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12.08.09

Secret Lives of Admissions Officers

The person deciding collegiate futures is likely overworked and underpaid, with little relevant experience or loyalty to the job. Katie Kingsbury peeks inside their mysterious world.

The person deciding collegiate futures is likely overworked and underpaid, with little relevant experience or loyalty to the job. Kathleen Kingsbury peeks inside their mysterious world.

You’ve spent hours on your college application, days on the essay, spritzed the package with perfume and sent it off via certified mail to… where? Welcome to the murky, mysterious world of the college admissions office. Like a secret police force, college admissions officers are feared, revered, and shrouded in mystery. Who are these anonymous gatekeepers who wield such frightening power?

“Applicants love to imagine some old men, wearing tweed, gathered in a smoke-filled room deciding who gets into college,” says Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment at Illinois’ Augustana College. “In most admissions offices, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Click here to meet 10 admission counselors and find out where else they’ve worked.

As regular application deadlines approach and early-decision letters arrive this week and next, The Daily Beast peeked inside America’s admissions offices to find out what makes an admissions officer—and whether they’re really qualified to decide where you’ll go to school.

It boils down to this: Few kids dream of being an admissions officer when they grow up, and most recruiters fall into the job by accident. While this is changing somewhat, admissions officers are most often former campus tour guides who got their start as application readers at their own alma mater, then ended up staying on as admissions officers by default. And a lot of them have backgrounds that show few qualifications to evaluate prospective students. One associate director of admissions we talked to had a previous life as a knitting-pattern designer. Another counselor fought wildfires. Even Harvard’s dean of admissions admits he was forced to repeat the 9th grade after skipping more than 50 days of school.

“Admissions is incredibly personal—you’re asking applicants to open up their lives to you for you to then judge them,” says a former Amherst College officer who asked not to be identified because he still works in admissions. “There were definitely times I was humbled to think that my only qualification for this job was having graduated from college myself.”

That’s not usually the case today, however. Nearly all admission offices now send new counselors to outside training courses or, at the very least, have integrated in-house mentorships. But it’s the Darwinian on-the-job training where rookies sink or swim. Admissions work is a grueling profession that can involve constant travel and 20-hour days during application season. On average each counselor at a private college will read nearly 350 applications every year, and their public-school peers are reading 2.5 times that number—about 825 applications each, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling’s 2009 annual survey.

“You’re taking good, raw material to begin with and putting them through boot camp,” say Dan Lundquist, the former dean of admissions at Union College who himself came to the job at the Schenectady, New York, school after being the personal bartender for a college president. “You learn 80 percent of what you need to know in the first year or two and then spend the rest of your career trying to learn the other 20 percent.”

When asked how they decide which job candidates to hire, the word deans tend to use is an admissions officer’s favorite: instinct.

“You know it when you see it,” Barnds says. “High energy is one of the most important things. Almost hyper-caffeinated. But also empathetic and objective—they have to be willing to see the silver lining in someone’s story.”

Barnds, for one, advocates for more professionalization in admissions, which, he says, more people are now actively choosing as a career path. Still, no particular major or degree dominates the field, and it’s only in the upper echelons that graduate degrees start to emerge. “Looking at survey research, the No. 1 prerequisite for more-senior admissions-officer positions remains previous experience in admissions,” says David Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy.

That prior experience can be hard to find. Most admissions counselors enter the field assuming they will stay in it just a few years, and indeed, turnover is extremely high. The demanding lifestyle is usually to blame, but the pay doesn’t help. Though the head of an office can make as much as $140,000, new admissions counselors earned on average about $33,000 in the 2008-2009 school year, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Things aren’t likely to get better soon as budget cuts have led to layoffs and understaffing. “Deans are trying to find and train that all-purpose educational counselor-cheerleader, and to see so many leave so quickly can be disheartening,” Lundquist says. “But at the end of the day they are running a business.”

Recently an Ivy League admissions officer confided to me that he planned to quit at the end of the school year after just two years reading applications. “No one prepared me for what a high-pressure job this is,” he says, asking he not be identified because he hasn’t quit his job yet. “I can’t conscionably keep telling perfectly qualified candidates ‘no’ because I have to meet my numbers.”

The Knitting-Pattern Designer
Kim Hunter
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, associate director of admissions
Hometown: Alton, New Hampshire

Kim Hunter graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 1986, but she soon decided that she didn’t want to be an engineer after all. Instead, she started and ran her own retail needlework business, and also managed a counted cross-stitch company. She also designed knitting patterns for a major yarn company. Over the years, however, she became more involved as an MIT alumni volunteer and began interviewing applicants in New Hampshire. In 2007, she joined the admissions office full-time.

The Pro-Basketball Player
Wahhab Carter
University of Denver, associate director of diversity enrollment
Hometown: El Reno, Oklahoma

At 6’6’’, it’s no surprise that Wahhab Carter once had NBA dreams. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Denver on an athletic scholarship and dominated the courts as a forward and shooting guard for the Pioneers. In 2002, he graduated and headed to Europe to play professional basketball in Sweden and Finland. Two years later, he returned to his alma mater’s admissions office. These days, he spends his free time acting in commercials. Applicants, be sure to ask to see his reel.

