Office of Admissions
One Dent Drive
November 29, 2021
If you're on Bucknell's mailing list, you might have seen an email telling high school students that when they apply to Bucknell, a real human — not some computer algorithm — reviews their application personally.
At Bucknell, we're proud of that fact. But that statement might raise a follow-up question: Who are those humans who will review my application?
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, you'll meet two members of the team that reviews Bucknell applications. Whether you're planning to apply to Bucknell or not, we think you'll enjoy peeking behind the curtain to see how application readers approach the review process.
We'll discuss questions like:
Longtime listeners might remember that we've used this exact topic before in our fourth episode. That episode has been so popular that we've decided it's time for a sequel.
Our guests are: Jill Medina, Bucknell's senior associate dean of admissions, and Josh Wilkinson, associate director admissions for communications.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email email@example.com.
[00:00:07] BW: If you're on Bucknell's mailing list, you might have seen an email telling high school students that when they apply to Bucknell, a real human — not some computer algorithm — reviews their application personally.
[00:00:19] BT: We are proud of that fact, but that statement might raise a follow-up question: Who exactly are the humans who will review my application? I’m Brooke Thames, and in this episode of College Admissions Insider, you'll meet two members of the team that reviews Bucknell applications.
[00:00:33] BW: And I’m Bryan Wendell. Whether you or your student are planning to apply to Bucknell or not, we think you'll enjoy kind of peeking behind the curtain to see how application readers approach the review process.
[00:00:45] BT: What does the application review system look like? How many people will read an application? What are some reasons an application might be denied? And the most important question of all, what can an applicant do to stand out?
[00:00:57] BW: We’ll cover all that and more in “Inside the Mind of an Application Reader, Volume II.” Yes, “Volume II.” Longtime listeners might remember that we've used this exact topic before in our fourth episode. Now, that episode was so popular that we decided let's do a sequel. And instead of just one application reader today, we have two. Our guests are Jill Medina, Bucknell's senior associate dean of admissions. And Josh Wilkinson, associate director of admissions for communications. Welcome to the podcast Jill and Josh.
[00:01:30] JM: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be back.
[00:01:31] JW: Hello, Brooke and Bryan. Thanks for having us.
[00:01:35] BT: Yeah, for sure. And so, to start off, can we begin by going over each of your territories? And when it comes to reviewing applications, do you review applicants based on those territories?
[00:01:46] JM: Yes. So I’ll start. My current territories, I’m assigned to New York's Westchester and Rockland Counties. So for students who attend high school in those areas. And I also have the state of Ohio. I think, in some ways, I like to think of myself as having everybody's territory because I oversee the selection process, the calendar, procedures and things like that. So I also help read some scholarships and international applicants. So I get to do a little bit of everything.
[00:02:17] JW: And my territories are Long Island — both counties of Suffolk and Nassau — North Central Pennsylvania, which I call lovingly Bucknell's backyard, and of course Northeastern Pennsylvania as well. And I do review applications from those territories.
[00:02:33] BW: And I got to say, you both do such a fantastic job. Every time I’ve met a Bucknell student, I’m always so impressed. So you're doing something really well there. But I’m so fascinated by the process of how you get that student on the campus. So can you go over the application workflow, Jill? Like, who reads it at each stage and what are some of the processes that an application moves through as it kind of gets touched at each point along the way?
[00:02:59] JM: So I have been doing this since the day of paper. And so it used to be that everybody used to send a paper application. You'd compile them, and then read them, and pass them off to a different person, and then it would eventually come back. So now we have a lot of technology to help us with a more efficient and streamlined process that will not get lost in a trunk of a car, or a diaper bag, or a briefcase. So it is much nicer that you open up your computer. And we have a couple systems because students are applying online. So for them, they're filling out their application clicking “submit,” and we get it. But it's not that simple. So there are an entire team in our office that helps process and upload the applications. We call them the A-Team, which is an apt title. So they help us a great deal.
