Shaping a Freshman Class

From more than 17,000 applications to one Class of 2018

Photo by Ann Borden

It's a Friday morning in late March,

and the windows of the Office of Undergraduate Admission are spattered with fat raindrops, beyond which gray storm clouds roll. Inside, though, the atmosphere is bright; a sense of energy and excitement floats through the hallway.

Boxes of folders, each bearing the iconic image of Dooley, are everywhere—lining the long corridor, stacked on every table, covering the floors of offices. Staff members in jeans and baseball caps are paired up, one reading from a list of names while the other checks the folders. Admission counselors get excited when they find acceptance folders marked for “their” students—those from their geographic territories or their interest groups who they have championed throughout the process. From one office, the voice of pop star Beyonce instructs everyone to “put a ring on it,” making heads bob in distracted rhythm.

“As soon as we get these in the mail, it’s time to celebrate,” says John Latting, assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admission for Emory College, who has just gotten off a phone call with a high-school college counselor.

This is “admit day,” and it’s a big one in the annual cycle of Emory’s undergraduate admission process. Several thousand folders shouting “YOU’RE IN!” will be stuffed, sealed, and mailed within about twenty-four hours, bound for the mailboxes of keyed-up high school seniors.

The select group of about 4,500 students admitted to Emory College and Oxford College represents months of intense and dedicated work by the admission team. The colleges received a record number of applications for the class of 2018—Emory 17,822 and Oxford 7,425—and every application is read at least twice. The large applicant pool demands tremendous time and effort by the staff, but it also allows them to shape the strongest possible freshman class by admitting students who are genuinely right for Emory, and for whom Emory is the right place.

That’s a theme that Latting has been reinforcing since his arrival as dean in 2011. Metrics like test scores and GPAs are important, he says, but they’re part of a much bigger picture—and he wants to ensure that his team looks at the big picture of every single student.

“It’s about remembering that we are not evaluating the application, but the applicant,” he says. “It is very important to me that everyone involved understands the application is just evidence—a window onto a real person. It’s much quicker to evaluate applications alone, and technology has certainly made that very easy. But it’s a trap we really try to avoid falling into.”

Photo by Kay Hinton

Building on more than two decades of experience in college admission, Latting came to Emory after ten years as dean at Johns Hopkins University, charged with implementing a fresh vision for undergraduate recruitment. One way to describe Latting’s approach is admission defined from the inside out rather than the outside in. He has spent much of the past two years learning Emory’s culture, values, strengths, and people, in order to understand the students who thrive here. His aim is to match students to Emory, not to paint Emory to fit the ever-shifting demands of the market.

“Emory’s story should come from Emory,” he says. “The people up and down this hallway need to be able to authentically reflect that story. We define for ourselves what we value in our students and make decisions accordingly.”

“The young people who receive an acceptance letter from Emory are academically well prepared, talented, and ambitious,” says Claire Sterk, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs. “They indicate several reasons for applying to Emory, including academic reputation as well as the quality of the Emory undergraduate experience—one that is supportive of their intellectual and interpersonal growth. This is a research university with the liberal arts present in all schools and colleges.”

Kids Today

The college admission process has evolved considerably since Latting started as a counselor at Stanford some twenty-five years ago. One of the biggest changes is the steady advance of the Common Application or “Common App,” a standardized tool now used by more than five hundred universities, including Emory and Oxford.

In addition to streamlining the application process for students, the Common App makes it easier for them to apply to more schools than they might have a decade ago. A recent study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) showed that in 2011, the percentage of students applying to seven or more colleges rose to 29 percent, up from 12 percent in 2000. Institutions that accept the Common App for the first time can expect up to a 20 percent increase in applications.

For some schools, the Common App has thrown admission forecasting off balance, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for Emory. In addition to internal expertise, Latting’s office  engages external experts to learn more about what factors influence those who are admitted to enroll at Emory or elsewhere. But Latting is quick to stress that the probability of a student enrolling has little, if anything, to do with whether they are admitted. 

“We admit the best students for Emory. Some we think have a high probability of enrolling, and some a low probability. In all cases, though, we will compete with any university for that student,” Latting says. “And we work really hard to convince all the students we choose to choose us.”

Emory’s admission strategies and forecasting have proved remarkably accurate in recent years. That’s partly the power of big data and good yield modeling, Latting says, but it also indicates that Emory holds a stable position in the higher education market, its reputation remaining consistent over time.

