Christoph Guttentag from Duke University

You read the title correctly. My most recent interview is not with an executive at a technology company nor with a leader at an organization particularly know for its customer service. It’s with a leader from academia.

Christoph Guttentag, the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University runs the admissions department at one of the nation’s leading universities. The challenges that Duke has encountered and overcome are almost identical to the type of challenges that any sort of technology, retail, or consumer company has experienced and tried to work through.

The point of this interview in particular is to not only inform you about the fascinating process behind college admissions, but also to show that all types of organizations, large and small, for profit and not for profit, experience and hopefully, overcome, the same type of challenges.

In the first part of this four part interview, Christoph and I discuss his professional background and how Duke manages the more than 20,000 applications it receives on a yearly basis.

This interview is one worth reading. Christoph is an extremely interesting guy with an equally interesting job. Click the link to read on.

Other Parts of this Interview: Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

Question: What is your professional background? Have you always been involved in college admissions?

Answer: I was a graduate student in musicology [the academic study of classical study over roughly the last 800 years] at the University of Pennsylvania. With the exception of the year that I worked between college and graduate school, my entire professional career has been in the university end of undergraduate admissions. I spent nine years at the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania and now sixteen years at Duke.

Question: Duke received close to 20,000 applications in 2006. Correct? What is it like having to deal with all of those applicants and applications?

Answer: We’ve received over 20,250 this year, even more than last year – it was a record this year.

On one level, it is a logistical challenge because our policy and our practice is that every application has to be fully evaluated at least twice and then reviewed a third time before a final decision is made on that application.

It’s a very labor-intensive process. It is a very personal process and there are no real economies of scale in the process. In other words, the 20,000th application receives exactly the same review as the first application. There is a logistical challenge in managing the paper and managing the documents. Making sure all the documents go in the right folders, getting the documents to the readers, passing them from one reader to another, making sure the evaluations are entered in our database properly. And then going through the process of making the decision and making sure that the decision on every application is a careful decision.

Part of the challenge is logistical and part of it is mental in the sense of we want to make sure that every applicant receives the same kind of review, the same care, the same approach. As a result, there is a lot if discipline involved, on the part of the staff, in reading applications to read consistently and to read accurately and to read constantly from late December through the middle of March.

When somebody applies for a job in our office as an admissions officer who has not been an admissions officer before, I tell them two things. One is that teamwork is very important in this office. There is a lot of teamwork and we look for people that are going to be good team members. The other thing that I tell them is that they need to expect to work seven days a week from January through March because otherwise we can’t get the work done. That is a long answer to a short question.

Question: I can’t imagine dealing with 20,000 applications. I have worked with companies that receive several hundred applications for a particular job, but they start blurring after a couple of hundred. How does Duke deal with that problem?

Answer: What people don’t believe, but which is true, is that every application is completely read from beginning to end. I think there is a belief out there that if someone doesn’t have perfect grades or perfect SAT scores, that their application gets short shrift and that is simply not the case. And it’s not the case at Duke or at other colleges as well.

We really do pay attention to pay attention to every applicant because until you’ve read an application all the way through, you don’t really have a basis for understanding that student. Our goal is to understand the student as an individual as well as possible. You can’t do that on the basis of the academic credentials alone. That’s not fair to the student and it’s not fair to the institution.

Our goal is to create a student body and we only do that by fully understanding that a student body is made up by individuals. It is not made up of SAT scores, it is made up of people. There is a very intense interest in understanding as well as we possibly can who these individuals are.

That said, it is also true we have to make a lot of very difficult decisions. Overwhelming, the students that apply are qualified to attend. The last time I looked (which was several years ago), we estimated that 90% or more of our applicants would be successful Duke students. The process is one that identifies the most compelling applicants among a pool that is strong across the board. That is sometimes the students with the strongest credentials, but just as often, it is students who have other qualities. That is why the process is so labor intensive.

If it were simply on the basis of academic credentials, it would be a fast and easy process. But it’s not. There are a lot of attributes that we look at and there are a lot of elements of the institution that are interested in the admissions process.

I sometimes describe my job as the equitable distribution of unhappiness. I make a small number of people happy. I make a large number of people unhappy. Everybody who has a stake in the admissions process, inside the University and outside the University, is at least partially unhappy with our decisions. If I make somebody happy all the time, I’m not doing my job.

2 Responses to “Christoph Guttentag from Duke University”

  1. Service Untitled » Christoph Guttentag from Duke University - Part 2 of 4 - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    May 15, 08 at 1:48 pm

    […] Click the link to read on. Part one of the interview is available here. […]

  2. Service Untitled » Christoph Guttentag from Duke - Part 4 of 4 - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    May 22, 08 at 4:41 pm

    […] of this portion of the interview, click “more.” Other parts of the interview include part 1, part 2, and part […]