Take an Inside Look at Graduate Admissions

A former admissions dean reveals the pressures of the job that applicants don’t get to see.

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Admissions deans often have no say in shaping the demographics of a class – a decision typically made by senior administration and key faculty.

On countless occasions during my tenure as an admissions director at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a dean of admissions at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and an associate dean for enrollment and student services at Columbia University Teachers College, I often heard how easy my job must be.

Students, faculty and even my family and friends would say, "Wow, Don! You get to travel all over the world, meet with applicants and make admissions decisions. All you do is make people happy. I wish I had as much fun at my job as you." 

While the opportunity to admit students to graduate school is definitely rewarding, there is quite a bit that comes with the territory of which prospective students may not be aware. 

First and foremost, the dean is the face of the institution for prospective students and their parents. In my experience, admissions staff are largely engaged in the business of sales and marketing. They are responsible for persuading a predetermined number of admitted students to enroll at their institution every year. 

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There is little room for error in hitting that target. Budgets, facilities and personnel are typically based on the enrollment number being reached. If there are too many students, there can be a strain on facilities and personnel. The school could also need to find additional living space for students, hire additional faculty and schedule more classes. If there are too few students, budgets and jobs can be in jeopardy. 

The enrollment target is not just an overall number. There typically are various subtargets assigned, such as a certain number of men, women, domestic students, international students and minority students. In my experience, the pressure was on, every single year, to come in on target, both in terms of class size and makeup. 

Those enrollment targets are generally independently set. In many instances, the admissions dean has no say in determining enrollment targets. Those decisions are typically made by senior administration, with input from key faculty. 

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Those targets will often change from year to year. For example, one year the overall enrollment goal may be 550; the next year it could be raised to 600. One year the goal will be to enroll 30 percent women, a goal that could increase to 40 percent the following year. 

Often, by the time the enrollment goal is set, the prospective student recruitment season is well underway. There may not be enough advance notice to put appropriate marketing and outreach strategies in place. 

Despite what many people think about our ability to make prospective students happy by saying yes, I more often had to turn people down. Depending on the reputation of the institution or program and fluctuation in employment demand, there could be far more grad school applicants than available seats in the incoming class. 

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This means saying no to some outstanding applicants every year. During my time in enrollment management, the hardest part of my job was telling perfectly qualified applicants that we could not offer them admission.

As a dean, I could not afford to have a bad day. As the face of the institution, you have to be on when representing the institution, and that usually means every day, year-round. When prospective students and parents contact the admissions office, they are not interested in whether or not someone on the staff is having a bad day. They want their questions answered, period. Every interaction offers the potential to further persuade a candidate toward or away from applying. 

Finally, a dean is often only as good as the last entering class. Once an entering class has enrolled, the slate is wiped clean and the process of enrolling the next class starts all over again. The success of the prior year is largely forgotten. 

Being an admissions dean can be a lot like being a professional athletic coach or manager. If there is a bad year, the admissions dean's job may be on the line.