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Spontaneous Facetimes, Zoom silences and broken records: Admission officers describe creating next year’s class from home

Admission officers describe recruiting applicants from home, combination of “heartbreak,” hope accompanying a record applicant pool

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2021

During a normal fall, Chrissy Fulton’s days are filled with high school visits. She breaks up meetings with time in her car listening to NPR podcasts as she eats a granola bar or drives to a lunch spot recommended by a high school counselor.

But for the past year, Fulton’s days have been punctuated by 6 a.m. wake up calls — so she can take her dog for long walks in hopes of preventing background barking while she sits on Zoom meetings and reads applications.

Fulton is a Brown admission officer responsible for a scattered set of regions, including Boston, Cambridge, West Los Angeles, parts of Manhattan, Hong Kong and Singapore. She is one of 20 admission officers — the people, along with the rest of the office of admission, who facilitate the process of holistic admissions. 

Admission officers make the case to high schoolers as to why they should apply to the University. They read applications, argue on behalf of applicants in committee meetings and deliberate on the final decision an applicant receives. The grueling work all serves a larger goal: attracting, admitting and yielding an incoming first-year class.

The brunt of the work will largely end on Tuesday, April 6 at 7 p.m., known by applicants as Ivy Day, when more than 40,900 students will open their decision notifications from the University — not counting the students who were deferred in the early decision round, who will also receive notifications. Applicants to the class of 2025 applied to the University in record numbers — the 46,469 that applied during the early and regular decision rounds eclipses last year’s total by nearly 10,000. A staggering number of applicants, paired with a consistent number of limited spots in next year’s class, indicates that this year’s regular decision pool will likely be admitted at a record-low rate.

While the spike in applicants didn’t change the admission process, the timing of the surge, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, certainly did. The Herald spoke with two admission committees that cover New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, each consisting of three admission officers and chaired by either Dean of Admission Logan Powell or Director of Admission Julia Bengochea. Together, the group — encompassing six officers and two departmental leaders — discussed life inside the admission process this year. 

This year, they found themselves faced with new challenges: altered work-life balances, longer days, the loss of informal communication and Zoom. But admitting a first-year class also offered a sense of normalcy — and even hope.

Recruiting via Zoom

School visits, often tightly-scheduled and occurring “back-to-back-to-back,” required officers to “bolt out the door” to get to the next school on time, explained Pat Rounds, who covers Philadelphia, Eastern Pennsylvania and parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley and San Jose included.

But the dynamic changed this year: All high school visits went virtual, as did visits to community-based organizations, international groups and college counseling programs.

For Fulton, that meant saying the “same things over and over again” in the “same chair.”

Eliminating the time crunch, though, added some benefits, especially when multiple students showed up for “office hours” with their regional admission officer on Zoom.

“It really became an in-depth conversation,” Rounds said. “You had that ease of being virtual. You could really take the time. I was able to have long discussions with some of the students who wanted to chat.”

Large-scale information sessions that the University typically offers, said Katrina Souder, also became more personal for the admission officer leading the session.

“I had 2,000 students and their families from Manhattan in my living room,” said Souder, who covers parts of Manhattan in addition to Staten Island and a large chunk of New Jersey. “Usually in admissions, you would never see your admission officer’s choice in paintings or wall art.”

Finding comfort in reading applications during an abnormal year

When “reading season” came along this year — the weeks when officers dive into applications — it was accompanied by a sense of renewed normalcy and hope, Fulton said.

After an applicant hits the “submit” button, the next person to see their transcript, essays, recommendations and test scores is often an admission officer. The University has two readers look at each application and decide if it proceeds to committee, with no cutoffs or formulas in place to narrow the pool, Powell said. 

“Burrowing into applications was actually the first part of the last calendar year that felt normal to me,” Fulton said. The University, she explained, has previously allowed officers to work from home during reading season in a normal year

“It was the first time where I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I would normally be doing in January.’ There was something that was sort of comforting about that.”

Rounds agreed with Fulton’s assessment, noting that he tried to maintain some semblance of pre-pandemic life in his routine.

“I was trying to be cognizant of my routine,” he added. “Get up, shower, shave, dress, eat your breakfast and then go sit at your desk and try to replicate normality as much as possible.”

But even under normal circumstances, maintaining a work-life balance in admissions is always challenging, said James Walsh, who covers Central and Western Pennsylvania as well as Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, upstate New York and Western New York. During the pandemic, when the lines blurred further, maintaining that balance became even more difficult.

The opportunity to tune out the rest of the world proved valuable to Walsh.

“Last year, it was very easy to feel kind of hopeless with the news cycle,” he said. “With reading season, it was kind of a blessing. Even though there were so many applications, it was so inspiring to see all these young people that were going to change the world someday. I got a lot of energy out of that.”

Increased use of video submissions alongside applications — which became the de facto alternative to the alumni interviews that were canceled for the 2020-21 admission cycle — also made the process more enjoyable for officers.

“There were so many applications where that video portfolio helped to bring that student alive or fill in the edges and help us really understand a lot more about who they were,” Fulton said. “They were also just really fun to watch. It felt like we were connecting with the students, even though they didn’t know.”

Souder, who was an English major in college, said she loves early-morning essay reading: “I immediately want to be up. I want my music on. I want to be in my zone and in my space,” she said.