That relative stability is worth noting in light of another factor the Internet has brought to the table—a virtual explosion of available information about universities, from their own carefully crafted websites and email campaigns to personal discussions on social media, and everything in between. Whereas the glossy college viewbook was once the classic admission showpiece, now it’s just one in a whole box of marketing tools, says Daniel Creasy, communications director for Emory admission. 

“We do it all—print materials, website, email, and social media,” he says. “We have not let anything go.” 

Then there’s the proliferation of online companies offering digital college guidebooks, matching services, and open message forums where prospective students (and parents) can swap news and opinions.  At a recent NACAC conference, Creasy wandered through an exhibit hall filled with more than two hundred such vendors.

“The Internet is something of a double-edged sword,” Creasy says. “There is so much more information out there, which is wonderful—students can really home in on what they are looking for.  On the other side, though, there is a lack of credibility with a lot of sources, which can be frustrating.”

The selection process itself has changed, too. With more than three million high school seniors graduating each year—about two-thirds of whom are college bound—many schools, including Emory, have phased out the traditional one-on-one admission interview. But technology lets admission offices create connections through personalized mail and email to interested and desirable students. 

There are new opportunities for personal connection as well. A few years ago the admission office partnered with the Emory Alumni Association (EAA) to revitalize the alumni interview program, inviting selected students to meet with trained alumni volunteers for interviews that are “both informative and evaluative.” 

Last year, some three hundred alumni in twelve cities met with prospective students and completed an evaluation.

“It’s important to us that applicants are able to engage with alumni to learn more about the university, and the alumni are trying to glean more information about that student that we may not see in their application alone,” says Maddie Monahan 84OX 86C, assistant dean of admission, who helps coordinate the program with the EAA.

Of course, high numbers of prospective students visit Emory’s campuses for open house events, admission tours, and special programs where they can meet with faculty and current students. Another change that Creasy has noted is the increase in high school juniors who are actively initiating the college search process, creating a parallel cycle for recruitment.

“It continues to pleasantly surprise me how much earlier they are getting started,” he says. “It creates an interesting balance for all of us. In March, as we are shaping the class, we are already beginning to interact with the next wave of applicants. And in April, when our visit numbers are at an all-time high, we need to split campus visits between juniors and admitted students.”

A recent survey among US college freshmen shows that a strong academic reputation grounded in faculty excellence is important, and slightly more important among those enrolling at Emory versus those who attend peer institutions, Sterk says.  

“As part of the decision to join the Emory community, those admitted will use the web and other venues to learn more about Emory’s faculty and their teaching and learning,” says Sterk. “Many of our faculty are scholar-teachers. Prospective students who visit campus have the opportunity to talk with current students and faculty and, if their schedule allows, to attend a class and talk with the professor.”

Big Decisions

A few weeks before admitted students are to be notified, Latting kicks off an afternoon of committee work as Emily Simmons, associate dean of admission, hands out updated spreadsheets showing the current statistics on admitted students. Applicants have been evaluated for academics, geographic region, academic interest, and various other strengths; this is where some more targeted fine-tuning begins to take place. 

 “At this stage, it’s really less about individual cases and more about the class as a whole,” Latting says. “What we’re doing now is not just identifying the best students; it’s about Emory and who we want to bring here. You can think of it literally like shaping a block of clay that’s too large—where can we narrow it down to make the class better? This is a special university with a history, an identity, and excellence in certain areas. We fit the class to this place.”

Although all applicants are reviewed by several staff members, their primary champions are the admission representatives for their geographic region, who typically encounter applicants first and know them best. As the process wears on, it’s often up to those regional officers to make cuts from their admitted groups—and that’s where the term “territory” can take on double meaning. 

“I know you all think these cuts should come from some other region and not yours,” Latting says, drawing rueful laughter. There is some good-natured ribbing about who is the biggest “softie” and will have the most work to do, but in reality, Latting says, “We don’t like to deny these kids. We’re the admission office, not the denial office.”

Simmons says she especially enjoys the admission committee meetings, when the staff emerges from the more solitary work of reading applications and brings an initial batch to admitted status. These meetings are designed to examine that group from multiple perspectives, gradually narrowing it down based on a wide range of factors. There are committees focused on racial and ethnic minorities, international students, academic interests, alumni legacies, children of employees, home-schooled students—even twins.

Later that afternoon, one of these committees is taking turns bringing up applicant files on a big screen and reviewing each student. 

“This student has done well, but her recommendation letters don’t really speak to her impact on the community,” says a counselor. “The question is, how will she contribute to campus? She’s clearly capable and seems very independent, but what will she bring to the community?”

