Christoph Guttentag from Duke – Part 4 of 4

Logo-1This is the fourth and final part of my interview with Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University.

In this part of the interview, Christoph explains how different applicants communicate with Duke, when the best time to contact an admissions officer is, addresses the hotly debated topic of admissions officers looking at MySpace and Facebook profiles, and how Duke gathers feedback regarding its admissions processes. He also provides his opinion about sending thank you notes and courtesy in general, and then finally, provides some tips to those thinking about applying to Duke University.

I want to thank Christoph for taking the time to speak with me and to answer my questions. Hopefully you as readers have enjoyed reading the interview as much as I did conducting it.

To view the rest of this portion of the interview, click “more.” Other parts of the interview include part 1, part 2, and part 3.

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Question: Do applicants communicate with your office more often via phone or online?

Let me rank them.

Actual applicants, I would rank it email, then phone, then letter. For prospective applicants, the web site, then the phone, then email. We know that a lot of people get information from the web site and they never contact us directly.

There is phenomenon in admissions called the stealth applicant. This is a new phenomenon. In the past, when students applied, they would do so after having been on our mailing list. We have the ability to go back and do some analysis about what kind of activities, what kind of contacts, lead to what kind of applicants. What we are all finding – and I know that our experience is not unusual – is that an increasing percentage of our applicants were never on our contact list, never on our mailing list. Our first contact with them was as applicants. That never used to be the case. And now, we find that it can go as high as 20 or 25% of our applicants.

Question: What is the best time to contact an admissions officer?

It depends on what you want, but I would say over the summer is when we have the most time. In the spring, we’re either reading applications or paying attention to the students we have admitted. In the fall, we’re in the middle traveling for recruitment. In the winter, it is very much evaluating applications. In the summer, we have the most time on our hands. It really has to do with time of the year versus time of the week or time of the day.

Question: Do admission officers look at MySpaces or Google applicants’ names at all? Or is that simply a rumor?

Only if there is a compelling reason to do so. In other words, as a rule, no. Because we don’t have the time to do that for every applicant or even every admitted student. If we feel there is a compelling reason to do so, we won’t hesitate to do so. I have no problem with our doing that when it is appropriate, but there is usually not very much reason to do so.

Question: When do you feel it is appropriate to look at them?

If we think there is indication of inappropriate behavior on a web site or a social networking site.

To the degree that those sites are public, we feel comfortable looking at them. We don’t go seeking them out, but we don’t think they are off limits because they are geared towards students. If they are open to the public, we feel we have as much right to look at them as anybody else. We’d have to have some indication that there is some inappropriate behavior or activity that was demonstrated or revealed there.

Because people are usually so careful with their applications, it is very rare. Occasionally, there might be something that the student mentions or something that the interviewer mentions that would suggest it. If a student mentioned to an interviewer that they had uploaded to something to YouTube that the interviewer thought was incredibly inappropriate and the interviewer mentioned it in the interview report, we’d check it out.

Question: How does your office gather feedback about the admissions process and experience?

We send out surveys. We give people surveys when they visit the campus. When we have on campus programs, we typically offer people surveys either online or when they’re there.

People feel free to call us if they have concerns. We stay in touch with guidance counselors as well and if there is something where we haven’t done as well as we might, the guidance counselors that we know personally will feel free to let us know and we’re always interested in that kind of feedback.

We like hearing what we do well, but it is more important to hear what we don’t do well.

Question: Etiquette experts think that thank you notes are terrific, but college experts seem to be divided. When applicants send thank you notes or do things of that nature, do you think it helps them at all?

I think that what is in the application is much more important than the thank you note after the meeting. They certainly don’t do any harm and there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so, obviously, and it is nice to see that people are being polite. But we certainly don’t hold it against someone for not sending us a thank you note.

Question: What would be your biggest single tip or suggestion to someone interested in applying to Duke?

For seniors, I have a couple of suggestions. Make sure you do well in the first semester of your senior year in high school. That is the last part we see as part of the application and it is an important piece of the puzzle.
If a student has the opportunity in the senior year to participate in an activity where they will be able to have an impact or continue in an activity where they have an impact, that is a good thing.

It is important to get letters of recommendation from teachers for whom a student has done really good thinking and to take care with the application- not to dash it off quickly- but to take the time to do it well. I think students do well with that last one. But it takes a lot of time to fill out an application well.

I think if someone is a freshman in high school, taking good courses, doing a lot of reading beyond what’s required for the coursework, and looking for activities that are meaningful are the most important things.

Question: Anything else to add?

One of the difficult things of the admissions process is that success is measured by how many people we make unhappy.

The lower our admit rate, the better job we are considered to be doing. It is a little bit of a paradoxical situation, where by definition, we are considered more successful the more people we disappoint. That’s why, from our perspective, it is so important to treat people well in the process, knowing that we are going to disappoint the overwhelming majority of them. It is why we try our best to be respectful, to be honest, to be responsive. It is the reason why I spend a lot more time reviewing and revising the letter we send to people we’re denying admission to than people we’re admitting.

I don’t know how carefully students read the letter offering them admission beyond the word congratulations. That’s the key word for them. I think people read the rest of the letter, but what really matters is that very first word, because that is the word that opens the door for them.

In contrast, I think the letter that we send to people where we deny them admission is in some sense a much more important one. While they’re disappointed, I think that many people read that letter from beginning to end pretty carefully. Every year, I revise that letter because it is important to me that people feel respected and well treated even though they’ve been disappointed.

I think that is one of the odd dynamics of the college admissions process, that odd relationship between doing a good job for the institution and disappointing the overwhelming majority of your audience in a given year. I don’t know how many other businesses are like that.

It is why how we treat people matters so much.