So when students come in to the applicant workflow, they are sometimes incomplete, so they will stay in an incomplete status until such time that all the parts and pieces are there. Students have the ability to see their status on their page because we send them a message saying, “Here, check for all the parts and pieces,” so they can stay in touch with us. Once an application is completed it essentially goes to the first committee. We use a process, and if you did listen to episode four, you're familiar with the word “committee-based evaluation.” So the first committee will pull the file. So if Josh were doing or if I were doing my files, we would pull those completed applications from our assigned territories. And the committee is composed of two people in the beginning, and then we review the application. We'll make a recommendation and move it on.
So at that point, colleges and universities can handle this workflow in a variety of different ways. Because we choose to have a committee with two people as the first stage and then pass on recommended files, it could then be seen by another three or four stages. Some schools have the first read be done by a single person, and then an application goes to a committee of three or four people. And every school, it's a bit different. For us, Bucknell reads by college and by major. So we have different systems set up that once the reading committee decides where the student…well, they didn't decide where the student's applying, but they're deciding what decision is recommended. It will go into a workflow by college and by major, and then it will be viewed by others who have that responsibility, and ultimately then go to the dean so it could be seen three or four more times.
[00:05:39] BT: Yeah, so typically there're more than one or several humans that are looking at applications throughout the process. And so for both of you, at the point that you are reviewing an application for the first time, you open up a student's application, it's basically a snapshot of their high school career. And so where do you start? What do you look at first?
[00:05:57] JW: Yeah, absolutely. So as Jill mentioned, we at Bucknell read in pairs for the committee-based evaluation. And so that means we'll be looking at different things. So if I’m reading somebody from my territories, so say Long Island, I’ll start with the dashboard. And as you mentioned there's a snapshot of the student and their sort of career, academic snapshot, biographical information. I start there. And then, since it's someone from my territory, I usually jump right over to the school profile and transcripts, whereas the other person in the pair would be going over, say, the extracurriculars, things like that.
[00:06:35] BT: And Jill?
[00:06:37] JM: So if I were reading with Josh, just to take that over, I would be reading as the paired person. Not being the primary contact or assigned counselor for Long Island, I’ll be looking at the other material that isn't necessarily related specifically to academics. So if I were reading with Josh, I’d go straight to the student’s essay and supplemental questions because I want to know why they want to be at Bucknell and why they've chosen the major that they have. And then put the essay together with teacher recommendations, any other supplemental material, to get a sense of the person.
And if there were a time when I would say, “Oh, Josh, I just read one of the letters of recommendation, and they mentioned that 10th grade was really difficult,” he might look at the transcript and say, “Oh, thanks for pointing that out. It does look like there were a lot of absences, or there was a lower grade that is outside of the norm.” So we would have a conversation about the student and what do we get to know about the student from all these different elements. And it's through that conversation that we come up with the recommendation and assessment of academics, an assessment of writing, mechanics as well as story development. So all of those pieces become part of the conversation.
[00:07:48] BW: So students will know by the time they've submitted their application, they'll know what either the Common or the Coalition App looks like on their end. But once they click “submit,” and it goes through all the various magic that happens and gets to you all as the reader, what does that interface look like? Can you help us kind of paint a picture of what you have at your fingertips when you're actually reviewing the application?
[00:08:12] JW: Yeah. So once we actually start the review process, what we pretty much have at our disposal are a wonderful collection of PDFs that students submitted through either the Coalition Application or the Common App. And for us, the way it looks like is organized by section and along the left-hand side of our screen. We start at the dashboard, but then listed below the dashboard, there are other sections. So one's going to be the application, which is the bulk of the materials collected through, say, Common App. Then there's a school report, there's a landscape, which in this case is given to us by the Common App. This provides a lot of great contextual information about the high school and the region that the student lives in. Transcripts from the school, recommendations, and then there's other things that are optional, such as correspondence, if you've emailed us, that kind of thing. Other documents that you submitted, rewards, resume. And so what we can do is kind of jump around.
And so, as I mentioned before, if I’m reading somebody from my territory, I’ll click, start right in the dashboard. And then I can click on down right to school report, dive into what the high school offers. And then, of course, click down to the transcript. So I can kind of skip around. And if I need to go back, I can absolutely do that. And in each section, we kind of page through the PDFs that way.
[00:09:27] BT: And so as you're looking through all this information and parsing through it, how exactly do you make sure that you're reviewing each application on a level playing field? Is there a rubric or a certain system that you use to evaluate these students?