“What’s her home situation?,” asks another member.  Eventually it’s decided that a move midway through high school may have affected the student’s community involvement. “Maybe it was a tough high school and hard to get to know people,” says Timothy Fields says, associate dean. “I think it’s fine to move her up.” All agree.

Another applicant presents a confusing picture: her class ranking is high, but her test scores are not, and her coursework is not especially rigorous.  “She would struggle here,” a counselor says. “She would probably graduate—but not thrive.” She stays on the wait list.

This sort of in-depth committee discussion, according to Simmons, is not necessarily typical for all large universities; at Emory, it’s driven largely by Latting’s leadership and his emphasis on reading between the application lines. Similar conversations, marked by care and attention to detail, are taking place up and down the halls of the admission suite. 

“John has really expanded the committee structure since he came on board,” Simmons says. “He likes to dissect the applicant pool into such special and different groups, and to hear every voice, from the newest counselor all the way up. I think we all realize that these students are real people who really want to come here. We treat applicants like we would want our own sons and daughters to be treated, and I feel really proud of that.”

Class Act

Emory’s Class of 2018 arrived on its campuses in August, some 1,840 strong. They came from forty-five countries, forty-eight states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. (MIA: Montana and North Dakota). More than 70 percent are from outside Georgia, and about 20 percent come from outside the US. And a record number of students came to Emory through early decision: nearly half of the Emory College class and 35 percent at Oxford.

Ethnic diversity has continued to increase, with about 22 percent of the Emory College class composed of African Americans, Latino- and Hispanic-identified students, and other historically underrepresented minorities. Overall, more than 42 percent identified as non-Caucasian in Emory College. There are slightly more women than men, at 56 and 44 percent. Among Emory College freshmen, the average high school GPA was 3.69 to 3.98. Their academic interests also reflect breadth and depth—particularly through an increase in students coming to Emory to study the arts and humanities.

“Each year we get a little better in terms of the overall strength of the class,” Simmons says. “The students’ interests are expanding with more interested in the humanities, such as creative writing—that’s a positive trend. And our international student representation and diversity are stronger than ever before. ”

Oxford has seen its applicants—many of whom are dual applicants to both colleges—rise steadily in the past decade, says Kelley Lips 02OX 04C, dean of enrollment services. There also has been a significant expansion of applicants’ geographic spread and a dramatic uptick in international students, with 17 percent this year.

“One of the benefits that helps us stand out is having the name and brand recognition of Emory,” Lips says. “We don’t know of any other program that functions the way Oxford and Emory do, with Oxford offering a parallel curriculum in a smaller community setting.”

Between Emory and Oxford, about two hundred first-year students are alumni legacies—a group that Monahan, a legacy herself, takes special pride in.

“Emory alumni have laid the foundation for what this university has become, and are playing an integral role in what it will become in the future,” she says. “When a legacy submits an application to Emory College and Oxford College, we understand the importance of that action and the relationship that may have influenced them to apply. Our admission process is deliberate and thoughtful, and the legacy connection is strong and meaningful to us.”

The admission office also works with the Department of Athletics to recruit outstanding student athletes—nearly two hundred joined this year’s freshman class and the Eagles’ eighteen varsity sports teams. As an NCAA Division III institution, Emory cannot offer athletic scholarships, but its combination of quality academics and athletics appeals to a particular type of player.

“These are students who want the best of both worlds,” says William Segura, the senior admission counselor who works with the athletics staff. “They are incredibly motivated, and they want that balance—to play at a high level and study at a high level.”

More than half of all Emory undergraduates receive some form of financial support, including a wide range of scholarships. Emory is in the midst of a scholarship fund-raising initiative that will give the university a competitive edge in recruiting the most qualified students by providing scholarship support at levels that meet or exceed those at peer institutions.

Latting is proud of Emory’s efforts to make its education more accessible. But when it comes to competing for the best students, he says, cost is only one consideration; academic excellence and location are equally important.

“There is a lot of talk about the rising cost of higher education, and we do worry about that,” he says. “But the fact is, we are competing on quality. The kinds of students we are dealing with are interested in a sense of excellence, quality, and distinction. Emory has a core identity and values that students should understand and want to be a part of.”

In addition to overseeing the admission office, Latting manages his own admission territory, which includes areas of Atlanta. He first met Zachary Denton 18C at a college event at his high school last year and was immediately impressed by his motivation, his positive spirit, and his passion for languages. 

Denton is just one of about 1,840 reasons why Latting is proud of this year’s class.

