A Q&A With Notre Dame’s Gatekeeper

University of Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business. Photo courtesy of Mendoza College of Business.

When you’re reviewing applications, what makes a student stand out from the rest?

As much as we can, we see if they think of others. Or is it always about them? That’s what we look for. Letters of recommendation show some of those attributes as well. We require two: one from a teacher and one from a high school counselor. Some high schools don’t have counselors and then we ask for two teacher recommendations. If they’ve been working, sometimes an employer will also write a letter. This is not unusual for business school students.

We’re also looking for kids willing to take some risks. Most 18-year-olds haven’t had a chance to, but if they’re entrepreneurial in any way or if a certain thing was bugging them and they did something about it or took on their own initiative, we love seeing that.

What’s the biggest mistake applicants make?

The biggest mistake students make is they tend to write a report on themselves. ‘I did this, I won this award, I have this score or this GPA.’ What’s important is to tell us why they did those things, what they learned, and how it changed. That’s the narrative students should write when applying to colleges.

What do you think this mistake stems from?

It may come from the advice of counselors or parents. It may be that they’re getting over-coached. We find a lot of essays seem to be over-coached — almost formulaic. Students should use their own authentic voice. Tell us who you think you are, who want to become, and what motivates you. Stop trying to figure out what you think we want to hear. Just be you! That will be more unique.

How involved are parents these days? Do you hear from parents often?

I’ve been in this business and industry over 40 years and parents have gotten more and more involved. It’s disappointing. Parents and students should think about this. If you’re trying to convince us they’re a self-starter, independent, and sharp, why am I talking to the parent and not the student? I would encourage kids to step forth and interact with the admission officers. Parents find it very difficult to let their children do it.

Is parental involvement a sensitive issue in your role?

If I could change one thing, it would be to force parents back into the background and have students to emerge. The students who do it are successful. I think this generation of parents have this belief that I’m trying to understand. They have a belief that it’s okay for them to step in front of their kids and fight for them. What I would tell you is that it’s not. It’s unwelcome and could be counterproductive.

What should my timeline look like if I’m a student applying to college?

The very first caution I would make is don’t spend your entire high school career getting ready to apply to college. That is a bad strategy. Don’t let the idea of going to college hijack the majority of those four years. That being said, I would say in your junior year is when you want to start getting ready.

During junior year, I suggest students take practice tests on Khan Academy, or some schools offer them. Kids come from a lot of different high schools and backgrounds. Some have a lot of prep and others, not much. If you’re a self-starter and willing to work on yourself, go to Khan Academy on YouTube and practice the SAT or ACT tests. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and work on those. Being test aware is a good idea.

More important, though, is class performance. Colleges will look at junior and senior year grades and they’re looking for college readiness and rigor courses. Take the higher level courses that are available — not in everything necessarily — but as much as you can. It doesn’t mean take seven AP classes your junior year and seven more your senior year, but colleges are looking for students who are taking the most rigorous courses in their last couple of years.

Class performance is more important than your test score. Students hear a lot about testing, but we do look at the courses you’ve taken; particularly junior and senior year. If you had a slow start in high school, but junior or senior year you did very well, we’re going to pay attention to that. If you have a fast start and a slow end, we notice that too; and that’s not a positive. Rising performance is helpful.

Why is it important to know that it’s not just about test scores?

I’m a numbers cruncher and I often use numbers to prove that the numbers are overused. Then I use those numbers to reorganize the way groups make decisions. What I find is that the problem with SAT and ACT is they’re a little too tied to wealth. Compared to kids from wealthy backgrounds, students from lower income backgrounds may have a lower score for what their actual performance at college might be. Once you understand that, you look at the context of their performance, not just their level of performance.

Take a high class performance at an average American high school for a first-generation student that’s not in a high college prep environment, but they’re first or second in their class and they work really hard. I’d like to think they just haven’t had all the resources around them. They may have a 1380 SAT whereas at Notre Dame our average is 1510. Does that mean they’re not admissible? In the context of their environment, 1380 may be more impressive than a 1540 from someone with advanced classes for two years and sat in a college prep environment. So, we look at context as well.

We look at grit. Angela Duckworth at Penn talks a lot about this. In the corporate world, it’s not just grades and test scores, but it’s grit, self-awareness, ability to communicate, and be a self-starter. All these soft personal attributes play a role. When we do admissions, you often hear this word holistic. It’s an academic view and personal assessment of what their skills are that might lead to success. Not just people who want to become high-paid consultants for the rest of their lives.