The State of the Uni: An overview of admissions at Uni
Published: Monday, January 30, 2012 - 5:56pm
EVERY UNI STUDENT is at least somewhat familiar with the school’s admissions process; after all, each one of us went through it at some point or another.
However, there’s more to Uni admissions than may meet the eye. Attempting to pick a small class out of a much larger community calls into question many factors, and academic achievement can be only one of them.
So what else is considered when building a Uni class? Who makes the decision and how? And what kind of pressure are prospective students under to make the cut? These are all questions the Gargoyle set out to answer in this week’s edition of “The State of the Uni.”
The admissions process
Uni’s Admissions Committee is comprised of five faculty members, each of whom serve a two-year term, and Assistant Director of Admissions David Stone, who serves as an ex officio, or non-voting, member. Teachers may be elected to the committee more than once during their time at Uni, or they may never serve on it at all. The members typically represent a wide array of academic departments.
“There are always people on the committee that were on it last year,” said English teacher Steve Rayburn, who has served on the Admissions Committee at various times in the past. "So there are always some people on the committee who have experience."
After all the applications for the subfreshman class are received in early March, the Admissions Committee begins to review them. This part of the process is done entirely name-blind.
“I was and still am so impressed with that aspect,” said Rayburn. “Everything is blacked out. [...] I will admit that when I’ve been on the committee before, from things that were said on the application and [because] I knew some people that were applying, I realized that that is whose application it was. And when I was on the committee, I have said when we got to that person, ‘I need to excuse myself from talking about this student because I am sure I know who it is.’”
However, the Admissions Committee serves only advisory purposes and does not make any official decisions. Rather, after reading through the applications, they pass on three lists to the Director—one of students they’d like to accept, one of students they’d like to reject, and one wait-list—for him to choose the final class.
“We try to let them [the Admissions Committee] have by far the bulk of things, but [...] if you look at the process, I think really every choice is the Director’s,” said current Director Jeff Walkington.
According to the Uni website, “[t]he Admissions Committee recommends approximately 50 students for regular admission.” While the exact number of recommended students varies, it never reaches 60 to ensure that there are spots leftover for the Director to fill himself.
Once the Director gets the lists and begins to finalize the class, the process is no longer name-blind, and each applicant’s personal information becomes available.
"I read the same files they [the Admissions Committee] did, but occasionally something would come up and I would have the names there," explained former Uni Director Steve Epperson of his experiences with admissions. "I had the actual original files, so if I wanted to have the names I could get them. Generally I did not—generally I tried to follow the same type of process that the Admissions Committee used—but there were occasionally times when a name would come up."
“I’m not sure exactly why at some point we are given—I am given—the names and so is the Assistant Director,” said Walkington. “That’s the process I inherited and [...] maybe it should be name-blind all the way through the very end. I don’t know why it’s that way.”
According to Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Keith Marshall, who oversees Uni for the University of Illinois, it has been that way for as long as anyone can remember.
“The way Uni has always worked for time immemorial is that the Admissions Committee makes recommendations and the final decision’s up to the Director,” he said. “I think the Admissions Committee makes recommendations that the Director almost always follows.”
However, the Director is entitled to diverge from the recommendations if he thinks it is necessary.
“Last year, I traded out one that they had turned down for one that they had accepted,” Walkington recalled. “And that was a diversity thing — that’s clearly part of our mission.”
Naturally things like Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) scores, application essays, and teacher recommendations play key roles in the admissions process. However, the Admissions Committee looks for more than just academic ability.
“I like to see someone who is truly passionate about something," said Stone. "And it doesn’t really matter what that passion is, but somebody who’s truly passionate.”
Furthermore, the committee looks for students whom they believe will be good fits for Uni and its atmosphere, since as Rayburn points out, “Uni is not for everybody.”
“When I am on the Admissions Committee, I look for the kid that sounds like a Uni kid—the kid that I think will be successful here, the kid that will appreciate what we have to offer,” he said. “[...] You look for the kid that needs to have a more challenging situation—to get out of a place where they don’t have the possibilities into a place where they do.”
However, there are other factors that come into play after the applications leave the hands of the Admissions Committee and personal information is brought into the picture. Diversity, as Walkington touched on above, is one of them.
“We look at things like ethnicity in terms of trying to have a better distribution,” Stone explained, “a better representation which is more similar to Champaign-Urbana in terms of ethnic breakdown.”
Gender balance is another factor considered. However, it is not always a priority, as evidenced by the fact that this year's subfreshman class has seven more females than males.
“I personally think that’s not as important as some things," Walkington said. "I think it’s something we should look at, but I have a hard time when a student is very highly qualified just to say someone of the opposite gender gets a big boost because he or she happens to be [...] a different sex.”
One thing Walkington does find important, however, is whether or not the applicant is a sibling of a current or former Uni student. He says he "believe[s] that siblings should get some kind of emphasis" during the admissions process.
“I personally think we can do some almost irreparable harm to a sibling," he explained. "[...] It may be more [of an] emotional thing for me.”
Epperson agreed, saying that dealing with sibling applications "was one of the most difficult things."
An applicant’s familial connections can also come into play if he or she is the child of a Uni faculty member. Although there is no official policy in place to give them preference during the admissions process, Walkington says he believes there should be.
"If they’re highly qualified and for some reason or another they just didn’t make it into that incredibly select pool, I think that’s a very difficult conversation to have with a teacher—that you’re good enough to teach here, but your kid’s not good enough to come here," he said. "And I think it does a lot of potential harm to the spirit of the school [and] harm to young people’s psyches.”
