When my Admissions pals and I talk about our reading days, we tend to focus on the circumstances in which we read, rather than the work aspect of the day.  So what are we doing when we read an application?

First, a bit of background.  Applications are placed in file folders, with a different color for each degree program.  Green–MALD; blue–MA; red–LLM; yellow–MIB; grey–PhD.  (We’re also using pink (MIB) and purple (MALD) for Map Your Future applicants.)  They’re loaded into “ready-to-read” boxes, from which students grab them FIFO style (first-in-first-out).  When the student readers return the files, staff members can take them home.

Each application file is arranged the same way:  the readers’ notes sheet, the pages of the application form, résumé, transcripts, test score reports, personal statement, second essay, third essay (when applicable), additional information, recommendations, interview report, and correspondence.

Personally (and I think that most readers share my approach), I read the file from front to back, but I shift between pages as needed.  I start by looking at the first reader’s notes.  Then I review the application form.  If a student transferred schools or took more than the usual number of years to complete a degree, I’ll make a note.  If an applicant moved around a lot with her family, I’ll note that.  Otherwise, on to the résumé, where I read through and note the applicant’s job responsibilities, as well as hobbies and whatever else is included.

When I review a transcript, I do a combination of scanning and careful parsing.  I scan to see the overall pattern of grades, but then I zero in on a few semesters to see the type of classes and the results.  That works for most applicants, but I’ll slow down further if something jumps out at me.  The method is also challenged by certain education systems that can only be described as, well, stingy in providing information about the student’s results.  In those cases, I read all the information available and sometimes jump directly to academic recommendations (or the internet) for further elucidation.

Test scores usually correlate with grades, so I only spend a lot of time with the score reports when there’s something surprising.

On to the essays, where we’re looking for exactly what the questions request.  With the personal statement, we should be able to derive a clear sense of what the applicant wants to achieve at Fletcher and beyond.  We’ve tinkered with the question many times, and I feel that, “Please tell us your goals for graduate study at Fletcher and for your career” is as clear as it needs to be.  There are no specific expectations for the second essay — we simply want to know more about you.  I’ll make notes about the personal statement (what does the applicant want to do and how clearly can he describe it), sometimes quoting a line or two.  If the second essay does its job, I’ll add a comment on what I’ve learned.

In most cases, the recommendations tell us something we already know, but in more detail.  Good students tend to have good recommendations from professors.  People who have assumed increasing responsibility in the workplace tend to have strong professional recommendations.  But the letters are still important, as they provide detail and background that help us understand the applicant in greater depth than other sections of the application allow.  I love reading supportive recommendations — they’re filled with warm and fuzzy feelings.

The interview report provides a glimpse of how the applicant connected with a representative of the community.  Sometimes, the applicant will be clearer on goals in the application than the interview, and that’s a good thing — we know that there’s a lot of research going on through the fall, and we’re happy to learn that our applicants have taken time to clarify objectives and learn about Fletcher.

Finally, the additional correspondence.  Not much to be found in there, in general, but sometimes it will answer a question that comes up in reading the file.

So that’s how it goes — front to back.  The experience of learning about people one-by-one through their documents is a fascinating one, though it’s difficult to make the mechanics of paging through a file sound anything but dry.  Maybe that’s why, every winter, we write about our favorite teas for reading days, or what we’ve put in the crock pot.

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