Conversations on Admitting: A Journey from Community College to the Helm of Admissions

by David J Dent

"Certainly experiencing life as a poor kid from the inner-city gives me a sensitivity to explain to the other staff members who have, perhaps grown up very differently than I have, why a certain student shows the kind of potential that I see in that student..."

Suzi Nam,
Director of Admissions
Swarthmore College

"I don't belong at Swarthmore." Suzi Nam follows that sentence with a sarcastic chuckle that defies the very idea that she is out of place as an admissions director at one of the nation's leading liberal arts colleges. She has heard the words--"You do not belong"--at other times in her life. They sometimes trigger her urge to fight--something she looks for in applicants. More about that later. For now, how do the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives on an admissions team help the process of admitting? Or how does one's background influence the way an admissions officer judges a candidate? Nam herself is a good candidate to answer those questions. "I didn't even know Swarthmore existed for a long, long time. In my adult life, I discovered there were things, things called small liberal arts colleges that actually transformed students' lives in a way that I wish that I had had an opportunity to experience. So yes, I think I live vicariously through all the students we admit here..."

There really isn't a standard route for those who lead or sit on a college or university's admissions team as Nam notes: "I don't think anybody plans to become an admissions director." Still, her roots may seem incongruent with her post as Director of Admissions at Swarthmore. She is a survivor of elementary and middle schools that were overwhelmed by poverty in Newark, New Jersey. "My family lived in many places, but Newark is kind of my constant...I was born in Seoul, Korea and we came over when I was about three. We had a lot of financial trouble... So we kind of bopped around based on how much money my parents were making at the moment."
She moved to the Newark suburb of Livingston for high school. Her years there differ greatly from the portraits she encounters in the applications she reads today from suburban students. In fact, she never knew to even care about the numbers that often obsess many high schoolers today--class rank, SAT. "I don't know what my rank was but I barely eked out of high school. I can't even tell you if I did well. I don't remember learning much. I learned facts but I didn't learn how to think or be critical."

Her choice after graduation was community college where she struggled in a statistics class with an instructor who said those fighting words: "You don't belong in the class." But, there was a classmate named Vivian who opened her eyes. "It was a perfect name for her because she was so vivacious. She had dark, dark short spiky hair and she had gelled it up so that if you touched it would be like a porcupine or something. Blue eyeliner--this is Jersey--big eyelashes, tan and I just thought she was so cute and so spunky."

Vivian, a single mom inspired her to defy the professor. "She had a boy and a girl. One was already in college and the boy was in high school. She sat close ...was answering questions...I was like "ok well I'm going to talk to her... We partnered up and she said 'Sure, you get this, he's just not speaking a language in class you understand and here's how you can get around that.'"

From community college, she enrolled in then-Trenton State University, which is now the College of New Jersey. Vivian didn't go with her, but there were faculty who inspired her interests in history. The next stop was graduate school to study history at the University of Chicago. After receiving her MA, she eventually landed a job in admissions at the College of New Jersey and later joined the Swarthmore team in 2001, eventually becoming director.

In retrospect, the statistic instructor's words--"you don't belong in this class" were her invitation to fight. "Of course when you say that, the boxing gloves are on, I'm going to fight you," she said. In my interview with Nam, she identified that inner voice to fight through obstacles as something she likes to see in applicants from all socioeconomic levels:

Nam: "... I think that everyone is so interesting; do you know what I mean? The kid who grew up in suburbia who got everything given to them, they really do bring a very interesting perspective in terms of what they define as their obstacles, or how they define their worldview, based on the privilege they've had... I think my story is interesting just because I'm, in many ways, I'm atypical of what you find here. But even the typical folks, I think are interesting because they've had to fight their way in through the masses of typical employees, or typical applicants, it's entirely fascinating."

Dent: That's an interesting perspective. So as admissions become more competitive, and the suburban, or private school student was more dime-a-dozen in terms of the application process, they have had a lot of hard knocks as well through finding ways to stand out.

N: Or how they've perceived that they have a harder time. I think the perception is reality, and how they define that, terms of how they are defining themselves through the essay. They put tremendous pressure on themselves to actually produce something that could be frame-worthy...Just hearing students talk about it, it's fascinating that they find the essay to be a huge, huge obstacle in terms of how do they figure out what makes them special, when they've been told their whole lives that they're normal.

D: What do you see as one of the major mistakes you think students make in the way they approach the essay?

N: I think the mistake is not writing about what they're actually thinking, or writing to please an audience that they don't know, instead of writing to explore something within themselves. Because the greatest essays that I read are students who explain to us why they think the way they do. And it's not about what they've done or any kind of gimmick, or any kind of spin, making their experiences seem so extraordinary, and we're not really looking for extraordinary even. We're looking for critical, interesting thinking, and how you express that through language. I think that's the biggest mistake that they make. They think more about the "wow, journalistic," what will get on the front page, rather than what will get us interested in what they think.

D: That's a challenge for a 17 or 18-year-old, yet the pursuit of that mission can lay the foundation for so much intellectual engagement, which is interesting, because that is what the kind of thinking that one can do in pursuit of that, is extraordinary in and of itself.

On that note, what are some essays that you've read that have achieved the level of engagement of personal experiences?