However, both Walkington and Marshall assert that parental connections to university departments outside of Uni do not have any bearing on admissions decisions.
“The Provost’s office, which has overseen Uni for as long as anyone can remember, does not tell Uni to admit students or consider admitting students,” said Marshall. “We don’t pass names.”
“I have never gotten a call from the university about a student,” Walkington affirmed.
Yet, at the same time, Uni’s close relationship with the University of Illinois does make it hard for the school to turn down university-affiliated children, particularly as the university often advertises Uni when recruiting new faculty.
“We see it [Uni] as a recruiting tool just by virtue of its existence,” said Marshall. “[...] For some folks, particularly on the East Coast, just having that option there [...] is often very attractive to a parent.”
Thus, some still question whether or not Uni admissions and the university are truly separate entities.
“There are certainly some trends in the Uni students that seem kind of odd,” said subfreshman Katie Tender. “[L]ots of times professors put lots of emphasis on education and that’s kind of what cultivates a kid who can go to Uni, but at the same time it is kind of odd that lots of professors' children get in.”
However, Stone looks on Uni’s admissions process very positively and believes that it is fair.
“I think it’s fair; I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t,” he said. “It’s way too much work for anybody to do if they didn’t have confidence in it. I look at the people who are on the committee, I look at the amount of time and thought that they put into it—the conversations, I think, are wonderful.
“I think, as I look at the selection process, I can’t imagine it being more fair and more focused on bringing in a diversity of students—not just focused on ethnicity, but in terms of interests, in terms of experiences, private school, public school, home-school. I think our admissions process is one of our strengths, and yeah, I think it’s fair. Like I said, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.”
Given all the factors that are looked at during the admissions, it is not surprising that the process brings with it a heavily competitive atmosphere.
"Of all the things I did at Uni, that [admissions] was one of the most difficult," said Epperson. "And it was because most of the students that applied to Uni had done all the right things in preparing, [...] and you just hate to say no to people like that. And yet, we had to do it on a regular basis just because we had so many qualified applications."
Thus, the pressure on applicants can be extremely high. However, while some of that pressure is inevitable, parents can augment it in many cases.
“I see a lot of parents who cry because their kids don’t get in," said one parent of a subfreshman, "and it’s more the parents who react and make their kids crazy."
Rayburn, as both a faculty member and a former Uni parents, concurs.
“Uni parents are great,” he said. “As a teacher, I love Uni parents because they care about their kids’ education and they are supportive. But they can also be pushy—they can be helicopter parents."
He believes it is not in the child's best interest for a parent to be too overbearing during the application process.
“I think that parents should be supportive,” he said. “[...] Every parent, I suppose, thinks their kid is special and should think that, but your kid can be special without really being academically qualified to be at Uni, and your kid can be special and very smart and get a very good education at Urbana High School, or Central High School, or Centennial High school where there are amazing teachers and amazing students. I don’t think the parents should push their kid to go to Uni unless the kid wants to go to Uni.”
Tender agrees. While she says she herself did not feel a lot of pressure coming from her parents, she has noticed that such a phenomenon is common among her Uni classmates.
“We [the subfreshmen] did this thing with the counselors—like a counselor workshop or whatever—and lots of kids were saying that their parents did put lots of pressure on them,” she recalled. “And their parents were kind of almost more excited about them getting in[to Uni] than the kids themselves were.”
Thus, at times it becomes unclear exactly how far a prospective Uni parent will go to give their child a bump up in the admissions process. Rayburn regretfully admits that he does believe some parents give their students unwarranted amounts of help on their applications.
“I have been the person on the Admissions Committee who has said to the committee, the voice in these essays on the application and the voice in the essay on the SSAT are not the same,” he said. “And people would say, ‘Well, that’s because on the SSAT, they didn’t have time to polish,’ and I say, ‘No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying that the application is not as polished; I’m saying that the person that wrote the application essay did not write this [SSAT] essay.’ And unfortunately that happens.”
Tender agrees that parents sometimes go a little too far.
“I have heard of parents calling the school and calling Dr. Walkington and stuff [...] just trying to get in because maybe their kid didn’t get in before,” she said.
State of the Uni
After speaking with faculty members like Rayburn and Stone, we felt quite confident in the practices of the school’s Admissions Committee. It seems as though teachers, as the ones who interact with students most often and are the arguable foundations of the school, should have a clear understanding of what’s in Uni’s best interest and what students will fit well here, and thus are well qualified to be the ones reading applications.
However, the idea that siblings of current and former Uni students should get preference during admissions strikes us as highly problematic. As students who all have siblings, we can attest to the fact that just because two people are from the same family does not mean that they have the same needs, nor that they learn in the same way, so why would it be necessarily considered in a student’s best interest to be admitted into the same school as their older brother or sister?
Furthermore, privileging siblings puts applicants with no familial connections to Uni at a disadvantage, something that simply cannot coexist with our wanting to promote a diverse student body. Indeed, doesn’t bringing in more and more students from the very same families represent the polar opposite of diversity?
These problems raise the question of who exactly Uni is supposed to be serving: the Champaign-Urbana community, University of Illinois faculty, families, or some other group? Nowhere in Uni’s mission statement is there a mention of serving specific groups other than “talented young people.”
Thus, we wonder if it might be in the school's best interest to conduct a study of the "success rate" of its admissions process—that is, which students ultimately do well here? Which students enjoy and appreciate their experience, and which students end up wanting to transfer out? Looking at students so closely before we admit them would mean much more if we followed up after they got here, and gaining a better understanding of what makes a successful Uni student could help us iron out the more subjective areas of our admissions policy.