“The two biggest questions that we ask are how a student will benefit from being a part of this community and how they will contribute to it,” he says. “We are interested in what motivates them—not just in what they can do, but what they will do when they get here.”  

Meet the Class

Murray Skolnick

Brookline, Massauchetts

How did you choose Emory?

I attended one of the accepted students’ weekends in April, and I got an amazing sense from the school and the city of Atlanta as a whole. I was especially impressed by the beauty of the campus and the facilities. Upon touring the math and science facilities (particularly the chemistry labs), I could see myself at home at Emory. I also was very tempted by the Georgia Tech dual degree program, a rare opportunity that piques my interest and will prepare me for the future.

What is your top academic passion, and how do you plan to pursue it at Emory?

I am fascinated by chemistry and biochemistry--particularly their applications in medicine and pharmacology--and I would like to study them at Emory. Obviously Emory’s close affiliation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention creates exciting internship opportunities unique to the school that I wish to be a part of. In addition, after learning that the HIV medicine Emtriva was discovered at Emory, I am excited to join a community dedicated to helping the world through science. This summer I’ve spent time learning about computational chemistry / biochemistry, so I am also eager to explore the applications of computer programming in chemistry, and Emory seems like the perfect place to do so. Lastly, the dual degree program with Georgia Tech will allow me to pursue my interest in Biomedical Engineering. I believe that the two degrees will complement each other well, and fulfill my desire to learn about applied sciences in the study of medicine.

What are you most passionate about outside of academics?

I have been a violinist for thirteen years. The majority of that time was spent studying
classical at New England Conservatory Prep School, but in the last few years I also studied jazz violin at my high school. In the last two years I’ve explored Afro-Cuban jazz music
(I actually went to Cuba with my jazz band for a week in March 2013). I am eager to join one of Emory’s jazz ensembles, and explore jazz violin even more. 

Haley Haas

Canton, GA

How did you choose Oxford?

There are multiple reasons why I chose Oxford College. By far the most profound advantage of choosing Oxford is the unparalleled access to leadership positions as an underclassman. Oxford’s abundance of extracurriculars can satisfy almost any hobby or passion, and if an organization is missing, it’s easy and common for students to initiate the club themselves! I thrive in small class sizes like those at Oxford where I can get to know each professor personally and where the students get more attention and interaction. Lastly, both Oxford and Emory College have many traditions such as Dooley’s Week and the Coke toast, which bring students together and help to create the incredibly friendly, happy, and unified student body that I’ve longed to be a part of.

What is your top academic passion, and how do you plan to pursue it at Oxford and Emory?

Academically, I am most passionate about science—the medical variety to be specific. I intend to pursue a career in the medical field as a surgeon after hopefully attending Emory’s School of Medicine. As a university known for its innovations in the medical field and its ties to the Emory Hospital and the CDC, Emory is the perfect setting for a prospective premed student to unleash his or her curiosity for and intrigue in science through its engaging courses and abundant research opportunities and academic clubs. These would allow me to utilize my passion for science outside of the classroom, and I honestly cannot wait for each experience!

What high school achievement are you most proud of?

In my senior year, I researched the reasons behind the low number of women working
and/or majoring in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—
as well as methods to close that gender gap. I then combined my passion for science
and service to present young girls in the after-school program at Knox Elementary School with informative science lessons and engaging science experiments with hopes of augmenting their interest in science. Through my project, I conquered my fear of public speaking, improved my tutoring and teaching abilities, and had a great deal of fun, but more rewarding than all of these accomplishments were the comments of my students during the final session. Many of the girls shared with me how they grew to love (like really love) science. Their comments touched my heart, and I couldn’t have felt happier to know that my science series left an impact both on them and on the gender gap.

Dorcas Adejoda

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Emory Liberal Arts Scholar

What are you most passionate about outside of academics, and how do you plan to pursue it at Emory?

I am most passionate about solidifying my identity and becoming comfortable with who I am. I have noticed that when you are comfortable with yourself, you unconsciously help others learn to be comfortable with who they are as well. I plan to work on this part of me by meditating and doing activities that encourage self-reflection along with
self-discovery, like writing. I also plan on facing some of my fears, like public speaking,
and pursuing the hobbies I have always desired to like skating and playing piano.

What high school achievement are you most proud of?

I am very proud to have given a call to action speech at my high school’s National Honors Society ceremony for new inductees. I was chosen to do so because I was the first Gates Millennium Scholar to ever come out of my high school. I enjoy empowering youth and it was rewarding to have a few peers in the audience come up to tell me how much they enjoyed what I had to say, and explain how my words impacted their perspective regarding their ability to be an agent of change. I plan to get involved in a few youth empowerment projects in Atlanta. 

