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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Rochester Review--University of Rochester magazine

ANN WRIGHT '63, '77 (PhD)
1999: College Admissions Chief

Whether it's a case of being pounded with an avalanche of tennis balls, inundated with sweets, or forced to use a mirror to read an essay written from right to left, the life of a college admissions officer is a whole new ballgame these days. And few know it better than Ann Wright.

Recently appointed vice president for enrollment at Rice University--following posts in admissions at both Rochester and Smith College--she can relate plenty of bizarre stories, like the tennis ball incident that befell a hapless Rice admissions staffer.

It started innocently enough with a gym-locker key taped to an application form that had a box asking applicants to identify something of value to them. When the staffer found the locker and opened it, dozens of escaping tennis balls came tumbling out, bouncing high and low. Conceivably, the student was trying to show uncontained enthusiasm, both for tennis and for Rice.

Although originality can be effective in the application process, Wright points out that it's not necessarily always the best policy. With the essay question, for instance, what colleges are trying to ascertain are things like "Can you write?" "Can you think?" "Do you care?" and "What do you care about?" And whatever the essay question that's asked, the response--and how it's given--can make or break a prospect's chances.

Take the case of the essay that required a mirror to read it. "Now that's an example of what not to do," Wright says.

What does count is sincerity--certainly on the part of the student, but also, she points out, on the part of the admissions staff. That's especially true, she says, in today's highly competitive arena of student recruitment.

As Wright explains, the competition has been driven by a combination of factors that have caused students to be more selective in their college choices. Among them: higher educational standards coupled with higher aspirations, especially for women and minorities, which have led students to look further up on the ranks of elite institutions; the media attention that's been placed on the cost and value of higher education; and the effect of highly publicized school rankings.

"U.S. News & World Report has made a mint off their so-called 'swimsuit issue,'" Wright says. "All these factors combine to create the 'Chivas Regal effect,' where students are brand-conscious."

Schools "need innovative and sincere ways to reach students and families," she says.

As an example, she cites an initiative introduced at Rochester some years back in which parents were invited to write letters of recommendation for their applicant children--the rationale being that Mom and Dad might yield insights that the school wouldn't gain otherwise. She notes that the invitation netted a positive response and that she used the same strategy at Smith and plans to produce a parents' brochure at Rice.

She adds that when it comes to college choice, parents bring a rationality to the equation that can balance the students' more romantic view of selecting an alma mater. Parents can offer assistance by looking for qualities the student might not consider: support services, career outcomes, safety, and whether the school fits the needs of the whole student.

Looking at the whole student is paramount in making an admissions decision, Wright affirms. While she acknowledges the need for SATs in the complex American educational system she works in, "the key is to balance test scores with achievements and personal qualifications."

Another part of the American education system today--quotas--carries a negative connotation, says Wright, but she finds the result to be more on the positive side. "It's wrong to set a numerical goal, but it's right to create an interesting mix of people," she says. "Part of the learning process is to create a real-world environment, where people of all kinds can exchange ideas."

1963: A Simpler Time

Wright remembers a simpler admissions process when she entered Rochester. That's not to say that the process was a piece of cake then or is now. "The difficulty of college admissions makes your high school senior year like Newark Airport," she says. "No one wants to be there, but you have to go through it to get to where you're going."

Wright got to where she was going by starting out taking classes in her native Kansas, then picking up her studies at Rochester after her husband took a job with Eastman Kodak.

Her career at Rochester--as student, teacher, and director of admissions--was a successful one, as at least one of her professors is happy to attest.

English Professor George Grella, who directed Wright's dissertation, notes that her academic background as a doctoral student and as a faculty member gives her valuable insight into the admissions process.

"And, since she has a Ph.D. in a regular discipline and she respects scholars, she'll in turn get more respect from faculty," he says, adding that, "she's an old friend, a good person, and a good student."

Wright thinks of her time at Rochester as "the most influential experience of my career. I loved being on campus and with people so focused on academic life. I never had a desire to be in any other environment."

Julie Welch

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