The 9th Grade Reject Turned Harvard Ph.D.
William Fitzsimmons
Harvard University, dean of admissions & financial aid
Hometown: Weymouth, Massachusetts

After 35 years of accepting students into Harvard, Bill Fitzsimmons is perhaps the most influential admissions officer in the country. But the Boston Globe reported recently that neither of the Massachusetts native’s parents attended college—his father owned and operated a gas station. And Fitz, as he’s known around campus, himself had to repeat the ninth grade after skipping more than 50 days of school the first time around. (And he still got a Ph.D. from Harvard!) Extra credit: Fitzsimmons has run more than 30 marathons.

The Wildfire Fighter
Chance White Eyes
University of Oregon, admissions counselor
Hometown: Eugene, Oregon

Chance White Eyes took up recruiting Native American students to the University of Oregon shortly after graduating with a degree in philosophy from the Ducks’ biggest rival, Oregon State, in 2007. But if he had his druthers, he’d be fighting wildfires. White Eyes spent five firefighting seasons stationed on Washington state’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. “I miss that lifestyle,” he says. His second choice? Racing cars, another former hobby. “I was very big into cars at one point in my life, and have done everything from drag to drift, rally cross, autocross, gymkhana, and kart racing.” He dreams of one day running Germany’s Nurburgring, widely considered the most demanding racetrack in the world.

The Classical Pianist
Jenny Bottino
University of Wisconsin-Madison, freshman admissions counselor
Hometown: Ivyland, Pennsylvania

Music is Jenny Bottino’s first love—she is a classical pianist who studied music theory and composition at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. She still writes choral music and performs on the side, but after her husband’s job took the couple to Madison, she’s been recruiting Badgers from all across Wisconsin since October. “You never really hear people in admissions say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be an admissions counselor!’” Bottino says. “It's usually something one falls into, and for people like me, we wish to pursue the career wholeheartedly.”

The Intelligence Officer
Theodore Spencer
University of Michigan, associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions
Hometown: Memphis

After graduating college—a bachelor's degree from Tennessee State University and a master's from Pepperdine—Ted Spencer joined the Air Force through ROTC and soon became an intelligence officer. He served in several areas including Libya, Louisiana, Paris, and Vietnam. Afterward, he joined the Air Force Academy’s admissions department and retired from active duty as a lieutenant colonel. He joined Michigan’s staff in 1989.

The Expatriate in Japan
Julie Shimabukuro
Washington University in St. Louis, director of undergraduate admissions
Hometown: Chicago

Like most admissions counselors, Julie Shimabukuro went right to work in her alma mater’s admissions office after graduating from Washington University with a psychology degree in 1987. But then her career—and her life—took a sabbatical: After asking for a one-year leave of absence, Shimabukuro moved to Japan for what would end up to be more than five years. While there, she first taught English in the Nagano Prefecture and then was hired on at a local school board in Yokohama. In 1999, Shimabukuro accepted an offer to return to Wash-U.—and good thing she did: After 16 years of no contact, she reconnected with an old college friend, an opera singer, and soon married him.

The Fortune 500 Failure
Andrew Palumbo
The Sage Colleges, director of undergraduate admissions
Hometown: Central Massachusetts

After graduating from Union College, Andrew Palumbo briefly tried a career in sales at a Fortune 500 firm—and failed at it. He was fired after not meeting his monthly sales goal. “It was the first time that I had ‘failed’ at anything that significant…it rocked my self-confidence,” Palumbo, 25, said recently. “Within a year of gaining a degree at Union College, I found myself unemployed and receiving unemployment.” So he picked himself back up and remembered something he loved from his undergrad days—volunteering in Union’s admissions office. He soon secured a job with The Sage Colleges, an Albany, New York, school. Last May, he was honored as one of Albany’s 40 Under 40 by the local Business Review.

The Indie Music Producer/Guest Chef/Martial Artist
Darryl Jones
Gettysburg College, senior associate director of admissions
Hometown: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Along with his admissions day job, Darryl Jones volunteers as an assistant track and field coach at Gettysburg College. It’s a job he picked up after arriving at Gettysburg with four years as jump and sprint specialist at his alma mater, Penn State, under his belt. Plus, in his spare time, Jones is an independent music producer, a guest chef at a local restaurant, and the captain of a championship chili cookoff team. He also has practiced martial arts for more than 30 years.

The Hair-Salon Receptionist
Julie McCulloh
Gonzaga University, dean of admissions
Hometown: Helena, Montana

Julie McCulloh has not strayed far from Gonzaga since graduating with a degree in psychology in 1992, and today she is both dean of admissions and wife of the interim president of this Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington. That said, prior to her career in admissions, McCulloh worked as receptionist and bookkeeper at a hair salon in Oxford, England. She also has an MBA.

Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.