[00:09:40] JM: Yes is the simple answer. What's more complicated is that it isn't so simple. So we have a series of days of training where all of counseling staff, anybody who's reading applications, will come together. We will be looking at a rubric, which essentially gives us criteria for what are our expectations? What do we view as a stellar or someone who exceeds what we would expect and somebody who would be right in the middle of what we would expect? And then somebody who might be below what we would expect? There's a philosophy behind that. There is a series of descriptors that we use. And then we do a process where we try to read out or train for looking at biases if individuals come to the table with certain expectations. So we do a lot of training. This year it will be multiple days of training over a week. And then we'll train again in January. So it's continuous and ongoing.
But in terms of a level playing field, it isn't as though we are comparing a student from New York to a student from California in the literal real-time sense. We are looking at applicants within their own context. So the first context that we're able to look at is the academic context. What school did they attend? Or were they home schooled? Or did they do online school? So where are they getting their education? What was offered to them, and what did they choose within that offering?
So Josh mentioned earlier a school report, or a school profile. That is a document that we receive from every high school. Some people don't know that their high school has a profile, but we get one from every school. And so we are able to see for the most part what's the nature of the curriculum. Do they have one curriculum? There are some schools that are quite robust where they might have honors classes, AP classes, you could take the International Baccalaureate. Whereas some other schools may only have one 12th grade English class, so nobody got a choice and everybody's taking the same class. So we get the context under which we can evaluate that student. And so then the other pieces that we've talked about and some of the great questions that you've asked all put the story of that student together in their own context. And so that's how we review to look at creating the world for that student.
And Josh did mention landscape — it's actually the College Board product because it's based on testing, and it gives us some comprehensive data around achievement in a particular high school. If the school has AP exams, how many students take them? What's the average score? What does the neighborhood look like? There are a lot of firms that can crunch a lot of data that's publicly available about income in certain neighborhoods, about demographics in different neighborhoods. And so we do get more of a contextual piece that will break down the students’ school location as well as residential location. So we have a lot of tools at our fingertips. But each student is really viewed in their own context curriculum, achievement, involvement.
[00:13:04] JW: Jill is absolutely right. And another element I think I would add is that conversation piece that you were mentioning before, Jill. When we are working off of each other, we're able to talk through some things. It's a conversation that's ongoing. And my partner might notice that I get a little bit too excited if I’m reading, say, an application from the major that I did in college. Let's say it was creative writing, and I go, “Yes, awesome! We get a creative writing person.” But then my partner's able to kind of tether me to the ground a little bit more, make sure that we're being fair in evaluating each and every applicant. So really that committee-based evaluation is also a huge part of that.
[00:13:39] JM: Absolutely. One of my things is anytime I see a certified scuba diver, I get really excited and start talking about diving, which has nothing to do with their application.
[00:13:51] BW: Well, let's dive into that topic a little bit more actually, because a human element is something that we talk about as a positive here. And rightly so because it means that the student is getting a real person who understands all the nuances of what would make someone a fit at Bucknell. But at the same time, you might see, “Oh, this person's a scuba diver. This person's from my hometown. This person has the same major as me.” Or it might be just, “Hey, I’m really tired when I’m reading this. I’m distracted.” There're a million things going on in the life of an admissions counselor. So how do you kind of keep that human element in check?
[00:14:29] JM: That's good. That's a great question. And I like that question because this is a human process, whether it's the students or us, and it just comes together around the application. I like looking at it from the perspective of meeting somebody for the first time and having a conversation. So the student has curated their own application, and they've decided how they're presenting themselves, and I’m really excited to receive that. So I feel like I’m meeting somebody new for the first time. But like Josh said, that conversation that you're having with your reading partner really does help to keep things in check. Some days, if I’m tired, we might have to take a break more often, and if we're on a deadline. So there are a whole bunch of things. But each time you open an application, it's like meeting that student for the very first time, and that's just exciting.
[00:15:20] BT: I like that analogy of really meeting someone for the first time. I guess to flip it, what are some of those human elements of the student then that causes them to stand out in an application or things about them that might catch your eye?
