Saturday, March 24, 2007

Reviewing Applications

The past month I've spent a lot of time reviewing applications of various sorts. I'm on COA's admission committee, so I've read probably at least 150 undergraduate admission applications. Also, I've read many student applications in my role as co-director for the Santa Fe Institute's Complex Systems Summer School (CSSS). I was the main reader for around fifty applications, and in making the final selections I looked over at least fifty more. (Note to CSSS applicants who may find this blog: expect to hear from us about whether or not you've been accepted by the end of the day Monday.) I'm also chairing a search committee for a one-term visiting faculty member in ethnography. This has entailed around 40 applications. And I'm on the selection committee for two internal COA scholarships.

The net result is that I've read a great many application letters, CVs, personal statements, and so on. It's been a little surreal. One thing that is odd is that the applicants I've been reading are at very different stages in their academic lives. COA applicants are mostly still in high school. The CSSS applicants are mostly in the middle of grad school. The scholarship applicants are in the middle of their undergrad work. And the faculty applicants range from ABDs to seasoned teachers and researchers.

It's odd to think about how many judgements I've had to make the last month. I've gotten used to this, as I've been on the admission committee for a number of years and have also served on several search committees and the like. But as I pause to reflect on it cumulatively, it's somehow strange thinking that I've basically given a yes or no response to around 350 various applications over the last month. Conservatively, I probably spend an average of five minutes reading an application. (Often it's much more.) This adds up to almost thirty hours spent reviewing applications. Or, assuming an 8-hour workday, this is 3.75 days of work.

Anyway, nobody asked me, but after doing all this application reading, I have a few words of advice for applicants.

  1. Don't leave any mysteries unexplained. If there is something unusual--a few F's, you've changed high schools (or graduate schools) several times, there is a large gap in your work history--provide an explanation. Otherwise, it's too easy for readers to imagine the worst. For example, perhaps you changed schools several times because your parents or your spouse had to relocate for professional reasons. No big deal. But if you don't mention this, the selection committee will start wondering if you got kicked out of the school for some reason, of if you have a drug habit, or if you are incapable of staying put. I've seen this happen often: there's something unusual in an application and the committee engages in all sorts of speculation. Sometimes the speculation is positive, sometimes not.

  2. Spell check. I'm not the sort of person who is going to flip out if there are a few typos in an application. This happens to everyone. But typos that could have been caught by a spell-checker are bad. They really don't reflect well on an applicant. And in general ...

  3. At least act like you care. You won't do yourself any favors with one or two sentence answers to essay questions, even if those sentences are clever and neatly typed.

  4. In most circumstances, it's not helpful to send material that wasn't asked for in the application. Usually, sending unsolicited materials only tells the committee that you're not good at reading directions.

Finally, a few positive comments:

  1. The vast majority of applications that I've read this year have been extremely well done. I'm genuinely amazed at how many applications I've seen form really smart, creative, and engaged people.

  2. I really appreciate, this year more than ever, applicants who take the time to make their applications clear and concise.

  3. I also really appreciate good letters of recommendation. I've written close to 100 letters of recommendation since coming to COA, and I know that writing thoughtful, informative letters takes time. Such letters can make a difference, especially for the applicants that are in the middle. For the super strong and the clearly unprepared, the letters don't matter much. But for the rest, I think the letters can matter a lot.

This has turned into a much longer entry than I had anticipated, and I have no idea how to conclude. But I'm tired of writing, so I think I'll just stop, and not attempt a conclusion.