The pandemic, though, changed her circumstances: Residents in Souder’s apartment who used to leave for work while she stayed home reading were also at home for periods of time. And while Souder does not have children, she does live in an apartment with residents who are raising an “active and loud” toddler.

Fulton added that the record high size of the applicant pool stretched her days even longer. 

Not every student makes it to the committee, he said, and with more and more students, it’s even more difficult to narrow down the pool. 

“There’s a tad more heartbreak,” Rounds added. “Just given how competitive the pool is, you get really attached to some of the students.”

“This process can seem really big from the outside,” Powell said. “But every one of those individual applications that we’re reading, we understand there’s a real person there, and we’re making real decisions about real people.”

“Even though the numbers are larger, this is a very human process for us, and we treat it as such,” Powell said. 

Bringing the office — and the committee process — home

When reading season ends, officers typically make their way from their desks to committee meetings, during which an admission officer makes the case for applicants they deem to be competitive to a select number of other officers encompassing a broader region at-large. Those officers then review the file, ask questions and vote on a non-binding decision, subject to change when the class is reviewed as a whole one more time.

Those meetings often feel rejuvenating after extended periods of isolation reading applications alone, said Bailey DiOrio, whose regions encompass Michigan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and a number of Boston suburbs.

“It’s the first time you’re back seeing people in person after a long period of either sitting at home or sitting in your office,” she said.

But this year, switching from reading season to committee meetings meant changing the window on a laptop from a virtual pile of applications to a Zoom meeting — not quite the same feeling, DiOrio admitted.

“I miss the feeling of community,” Fulton said. “It feels like you’re a real team marching down the hallway into the committee room with your laptops, your papers, your mug and your water bottle. And usually someone brings some delicious baked goods.”

Zoom also exacerbated some awkwardness already built into the committee process, said Matt Price, who covers North and East Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth region, Georgia and Northern Virginia: When an admission officer presents an applicant’s case in person, the other officers in the room are still reading through assorted documents and essays, leaving the room relatively quiet. 

“You’ll go on talking about the merits of the case for 90 seconds. And then you’ll be greeted with complete silence from your colleagues. That’s kind of awkward in person, and it’s even more awkward in the Zoom,” Price said.

“Once you get used to it, you can see that people are just staring at the screen, really engrossed in the file,” he noted. But the “level of awkwardness,” Price said, has risen.

Admission officers also approached the process with an added sense of empathy for students, Powell said, noting the difficulties posed by life on Zoom and the loss of extracurriculars. The office, he added, paid special attention to students facing “disproportionate challenges”: students without reliable WiFi, strong mentoring and college counseling or adequate home office facilities.

“Reading and hearing the storytelling in this class of applications, their adjusting to what has been thrown at them — it’s going to be a really great class,” Bengochea said.

DiOrio also misses drop-in conversations with colleagues; Zoom work doesn’t lend itself to spontaneity, she explained. 

“One of the things I miss the most about being in-person is not having to schedule everything as a Zoom or phone call, just being able to step into someone’s office to ask a quick question or run a case by them,” she said. “Those casual interactions are really just impossible now.” 

“It’s like jazz: You’re innovating and you’re creating,” Powell said.

Officers are aiming to fill the gaps in interaction created by the pandemic. Before COVID, Price took a weekly walk downtown with a colleague, often starting by discussing an applicant’s file or essay before delving into other topics. That walk, Price said, has become a regularly scheduled Zoom call.

For Souder, the informal interactions to talk about work turned into FaceTime calls while she made her lunch, or spontaneous Google Meets — meaning that she let her colleagues see her “messy kitchen” at times.

And as Rounds navigated an unexpected “COVID move” with his partner into his one-bedroom studio, his meetings took place wherever he could find space and quiet — sometimes including the roof.

Admissions after the pandemic

The Office of Admission has yet to indicate when it will resume normal operations — and Powell expressed that he aims to keep the best parts of virtual outreach for the foreseeable future. But as vaccines roll out, admission officers are eagerly awaiting the return to parts of their jobs they left behind last March.

Souder and Walsh expressed eagerness to return to leading information sessions in Manning Chapel — both noting that they would happily lead the first session when guidelines relax.

“I want well-meaning parents to ask me every single question they have about senior curriculum and SAT scores and their student’s high school and infinitely really personal details of their child,” Souder added. “I was the first in my family to go to college. I know how scary it is sitting there thinking you’re going to do everything wrong. I just love being the person that gets to peel back the veil for them, and to be like, ‘None of us know what’s going on, so let’s walk through this together.’”

For Rounds, returning to an energized campus not hampered by social distancing requirements is something to look forward to — while for DiOrio, it’s working in person with the admission office’s student employees. Walsh said he’s looking ahead to the first staff meeting back in the office, an energy that just “hits different” compared to a Zoom meeting.

And if the University lifts sanctions on travel again, it will mean that officers can also return to in-person high school visits and college fairs — something Price eagerly awaits.

“I will get on a plane, fly to whichever territory I have and go to a college fair,” he said. “And I don’t care if the line for my table is a mile long, I will stand there and answer every single question until it’s done. I really do miss interacting with prospective students in person.”

Fulton — who noted the challenge of repeatedly saying the same thing in the same chair — echoed Price’s excitement about getting on the road.

“There’s just something about visiting a high school that really helps you to understand where the students are coming from,” she said. “And I’m just really excited to say those things, sitting in all different kinds of chairs and all different places.”

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