[00:15:32] JW: Yeah. So when I’m reading an application it's really like I’m building a narrative as I go through. Almost like a novel is kind of forming itself as I go. So everything that the student puts down the on application kind of creates this human experience that I’m imagining as I go. So whether it's the activities, the essays, the things that their teachers and the counselor are saying about the student, you really get a sense of who the person is sometimes. And what they're passionate about, what their family life is like, what obstacles they may have to deal with, what things they are doing that I could see them doing now. We have rubrics, and we have numbers, and we have test scores and GPAs. But at the end of the day, we're imagining this student doing well at our university here at Bucknell. And so it's really cool to kind of see that and go through that space through an online PDF by the time we're reading an application. It still is very human and still is representing something that's really special.
[00:16:30] BW: That's great. And, Jill, can we kind of flip it around? I don't want to get all negative here, but I do think it's worth discussing some of the reasons that an application might be denied. So you reviewed it, and obviously not everyone's going to get admitted. So what are some of those reasons that a student might be denied?
[00:16:49] JM: And that's probably one of the most difficult aspects of selecting a class, especially at a school like Bucknell where last year we received over 11,200 applications. That was the most in school history, and you're aiming for a class of around1,000 students. So some of it could be as simple as spaces. So we do have a limited number of beds. We are a residential college, and we do have a limited number of seats in labs or studios depending on the major. So some of it can be a matter of numbers, which can lead to students with perfectly acceptable [or] even great grades not gaining a seat in their desired institution.
And for families, I know this is often very confusing because at Bucknell, as I mentioned, we read by college and by major. And so you may have 10 kids applying from the same school who the parents or community view as being equal, and the decisions are not equal. There are other reasons why somebody might not be admitted. Some of it could be academic fit. They could be charting lower in the academic area, a lack of demonstrating success in a challenging curriculum. One of the examples that is very real: If you have a student who's interested in engineering but they have not taken math through pre-calculus, an engineering program will be incredibly challenging if not difficult or impossible for a student to be successful. So it could be something like that. But it's not usually one thing like a grade in ninth grade. It's not usually a test score on a particular day. It is usually the totality of the application presented. But then you are viewed within the context of the major to which you're applying in the college to which you're applying. So you're not just being compared against the students in your school where you all may be or have been in the same honors or AP classes throughout school. You are now competing with everybody else who wants that major in that college in the applicant pool.
[00:19:07] BT: And so switching gears just a little bit, Josh, you travel throughout your territory talking with students. You're traveling right now, right? We just talked about several reasons why an application might be denied, and I’m sure students have a whole bunch of things going on in their head and fears about why their application might be denied, whether they're real or not. And so are there some big misconceptions about the application review process that should be cleared up?
[00:19:29] JW: Yes, Brooke, you're right. I’m reporting live from Long Island right now. And so, yeah, I am hearing a lot of these questions and, actually, Jill brought up a few of them that I hear pretty often from students. Many times I visit a high school, one of the first things out of their mouths are words like, “What grades do I need? What GPA do I need to get into your school? What test score do I need to get in your school? What are your requirements?”
The simple answer is that there isn't, like, one minimum GPA or test score requirement. Obviously, those are going to be important metrics. Of course, we're test optional, so that may or may not be an important metric on your application depending on what you decide to include. But we just don't have that number. So I can't just tell the student a number, and they have to shoot for that number. It's part of a larger context. Which kind of goes to the next thing that I hear a lot, which is — and Jill was mentioning this — you had a bad test grade or one class, for whatever reason, you just couldn't get a good grade. And I always tell the students it depends. I mean, it really depends on the context of the rest of your grades, on the context of your high school group and everything else.
So, one example: Typically, I try to read high schools together just because it helps a lot in getting a sense of students in that school but also this particular area. So one time I had an all-A student apply, but for whatever reason they had a C+ in chemistry. It's the only blemish on the transcript of what it was otherwise a transcript full of A's. And I was like, “Well, that's weird.” And then it turns out the next student I reviewed from that high school, same deal, also had a C+ in the same chemistry class with the same teacher. And then the next student I also had a C in chemistry from the same teacher in the same year. And so that's where that context really helps, is that sometimes you're in a boat with everybody else. And I think, certainly in these auspicious times, we understand that a little bit more that things aren't always going to turn out perfectly, but you're also not alone in the boat. Other people are going through this with you. And we definitely will review these little blemishes and blips within context.
