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Rethinking the Admissions Process

With the planned departure of Doris Davis as the associate provost for admissions and enrollment in conjunction with the continued 'Reimagining Cornell' process, it is definitely time to rethink the University's admissions process.

One of the more provocative ideas surrounding admissions options was floated by Kent Fuchs at the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference in January, where he suggested that freshman should be only accepted to the University at large, and not affiliate with an undergraduate college until their sophomore year.

This would centralize the admissions process, make the Cornell educational experience more flexible, and not force students to prematurely choose their academic path. There are a lot of students applying to Cornell who cannot clearly communicate why they would like to study nutrition over biology or ILR over AEM. But it would also arguably dilute the quality of the experience in some of the more cohesive colleges on campus, namely Architecture, Hotel, and Engineering.

Another option would be to make the Cornell application process itself more dynamic and engaging, even if this means making it harder to apply to Cornell. (In my view, that would be a feature, not a bug.) Right now, the University is asking one lame supplemental question per college as past of the Common Application.

Nowhere in the application process is the University trying to excite students about the intellectual riches that await them in Ithaca, nor is it trying to uniquely brand itself or its student body. By contrast, Northwestern asks its students about the research they have conducted and Tufts asks students to ponder 'Are we alone?', while also giving them the opportunity to submit their own YouTube video.

So how about a distinctly Cornellian essay prompt about 'Freedom and Responsibility' or public outreach and engagement?

One of my big complaints about the admissions office under Davis was that it was too numbers focused -- not in terms of SAT scores and GPA (that's another story) -- but in terms of applications received, acceptance rate, and other rather trivial metrics. See, for example, the article in the Chronicle about Davis's depature:

Since 2000, the university has streamlined the application process, increased student diversity, become more selective in admitting students and accepted more international students than ever; it has implemented an online application review process, enhanced its work with community-based organizations to specifically target low-income students and improved financial aid.

At the same time, Cornell continues to attract more students. More than 36,000 students applied for 3,150 places in the Class of 2014, a new high.

"I am proud of the enormous success we've had in increasing admissions applications to Cornell -- applications have increased over 65 percent since my arrival," said Davis."

Now's the opportunity to make the Cornell admissions process a distinctly Cornellian one. Even if it means our acceptance rate would go up, we need to ensure that we are attracting the right types of students for Cornell.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 07, 2010 (#)

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