Applications for admission are increasing at Dickinson and elsewhere, but the college is under no illusion that this trend will continue forever. We are preparing now for inevitable demographic shifts that are predicted to occur in three to five years. The result will likely be more underrepresented students in our pool and fewer applicants overall.
We must search confidently for students who understand what makes Dickinson distinctive and who are ready to embrace the dispositions we strive to instill in our graduates: a global sensibility, understanding connections, engaging the world, exhibiting civility and striving for accountability. A few changes in our approach should help us continue to achieve the right fit.
First, we are testing a “group” interview process to gauge students’ interactions and their responses to specific societal issues and ideas discussed, mirroring in some ways what Dickinson students experience in seminar classes. If successful, the group approach may replace or reduce individual interviews on campus, allowing staff members substantive personal interaction with more applicants.
Second, we are altering our supplemental application essay question to focus on characteristics students expect to develop through their Dickinson experience. This will allow admissions counselors to better assess student fit and readiness while admitting students with the highest likelihood of graduation.
A third new element in our admissions evaluation is a reassessment of prospective students’ commitment to multiple activities. Too often in the past, candidates at Dickinson and elsewhere were given “credit” in the admission process for the number of activities on a crowded resume.
This prompted high-school students to bulk up on credentials for college admissions committees. Once new students arrive on campus, upper-level students encourage them to continue their customary intense involvement. Student-activities fairs resemble festive bazaars, where vendors sell their goods from behind booths with posters and gimmicks galore.
This sort of student “busyness,” however, works against what we try to instill in our students. We’ve found that over-involvement siphons time away from academic pursuits and that it detracts from the quality time students experience in any one activity.
My own college-student son (not attending Dickinson) announced to me this spring, “I didn’t have enough time to study one chapter in the book, and 25 percent of the exam was on that chapter.” He was taking four science classes, singing in three groups, conducting research with a professor and volunteering for the admissions office. I offered my wise counsel, but he continued, of course, to commit time to out-of-class activities, even though this had a negative impact on his GPA.
At Dickinson we expect students to fully engage in learning—in and out of class. We encourage students to seize learning opportunities through travel, internships and volunteerism. But if they are involved in the choir and theatre, volunteer as admissions tour guides, are resident advisers and on college-wide governance committees, can they commit with sufficient depth to actual learning?
This spring I had the privilege of singing with Dickinson’s chamber choir, the Collegium. Our spring concert is fast approaching at this writing, and the group is touring Italy in June. Yet for the last two weeks, a quarter of the group disappears 30 minutes into the rehearsal to fulfill an obligation for another performing-arts group with an upcoming performance.
Of course, one group is not better, nor deserves more time, than the other. But what are we teaching students about commitment and engagement when we passively encourage “double booking?” What impact does this behavior have on the quality of their participation in both groups and for accountability to their fellow performers?
Finally, through classroom teaching and involvement in student organizations, faculty and staff strive to model behavior that will continue to serve our students well after graduation. They encourage students to see connections between people, ideas and things; develop paradigms for solving problems that span multiple disciplines; learn to communicate effectively, persuasively and civilly; and apply critical-thinking skills in everyday interaction and thought.
College educators must also, though, model balancing community involvement with other aspects of their lives, because those who know how to balance their activities and to place limits on their commitments experience less stress, are healthier and have more energy to devote to their activities or organizations.
If we truly want to develop engaged, contributing members of society during the college years, we need to help students focus on quality and depth and avoid quantity and overcommitment. We will start this in our admissions process and will follow it through as we prepare these engaged citizens.