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Incoming freshmen exceed expectations

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Sunday, August 25, 2013

Last fall, many members of the applicant pool for Notre Dame’s Class of 2017 boasted the stellar test scores and transcripts up to the Irish standard, so the Office of Undergraduate Admissions needed to go a step beyond academic evaluation when selecting the 2,074 members now enrolled as freshmen.

Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, said the office adopted a “holistic admissions process” to examine not just the results of applicants’ endeavors, but also the motivations behind their success.

“We believe that we have a better admissions process if we understand the context of a student’s success and not just whether they succeeded or not,” Bishop said. “As we read the files, it was very apparent that high credentials alone didn’t gain admission [for an individual student]. We wanted to understand their motivation to succeed.”

Bishop said the applicant pool increased by 4 percent overall, and the top portion of the pool increased by 15 percent, giving the office an opportunity for greater selectivity than what the initial 4 percent suggests.

“This year, I think there was a greater qualitative review of people’s quantitative success,” he said.

This qualitative evaluation centered on the applicant essay and recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors, director for admissions Bob Mundy said. The most attractive candidates were those whose essays showed a depth of thought and character and then were accompanied by recommendations that reinforced this impression, he said.

“It’s that intrinsic motivation that we’re trying to get at,” Mundy said. “The challenge is, as the applicant pool gets stronger and stronger, how do we separate students when you’re looking at pretty modest differences in some of the academic measures?”

These academic measures include a median best SAT score of 1440 and a median best ACT score of 33, according to data provided by Bishop. Forty-nine percent of the class had SAT or ACT scores ranking in the top 1 percent of the nation, and 50 percent ranked in the top 2 percent of their high school classes.

Beyond these standardized measures, the office noted that 90 percent of this class participated in community service, compared to 75 percent in the past. In their high schools, 34 percent held leadership positions in student government, 40 percent participated in the performing arts and 77 percent played a varsity sport.
Bishop said he attributes the increased number of qualified applicants to the ongoing recruitment efforts by the Office of Admissions.

“We developed more of a long-term relationship with prospective students,” he said. “We tend to now be engaging them over a two- to three-year period instead of just the year that they’re up for consideration. That’s relatively new, and that was a big change in this cohort.

“We believe that’s the primary reason that there was this surge of applicants at the top. We were assertive in not only responding to [students] but at times, initiating contact.”

Bishop said the efforts of Notre Dame’s faculty and staff, particularly in the admissions and financial aid offices, were the biggest factor in the increase.

“We just continued to do a better job of engaging our students,” he said. “We’ve seen some real increases in yield rates over groups that came to campus for special visit programs, and those all rose up this year in a specific way.”

As the applicant pool increases, the yield of admitted students who actually go on to enroll ordinarily tends to drop, Mundy said, though this was not the case here.
“As your applicant pool becomes stronger and we admit students, these students have options similar to Notre Dame in terms of academic quality, so now we have a large percentage of students who have some of these other great choices,” Mundy said.

Bishop said he had anticipated the yield rate to go down for this high school graduating class because of the competition for the students among the country’s top colleges.

“We normally like to take around 15 to 100 students off the wait list, so we always build our admit policies on the goal to also have some spots left over to reward some students on the wait list,” Bishop said. “What happened this spring was that our goal was to enroll 2,005 freshmen, and right now we have 2,074 freshmen who are still on the books.

“We weren’t able to take any students off the waiting list, and we’re over-enrolled by about 60 freshmen,” he said.

Bishop said approximately 53 percent of Notre Dame’s offers of admission were accepted. This statistic could put the University among the top 10 schools nationwide in terms of success in enrolling admitted students.

Certain factors stand out among the class demographics, Bishop said. A record 136 African-American freshmen enrolled, compared to last year’s 111. Nine percent of the class is first-generation college students, compared to 7 percent in the past. Across the United States, 41.8 percent of the class hails from the Midwest, with 22.3 percent from the East Coast, 19.9 percent from the West and Southwest, and 10.2 percent from the south. Of the 2,074 students, 121 came from outside the United States.

“I think it’s important for the University to be equally attractive to all the talent groups in the country,” Bishop said. “[This data] shows that Notre Dame is a place that everyone is aspiring to enroll, and when they visit they see themselves here.”

In selecting this record-breaking class, Bishop said the Office of Admissions looked beyond how good these students seemed on paper to find people who “will never be satisfied with their current level of success, who will want to grow.”

“As intelligent as our students are, we really believe that they have already shown the capacity to develop a higher level of wisdom, to use their talents in ways that matter to others, and through that, they’ll be happier,” he said.

“The point is that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom, which was one of our short answer questions on the application last year. We were trying to send a message to the applicant pool that at Notre Dame, wisdom is probably a greater accomplishment than just their intelligence, and that you have to use your intelligence well.”

Contact Ann Marie Jakubowski at ajakubo1@nd.edu