What is one item you have to bring with you to campus, and why?

I have to bring something to write with when I go to Emory. I would like to keep a thorough written account about what occurs during my college years so I can look back and see how much I have grown once college is over. I am actively trying to become a better writer and may even take a stab at writing a novel during my time at Emory as well. A writing utensil is necessary to take notes in class, too, of course! 

Zachary Denton

Atlanta, Georgia Emory College Scholar

How did you choose Emory?

Living  in Atlanta, I’ve felt like a part of the Emory community for years. The Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), a summer interfaith program at Emory, first introduced me to the way Emory encourages academic exploration. YTI surrounded me with confident, passionate people and encouraged me to boldly explore my own passions. I lived on campus and was surprised to find home in a place I had only been for three weeks. Upon looking deeper, I discovered a school that would give me opportunities to research in the liberal arts early in my career and make connections with my teachers.

What is your top academic passion, and how do you plan to pursue it at Emory?

Language  is an extension of myself. Born with oral apraxia, I had to overcome my own speech impediment just to learn English. Because of this challenge, I recognize just how important speech is in everyday life. Now, I’m teaching myself my sixth language, fascinated  not only by the human ability to speak but what we speak every day. While I haven’t yet chosen a major, I want to use Emory’s language and linguistics classes to help expand my love of language and help me understand the different ways that people interact and how they express themselves.

What high school achievement are you most proud of?

I felt like I truly made a difference while interning at my local GED program, the Centro Hispano Marista. We offered education to the Hispanic immigrants who were being turned away at other programs. There was so much to be proud of with the results we were  getting and the eight hundred students we had enrolled, but my proudest moment was during our students’ graduation. After handing out diplomas, I watched a little boy run to his graduating mother with a bouquet bigger than his head. She picked him up and held him close.  I’m proud of being a part of that. I’m proud of being able to use my talents, but, more importantly, I’m proud that I could make a personal connection with these people and help them individually.

What is one item you have to bring with you to Emory, and why?

Almost every summer as a kid, I visited my extended family in New Jersey and went to the shore. Some of my best memories were on the boardwalk: the rickety rides, the arcade games, the deep blue ocean, and, most of all, Kohr’s orange creamsicles. When Hurricane Sandy hit, most of my family was hit, too. Last Christmas, one of my aunts came down and gave me a piece of the boardwalk, “my” boardwalk, in a little glass case. This may seem depressing, but, when I visited the boardwalk this summer, I saw it being rebuilt and on its way back to its prime. I’m just lucky to have this little piece of wood that symbolizes my childhood and takes me right back to my Pokemon T-shirt, my click-clacking flip-flops, and my huge cone of orange and vanilla swirl.

Victoria Umutoni

Kigali, Rwanda Woodruff Scholar

How did you choose Emory?

After finishing high school, I joined Bridge2 Rwanda, a gap year program that helps some of the outstanding students in Rwanda to apply to international universities. We learned English, critical thinking, leadership, and discipline. We prepared for and took the SAT and TOEFL as they are different from the Rwandan National Exam. My college counselor told me about Emory and I was impressed by all the interesting things it has to offer. However, my interest grew after I participated in the Emory Scholars Finalist Weekend. Hearing from current students and faculty made me confident that Emory was the best place for me to study. And I look forward to explore as much as I can and go back ready to work for my country. I will pursue my interest in health by being involved in health activities, discussion about health and doing internship related to the health sector.

What high school achievement are you most proud of?

In grade ten, along with other young people and with the help of a literature club, Sembura, we started to teach small children of the neighborhood to read. We brought them together in one place. I was surprised by how the children liked these activities a lot, how much fun we had. Parents were happy because now their children were using their holidays wisely. I am very proud to know that I played a role in the education of those children and that they became more interested by reading.

What is one item you have to bring with you to campus, and why?

Recently, I was shopping for some items to bring with me to Emory when my mom reminded me to go with our traditional clothing, “imikenyero”. Rwandans wear the imikenyero on special occasions like a wedding or graduation…This clothing is our culture, our history. Bringing it to Emory, it will be the Rwandan culture I would be introducing to Emory. I am very proud of my country, and I know that every time I will wear it, it will remind me of who I am, where I come from and where I want to be in the future, and where I want Rwanda to be in the future. 

Student photos courtesy of students.

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