N: ....there was one essay, where the student talked about the calm before the storm, and how he was thinking about this idea about the calm before the storm, and how quiet it is, and what that revealed to him about how, before something significant happens, if you really center yourself and think, there is that kind that moment when it's quiet, and the smell of the air is shifting, and I thought that was such a brilliant essay. I just never thought that at 17! I was just so impressed with his observational skills and even thinking about how there's so much that you can learn from without even seeing anything, so air is clear, there is nothing tangible about it, but there is so much you can pick up from that. I thought that essay was just so fascinating. If he could have observed that through thinking about a saying and observing how he felt, how his senses reacted to the shift in a weather pattern, I could not help but think about how amazing this student would be, not only in class, but on the dorm room floor challenging students to think in a different way, or seeing something in a different way. So that's a great essay. The worst essay is when can feel students saying, "I hate that you've asked me to write an essay, and so I'm going to tell you why I'm so unique," and then they start listing the colors that they like, what they like to eat....when It really isn't about what a student thinks about... but is list-y. 'I'm so different because I like these things, or do these things," those are the worst essays.

D: So it's really analyzing the unique perspective, that unique piece of you, which is why it is such an important piece of the process, because it is the one time where you can look at original thinking abilities.

N: Yes. And also how well they craft the essay. And whether or not they play with words, or how well they're able to create that imagery in your head about a moment or something, just the beauty of language, and I think that is their opportunity, if they're good at it, that really speaks tremendously to their ability to use all that they've learned throughout the 12 years of schooling they've had to explain to us what they're thinking at the moment.

D: How does your background influence you when reading applications?

N: When I read applications from students who don't have the typical profile of a student that should be going to a place like this, what I'm attracted to, what I look for, what I fight for is really evidence of the ability to think critically. Something they said, something they observed and something they were unpacking in an essay or perhaps a teacher recommendation that talks about how they unpacked something in their class or thoughts that they shared with them in a paper. That's what I grab on to as "this is evidence" and I don't ever let that go. My sensibilities are tuned into "well they might not have straight As but here's evidence that they will do just fine here.

When I'm training my staff to read applications, I talk about the fact that we all bring our biases to the table. Whether or not you're self-aware, by the end of at least one reading season, if you're new, we discover where the biases are, and we call each other out on them. Poor kids from inner cities resonate with me. You know what I mean? But that doesn't mean I can admit every poor kid from an inner city because there are checks on the system. But certainly experiencing life as a poor kid from the inner-city gives me a sensitivity to explain to the other staff members who have, perhaps grown up very differently than I have, why a certain student shows the kind of potential that I see in that student, and what evidence do I have that would support their space in the class, when, space is tight, at a place like Swarthmore. I think, ultimately, what you want in an admissions staff are folks from very different backgrounds, all working towards the same goal. And we do that here... So we're able to craft a really interesting class because we have the players that we do on our staff.

D: So how do you feel the essay has changed in terms of its role in the process generally, or perhaps specifically at Swarthmore.

N: I think the more selective you become, the more important it becomes, because, at this level, we're getting students with pretty much very similar numbers, so half of the class in terms of SATs or ACTs, they're very much the same, the letter of recommendation forms will come with all of the check boxes marked, one of the field in my career, so it's less at taking that cursory look at all of the things that you could fill in very quickly, or look at very quickly, and then it becomes, "What are they saying, and what are people saying about them?" That becomes much more important in the process in highly selective admissions, especially at places like Swarthmore, who have promised the world that we will remain holistic and we will remain one of those places that reads every word and considers the context of every individual, so I think it's becoming increasingly important for students to write who they are and use that opportunity. We literally do say in our evaluation files of the application that, "This is a wasted opportunity, they could have written so much more with all the potential they had." So we do indeed say that.

D: What happens when you see a student who doesn't have a minimum 700 or so, or 650 or what have you, but they've written a brilliant essay. Can that essay overcome an applicant's shortcomings, or is the essay more of a factor that just elevates, and keeps you in the game once you've met the other criteria.

N: I think that's such a good question. The reality is that no one thing can get you in, and no one thing can get you out. So, let's speak broadly about quantitative statistics, the Guidance counselor's report and recommendations. The reality is, many highly selective institutions can fill three of their classes with great scores and grades, but they don't for a reason. A great essay will never get you in if you don't have anything else. I always say to students, I know this sounds daunting, but everything's important. We would not ask for everything if we didn't want everything, if everything wasn't considered. But, I think in terms of what we talk about on the committee table, the essay is usually the thing in the file we'll say, "But listen to what this student has to say. I know the grades aren't so good, the scores look like this, but let's take a listen, and see if you can say no after this." It's not something where you could have failed every class in high school or something, but I think those kids kind of on the cusp, if they have a good essay it will indeed help them...Yes, the scores and the grades, they have to be good. Now, "good" is a broad definition. When we go to the committee table, we're not talking about, "But he has a 780." We'll never, ever make that argument in the committee, because that doesn't bring the student to life... I think that the numbers are important--everything's important--but I think the essay does have that power to sway the committee to consider you if you're weaker in some other areas.

D: If you saw an application with your high school record today, it wouldn't meet the grade. What does that say about education and admissions? When you look at the wealth of experience that you have had and you look at how you've arrived in the world of admissions? What does that say about other Suzi Nam who are high school seniors now who have the potential to be graduate students at the University of Chicago but at this moment, if you just look at their record, you can't even imagine or picture that?

N: I think there are places out there in terms of colleges and universities who can take that chance on the kids who look like me, but at this level there is no space for them here. I mean when Harvard's getting over 30,000 applications for a class of 1,500, there is no room for a student who has made a mistake, and I made many many. There is just no chance. Students who look like me have to go about getting credentials in a different way.