Another common example would be you suffered an injury, such as…a common one is a concussion. Say you suffered a concussion sophomore year, and you had to be in a dark room at home for months on end. And obviously you suffered from that. You couldn't really do your schoolwork as well as you would like to have. So tell us about those things as well. And so not only will we be looking at your grades within that larger context, but you have an opportunity on your application within the additional information to tell us a little bit more about these things. And so you don't have to be necessarily perfect in every grade and every test, but telling us the story and making sure that we're not guessing is part of that process as well.
And I think Jill alluded to this as well, is that if you're looking on the internet to kind of figure out, “Okay, what GPA? What test score do I need to go in what school? What schools can I be admitted to based on my GPA test score?”, that's not always an accurate picture because it depends largely on the college you're applying to and the major you're applying as. So at Bucknell, for example, we have over 60 majors, 70 minors. And what we're looking for in a biology major is very different than what we're looking for in a theater major, for instance. Of course, biomedical engineering works very different than we're looking for history major. So it all depends on context. And we're reviewing applications underneath that umbrella of the college and major that you applied to. So not everyone is reviewed in the same context. It depends on what you picked on your application.
[00:22:56] BW: Yeah. I think it's super interesting to hear about all the factors that come into play there. And that's a nice reminder that even on our website, we publish like the middle range of SAT and ACT scores. Again, we're test optional at Bucknell. But you can't always just say that anybody within that range or above is automatically in and anybody below is automatically out. There's so much more nuance there.
Jill, I want to touch on something else that is interesting to me, and it's about the more competitive majors like Josh just mentioned. Like let's say…and I’m just going to make up these numbers here just for the sake of discussion, but if there's, say, 20 seats in biomedical engineering and you get 200 biomedical engineering applicants, are you going in and actually comparing students at a certain point? Or how do you and your team decide which 20 individuals are going to fill those seats?
[00:23:45] JM: So that is the end of the committee process that we started talking about. So the application review happens. It gets, based on recommendation, passed on. And in the final stages of crafting a class, we do have to look at the number of seats. We have to look at the history of how many students typically yield in this area. So you admit a student, and the yield is how many accept your offer to attend. So if we have a yield in the past of 50% in the example that you gave, we probably would want to admit 40 or so of the 200 because we think we're going to get the 20. So this is where the art and the science of it comes in, because this is not an exact science and this is not an algorithm that is plugged into a computer that says, “Here, take these students because.” So somebody, multiple somebodies, are looking the person who has responsibility for engineering or reviewing engineering applicants. And then, for us, it goes to the dean for final review to make sure that all of the steps that we've laid out prior to have happened as we want them to.
There are some institutions where when they get to that stage of crafting the class, the entire leadership team might get together. Some schools, the entire staff will get together when you come down to the final seats in the class and make the decision as an entire committee. Some institutions, some colleges and universities, leave that up to faculty to make that final determination. So each school can handle it a bit differently, but we set ours out as a staged process of multiple opportunities to be reviewed, and then the final crafting happens at the top level.
[00:25:35] BT: And so we are nearing the end of our episode. It's gone by so fast. We're having such a fascinating conversation. Before we end, we want to share a couple of questions with you that we've received through the @BucknellU Instagram. And so, Josh, this one's for you: How can students applying show they are forward-thinking?
[00:25:53] JW: Ah, yes. That's a great question. And, usually, I’m thinking of things that I wish I would have done in high school going beyond just sort of the typical activities. I think mostly it's going to look like engaging activities that prepare you for college or maybe a career that you're looking at. And some examples that come to my mind right now are things like an engineering camp, for instance, at a local university over the summer if you're thinking about doing engineering. Volunteering or shadowing in a career area that interests you. So that could mean shadowing a lawyer, going to a courthouse to watch some proceedings, shadowing a doctor, volunteering in a hospital if you're interested in that area. Or doing a theater camp for children if you're interested in theater or education, things like that.
And they could be more mundane things. I think sometimes students think, “Well, I just have to work jobs to support myself, or whatever.” But that could also be a great way of showing forward-thinking if you have to work a job to secure funds for college or life. It may seem very practical, but obviously you're having to work ahead to show that college is meaningful to you, and something that you want to obtain and pursue even if that means taking some of your valuable time to get money for that.
