As Ivy League acceptance rates plunge and the hallowed gates become more forbidding each admissions cycle, high school students are increasingly looking to admissions officers as the omnipotent guardians of these coveted college experiences.
But at age 22, Mark Dunn ’07 is hardly the stern gatekeeper that would-be Yalies envision.
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Dunn, who started working in the Yale Admissions Office this summer after graduation, is one of four new officers whose applications and undergraduate experiences at Yale are still fresh in their minds. Along with Alex Richardson ’07 and two other officers who graduated from Yale within the past three years, Dunn said, he works to bring a perspective to the admissions office that is particularly helpful to prospective applicants, many of whom he meets on high school visits before he evaluates their applications.
Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said that of the 21 admissions officers currently working for Yale, 11 have Yale degrees. The number of positions open in the office varies each year from one to five, he said, and the admissions office always tries to recruit graduating seniors.
“One of the things newly graduated students bring to the work is an absolutely current feel for the makeup of the College and the mix of students,” Brenzel said.
Dunn said one of the greatest attractions of the job was the flexibility it offered when he considered his career and further education options. Newly graduated officers make two-year commitments to the job and then have the choice of continuing at Yale or seeking a different experience. While his former classmates are engaging in a variety of pursuits, from investment banking to international research fellowships, Dunn said he thinks he, like many members of the class of 2007, is unwilling to commit to a field at this age.
“Right now, what people value even in the options they choose is continually having options,” he said. “I think every Yalie who graduates has one eye on the immediate future and one eye on the long term as well.”
So far, Dunn and Richardson have been busy planning fall trips to their assigned regions. Once applications start rolling in, they will read every application from the geographical areas they cover.
This past weekend, Dunn began his road trip to the Deep South, where he will visit Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee, with a side trip to Long Island. Richardson is visiting Manhattan this month and Northern California in October.
Richardson said the preparation for these trips has been extensive, since they involve large regional information sessions for students and parents in the afternoon and evening, as well as visits to high schools during the day. Admissions officers have a certain amount of freedom each year to decide where they think their presence would make the most difference for students, he said.
Dunn agreed, saying he enjoys researching school backgrounds and shaping the relationships he will have for at least the next two years.
“It’s a combination of schools that we know as new officers would be good to build relations with, and trying to reach out to schools where we know there is potential for good applications but we haven’t had many,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to do outreach to find these.”
Nick Strohl ’04 studied at the University of Cambridge and taught at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., before taking a post at the Admissions Office this fall. He said his time working in education prompted him to consider broader issues of universal access to education.
“I’m interested in equal access to educational opportunities, and I’m interested in the idea of the university as an institution and how it can best serve groups of students no matter where they’re from,” he said. “Admissions is a key part of getting to know various groups of students nationwide and at various schools, both public and private.”
Strohl’s region encompasses Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, all of Missouri besides St. Louis, Wisconsin and a few cities in California.
The accessibility of the admissions field as a career was part of the appeal for Richardson, who pointed to the hierarchical careers favored by many of his fellow alumni.
“We don’t have a super-huge amount of admissions experience, but we’re thrown in here and treated as peers immediately,” he said. “There are very few places where you’re immediately respected and don’t have to go through all the steps of proving yourself.”
Only one of the recently hired Yale grads worked in admissions before returning to Yale, having spent three years in the Wesleyan University admissions office.
Dunn said the qualifications for being an admissions officer include a particular happiness with one’s time at Yale and a desire to make that opportunity available to others.
“What prepares you, I think, is enjoying Yale, liking Yale, and also a willingness to try to explain the Yale experience to people, a willingness to take what happens here in New Haven and bring it to people who don’t have that same experience,” he said.
Strohl said the years that have elapsed since he received his diploma have given him a more coherent understanding of his undergraduate experience. Preparing for the fall information sessions and considering how he will present Yale to students around the country has helped him to synthesize his thoughts about what makes the University so attractive, he said, with reasons ranging from the residential college system to the rejuvenation of New Haven.
The ability to talk about one’s personal experience at the University is especially important when speaking to students who live in faraway regions of the country or who had not previously considered Yale as an option, Dunn said.
“So much of what I talk to students about is my own personal experience,” he said. “It makes it possible for me to talk about the University, it makes it genuine, and it makes my representation of the university more salient to the students who are listening to it.”
Richardson said he is looking forward to how his particular areas of interest will help him engage with prospective applicants. He will use his experience with the Cultural Connections orientation program and his astronomy and physics studies to make Yale seem more accessible to minority and science students, he said.
Now that Dunn and Richardson have taken on new roles in the Yale community, they said the shift in their New Haven experiences, while markedly different from their undergraduate years, has been a change they have enjoyed. Both live in apartments near East Rock and travel to campus not only for work, but to watch plays, visit friends and try out downtown restaurants. But the important difference, they said, is that they can dictate their level of involvement in campus life and forgo traditionally undergraduate pursuits in favor of exploring the city.
As they considered their new roles, the admissions officers seemed simultaneously to realize the gravity of their duties and to appreciate the fun aspects of their work.
Strohl’s days as an undergraduate seemed remote when he spoke about his responsibilities.
“One of the things that’s interesting about admissions is that it’s really an influential department in the University, because when it makes decisions about who to bring to Yale, that’s who’s shaping the University whether in the short term or the long term,” he said. “I think we realize when we’re selecting students that this is a special responsibility that we have.”
But Dunn still smiled as he described the long days driving from city to city and the long stretches of time spent sleeping in hotels.
“It’s the rock star lifestyle,” he said.