letters go out.

Searching for Passion

What factors help lift a student into the Admit pile, besides top grades, a rigorous high school course load and strong recommendations? There’s no easy answer, but outstanding achievements in a specific area might tip the decision – in a sport, say, or in music or drama, community service or leadership. Legacies get a close look, a competitive edge. Moreover, students who seem primed to benefit from the College’s distinctive pathways of learning (e.g. internships, study abroad, research) also might curry favor. And then there’s the matter of passion.

“We seek students who have real passion about something,” explains Dean Merrill, “and that passion can shine through in any number of ways – the interview, the essay, recommendations, extracurricular accomplishments. We’re looking for students willing to be themselves. We’re not looking for robots, students pre-programmed and pre-polished to ‘look good’ in admissions. Frankly, we can tell whether real passion exists or not. One student, having heard that ‘passion’ was important to demonstrate, described herself in an interview as ‘passionate.’ I asked her what she was passionate about, and she couldn’t think of anything!”

The Matter of Money

With total costs for room, board and tuition nearly $40,000 per year, right in line with the top competition, the ability to pay for Connecticut College becomes an issue. Committed to breaking down the financial aid barrier, the College meets the financial need of all accepted students – both domestic students and international students, a rarity – with a combination of grants, loans and work study. In a typical year, over 40 percent of the students in the entering class receive some form of financial assistance. Dean Merrill admits that this is one of the more challenging aspects of her job – ensuring that the College provides access to deserving students without overspending the financial aid budget. But she breathes easily when discussing the aid issue: “I am extraordinarily lucky to have Elaine Solinga serving as director of financial aid. She’s wonderful!”

Courting the Class

With the exception of students admitted through Early Decision, the job’s not over after the acceptance letters are sent out. For example, the Office oversees phonathons, whereby current students call accepted students, usually students who share a home area or an academic or extracurricular interest. Moreover, the College invites accepted students to enter chat rooms at certain prearranged times to talk with admissions professionals or current students. Other CC ambassadors, such as alumni, professors and coaches, often send emails and letters or make phone calls. Some graduates host accepted student parties in their home areas.

In addition, the College hosts many accepted students each April during their return visit (or even first visit, in some cases). Obviously, finding the right match between student and college is a two-way street, a courting process during which the momentum shifts and surprises occur.

The Envelope Please…

Who will accept our all-important offer? Just as students and parents experience anxiety in the weeks and months leading up to the admissions decision, colleges also experience a tense waiting period.

Again, Connecticut College matriculates only about one-third of the students who have been granted admission. Remember that other top colleges and universities strive equally hard to bring in the best, the brightest and the most diverse class possible from across the United States and around the world. Perennial tough competitors for Connecticut College include Vassar, Middlebury, and Wesleyan, , and several other elite institutions.

Every case is different, naturally, so the reasons a given student might choose Connecticut College over College A (or vice versa) vary. Dean Merrill notes that while “the beauty of the campus,” the “sense of community” and “friendliness” remain major competitive assets, the College’s intellectual opportunities, exemplified by the aforementioned pathways of learning, increasingly serve as lures, a very encouraging sign.

Happily – and again this year – the returns prove positive; the yield estimates prove remarkably accurate; and the focus can shift to the next class, the Class of 2009.

The Big Picture

Dean Merrill and her staff, composed of 10 admissions professionals (no less than five are fellow Camels) and seven staff members as well as six additional people in the Financial Aid Office must do more than fill the classrooms. They must carefully convey the vision of the College, not just as it is but as it aspires to become. They must strive to attract and matriculate the kind and caliber of students who really will benefit from a Connecticut College education. They must not overpromise or oversell. And, as Martha notes, “We must never lose sight of the fact that admissions is an intensely personal process.”

The job presents significant challenges, to be sure: Meeting the financial needs of families without overspending the financial aid budget; explaining to parents (and counselors and alumni) why a particular student wasn’t accepted; and dealing with overly zealous parents. “Some parents try to control the process,” says Martha, “as if their worth as parents depends upon where their son or daughter goes to college. And that’s a shame.” Incidentally, Merrill vows that she will not be that kind of parent when her own daughter Hayley, a sophomore at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, applies to college.

But the rewards outweigh the challenges. Tim Cheney ’93, associate director of admission and director of transfer admission, says that a Connecticut College education prepared him well to represent and promote his alma mater. “This job draws upon all the different skills you learn at a liberal arts college: research, analytical, communication, and decision-making. It’s a perfect outgrowth of what I learned here,” he says. “And it’s very rewarding, making positive connections with students, helping them determine if Connecticut College is the best match.” Cheney also enjoys the competitive aspect of his job, the constantly changing challenges.

Dean Merrill derives special satisfaction from enrolling students from underserved areas, often first generation students dependent upon strong encouragement and significant financial aid. And she confesses that “I have a special tenderness in my heart for international students; they’re so appreciative of the opportunity to get a Connecticut College education.”

(NOTE: Dean Martha Merrill encourages alumni to drop by the Admission Office to say “Hi!” and to discuss ways they might become involved in the admission effort.)

Martha Merrill ’84: Up to the Challenge

When Martha Merrill entered Connecticut College in 1980, she thought she’d be a math major and, later, maybe go into business. But fascinating courses in areas new to her, such as psychology and philosophy, expanded her horizons. And encouraging mentors, such as Ann Devlin in psychology and Bill Frasure in government, stoked her intellectual fires. The admissions field began to exert its appeal for Merrill early on. During her senior year she completed a statistical analysis of students throughout the admissions process – from prospects to accepted students to matriculants. She also served as a Senior Admissions Fellow during the year and spent a summer as a tour guide.

After graduation, Merrill spent three years as an in-house advertising manager for a Boston investment counsel firm. She then returned to the New London area with her husband John (now a retired investment advisor and former CC admission officer from 1979 to 1983). After a short stint in real estate, she contacted Claire Matthews, dean of admissions, who brought her on to work the front desk and, later, conduct interviews and coordinate alumni volunteers. After taking time off to have a child (Hayley, now 15), Martha returned to work full time at the College in 1990. For six years she worked in the Alumni Office, running reunions and several other programs. Then in 1996 she moved to the Admissions Office as associate director of admission, under Lee Coffin who was dean of admission. In 2000 she was appointed director of admission; and in 2001, after Lee Coffin left Connecticut College, Merrill assumed her current position of Dean of Admission and Financial Aid. And the rest is …. a success story.

Spend a few minutes with Martha Merrill and you’ll know why she’s been so successful. Personable, enthusiastic, bright and savvy, she believes in the values of a liberal arts education and in the distinctive opportunities found at Connecticut College.

Lee Coffin, now dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, lauds his former employee’s varied talents. “To be successful as a dean of admissions, you need skills dealing with people, thinking strategically, and managing the day-to-day operations. Martha owns all these skills, that’s what sets her apart.”

Tim Cheney ’93, associate director of admission and director of transfer admission, appreciates Merrill’s leadership. “She has a broad understanding of what we do. She listens and provides a balanced perspective. And she creates a very good office environment.”

Angela Price, assistant director of admission, marvels at Martha’s ability to relate with students from all places and backgrounds. “She can convince a group of inner city school students that they can reach their dreams. She means it, and they believe her.”

(Freelance writer David Treadwell lives in Maine with his wife, Tina Savell Treadwell ’63.)

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