[00:27:00] JM: I think that's a great point because sometimes employment is underestimated as an additive feature to a college application. I mean, the reality is that there're some students who have to work a job, who have to care for younger siblings or other family members. And it's important that we know what those obligations are.
[00:27:20] BW: Yeah. And that's a great reminder to include them on the application because if it's not there then Josh, Jill and their colleagues won't know you're doing it. Jill, here's one of those Instagram questions from you: How can an applicant know whether they're competitive especially since things like GPA can vary so dramatically between schools?
[00:27:39] JM: So, many students are lucky enough to have a school or college counselor work with them, and that's a good starting point. There are some students who are in school districts where those people are few and far between. And so they have to look at the Internet or try to guess it for themselves. Sometimes family members aren't going to be that helpful. Much like we mentioned that each school has a school report, most colleges will have their class profile or quick facts that tell you the average student who enrolled has the following credentials. That isn't necessarily going to be a hard-and-fast, but it is a good frame of reference where a student can begin to see, “Is this going to be a reach school for me?” So a student may have all A's, and let's say I have an A-, and I’m looking at all my schools, and I’m going to apply for five and the average is an A-. We don't want to fantasize that, “Oh, that means I’m going to get in,” but it might be more of a message that I’m in the realm. But everything we've talked about up to this point shows how many different pieces go into that.
[00:28:53] BT: Yeah, it's kind of a multi-factor process there. And finally, last question for the both of you: What is your favorite part about being an application reader?
[00:29:03] JM: Do you want to go first, Josh?
[00:29:05] JW: Sure. Oh my gosh! I mean, it's such a privilege, honestly, to peek behind the curtain of a student's life, and to see everything that they're about. And as I mentioned before, it's sort of like reading a novel in a way, and sometimes there're twists and turns that can entail while you're going through an application. And there's nothing better than finishing reading an application and having the feeling that you can't wait to see what they will do next in the next chapter of their lives. We may hope that's here at Bucknell. But honestly, wherever they end up going, I just can't wait to see what they do.
And I know it's sort of tradition to sort of give the next generation a hard time. But reading some of the things that the next generation are doing and the ways that they're contributing to society already makes me hopeful. It makes me just filled with hope and sunlight when going through this process with these students.
[00:29:57] JM: I agree with everything Josh said. And I think one of the things that I also enjoy about the application review process, or being a reader, is the ability to spend some time with colleagues that I haven't seen in a long time. Because, typically, when application deadlines happen, we haven't seen each other for months because people have been on the road traveling. And to bring it back to some of the human nature of the review, it is human for us because we get to work together. And being part of a team is an amazing process, and it's such an honor to work with the people that I do. But I do agree with Josh knowing the students and getting to see who comes and who's going to create the future of Bucknell is really thrilling. So from every lens, working with people — whether it's the applicant, or colleagues, or campus partners — is just such an exciting time.
[00:30:48] BW: That's awesome. I love that. And when we think about the culture of any university…we picture a university in our heads, it's not really the buildings or the mascot. It's the students, and the process of creating that student body starts with you all in admissions and reading the application. So I just have such respect and admiration for what you all do. And specifically at Bucknell, all the great curious, and supportive, and innovative students that are here, it all started with you and your colleagues. So I just want to say thanks so much for being here. And best of luck as the application review process begins for this new cycle. And thanks to everybody out there for listening. We wouldn't do this podcast without you. So please take a moment to share, rate and subscribe if you're a fan of College Admissions Insider.
[00:31:33] BT: At the beginning of the show we referenced the Bucknell mailing list. If you'd like to join that list and get updates about all things Bucknell, just fill out the short form at go.bucknell.edu/rfi.
[00:31:45] BW: We'll be back with another new episode in just two weeks. In the meantime, please send your questions, comments and even some episode ideas, if you'd like, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:31:58] BT: And finally, we invite you to follow Bucknell on all of your favorite social media apps. Just look for @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. You can also follow our student run Instagram account which is @iamraybucknell and our student run TikTok as well.
[00:32:13] BW: Yeah, BucknellU on TikTok. Good reminder. Until next time, keep on reaching for your dreams and your dream school.
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