Educated admissions

After 15 years as SCU’s dean of undergraduate admission and 25 years at the University, Sandra Hayes can shed light on important trends in how the application process works. And on how some schools might get it wrong.

Sandra Hayes had a decade of experience in SCU’s financial aid office when she was asked to assume the role of interim dean of admission—school officials were searching for a permanent replacement. After the one-year term was up, she was packing her office to resume responsibilities in financial aid when her new position as dean was announced.

Fourteen years later, the Tennessee native and Boston University graduate is packing her office again. Hayes retired this summer after 15 years as dean of undergraduate admission and 25 years of service to the University—and this time, the decision is final.

“The best time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining,” Hayes said. “We’re in a very good place in admission. We have a staff that I adore and have tremendous trust in, they know what needs to be done, they are enthusiastic and energetic enough to get it done, and they’re the right people to pass the baton to.”

As she makes final preparations for her departure, Hayes took a moment to talk to Santa Clara Magazine and shared five things you might not know about the application and admission process:

1. Higher ed should be judicious about interacting with students

What I have learned over the last two to three years, just in talking to students, is that they don’t want every facet of their lives invaded by colleges and universities. So, it could be that “I don’t want you to text me. It’s fine that you send a letter, it’s fine that you send an email, which I may or may not open, but (texting) is space that I use for conversing with my friends, and I don’t want you in it.” A lot of colleges and universities are feeling compelled to move into that space. Because that’s how students communicate, we feel we have to communicate that way to get their attention.

So we have to make difficult decisions about reaching out and hope that they’re the right decisions for the cohort of students we’re trying to attract. A lot of time and attention is being paid to how students communicate and how they want to be communicated to.

2. Today’s applicants are sophisticated

In many ways prospective students have a good idea of what they’re looking for in a college or university and are less dependent on what other folks decide they should be looking for, which presents an opportunity and a bit of a challenge for admission professionals. On the one hand, you want to sell your institution. You want to position it as best you can while always keeping in mind that students have already done their own research. So you want to make sure that what you are sharing with them is in keeping with the essence of what they’ve already seen or read someplace else. Consistency of message is important.

You may have heard of the “stealth” phenomenon. For more and more students, the first time we hear about them is through an application. They have already decided that they don’t want to be in constant contact with us or put themselves in a position where we’re constantly tapping them on the shoulder as they attempt to make their decision to apply, because they feel like they have access to the information that they need without us. The admission folks used to be front and center in terms of students thinking, “I’ve got to talk to an admission person,” or, “If they don’t come to my school, I don’t know enough about them.” That’s not true anymore.

3. Today’s applicants are also accomplished

Recently, I came across an admission report from 1980 and I realized the kinds of things that were being tracked then we really don’t track anymore—things like how many applicants were student body presidents or were editors of school newspapers. Whereas now those activities are so common that they don’t necessarily distinguish a student as a standout. You and 80 percent of the other students who are applying are also either president of the student body or have some kind of leadership position at school, whereas at that time, that level of engagement really was exceptional.

Even activities—I think fewer students were actively involved in volunteer work then, whereas now it’s the exception if you’re not. So we really have to look very closely not just at whether you were student body president, but what are your recommenders saying about you? It’s that kind of discernment that my colleagues and I spend more time on now than we would have 15 years ago.

4. “Demonstrated interest” is the hot new trend

When I arrived in Undergraduate Admission, we received just over 6,000 applications annually. Now we receive just under 15,000. We’d love to be in a position where we know we’ve done all these wonderful things over the course of the last 14 years and it’s resulted in the increase. Yet we have to acknowledge that the common app is a big factor in that—the ease of application is what students dream about. Just imagine, “I want to apply to 15 schools, but I don’t want to do a separate application for every one of them.” So you peruse the common application list of schools, and it’s much easier to build your list—sometimes randomly, which is concerning, but there’s no way we can really guard against that.

I think as applications have ballooned, more colleges and universities are searching for ways to figure out who is serious and who may have just plucked us off the common application. So, demonstrated interest, I’d probably say in the last five to seven years, is something that students are starting to hear about and attempting to play to. I may receive an e-mail from a student who says, “I’m interested in Santa Clara. You came to my school three years ago. I’m about to apply; just wanted you to know.” They don’t really need anything or have a question, they just want to get on the radar as having demonstrated interest.

5. A lot has changed, but SCU’s core values remain intact

As an institution, I think we still are who we say we are. Obviously, over time, our facilities have changed a lot. The look of the campus is different. I think even the perception from those who aren’t a part of the Santa Clara community has shifted—there’s an expectation that, because the outer shell looks different, what we’re looking for in our students is different, that maybe we’re looking for students who are different than the core student body from 15 to 20 years ago. The reality is we aren’t. We’re still looking for those students who understand, or at least have an interest in, what we offer, which is excellent educational programs but always informed by giving back, informed by the question, “What will I accomplish with this great education that I’m privileged to have access to?” That has not changed.

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