If Dean of Admissions Eric Furda could have dinner with anybody he wanted — living, deceased or fictional — who would he choose and why?
For Furda, the “who” part of that question is simple — he’d take his meal with a real-life version of Michelangelo’s sculpture, “David.” At least that’s what he wrote in his application essay to Penn.
Furda, a 1987 College graduate, said Penn’s admissions process has evolved “in huge ways” since his time as an undergraduate. And while Furda now helps decide the fate of more than 30,000 applicants a year, he’s not about to forget what it felt like to be on the other side of the college admissions process.
Furda thinks that his story alone “highlights just how far admissions has come over the years.”
“Everything is more juiced up around steroids today,” he said. “What was once largely a nascent industry [of college admissions] … is now a high-stakes, highly public process.”
Furda grew up in what he described as “a small, depressed town” located near Albany, N.Y. He was at the top of his Catholic high school’s class — though for a time he viewed his college options as “fairly geographically limited.”
Until he arrived at Penn, Furda “didn’t even know what an AP class was,” he said. “The way that I found out about schools was that I asked for information and would be sent a brochure through the mail. That was it.”
For a time, Penn was hardly even on Furda’s radar. But then, Penn sprint football coach Bill Wagner sent a letter to Furda’s high-school football program inquiring on whether the team had any bright, athletic players. Furda’s name popped up and — soon after a campus visit — he decided to apply.
Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
“Our applicant pools truly are national and international now,” he said. “The changes are very dramatic, and you see them not only in terms of the makeup of an applicant pool, but also in the size of an applicant pool.”
The numbers certainly support Furda’s claims.
In 1978, the University processed about 7,000 applications per year, according to a 2007 Daily Pennsylvanian article. Less than 30 international students chose to matriculate. As recently as the 1980s, Penn still received fewer than 10,000 applications per year.
Fast forward to today, and the University received more than 30,000 applications for the Class of 2015 — a more than 300-percent increase from the late ’70s. This number also marks a 17-percent increase from the nearly 27,000 applications received last year.
With application totals at an all-time high, acceptance rates have continued to plunge. A decade after the Class of 2004 saw about 22 percent of applicants gain admission, the University accepted slightly more than 14 percent of students to the Class of 2014.
Gary Survis, a 1986 Wharton graduate, described college admissions in his day as “a laissez-faire process.”
“We were running blind, basically,” he said. “We’d all pick a school from a one-page summary in our big Barron’s book, and that was that.”
When Survis’ daughter, Nicole, applied to Penn last year, he said he was “awestruck” by all the work that went into the process.
“The whole thing was definitely a pressure cooker,” College freshman Nicole Survis said.
When Survis learned in December 2009 that she had been admitted to Penn through early decision, she said it took her about seven minutes to put the news up on Facebook.
“One of my friends thought that I didn’t get in because [she told me that] ‘it took you seven whole minutes to update your status,’” Survis recalled.
On the other hand, Survis’ mother, Lorraine — a 1986 College graduate who met her husband, Gary, at a bar on their first day freshman year — remembers “waiting for that envelope with a decision in the mail,” she said. “If the envelope was fat, you were in for good news. If it was skinny, not so much.”
Whereas Gary and Lorraine Survis both had the opportunity to come to Penn for an on-campus interview, Nicole — along with other applicants to Penn nowadays — had no such chance. Though Nicole worked tirelessly to build up her transcript and boost her test scores throughout high school, Gary and Lorraine were able to take a much more laid back approach in the application process.
The Survis’ story then begs the question — have the changes in college admissions over the years been for the better or for the worse?
For College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck, it’s “been a bit of both.”
DeTurck, who earned his masters and doctorate degrees in mathematics from Penn, noted that he has “seen Penn become a place where more students want to be.”
“Back in the early ’80s, Penn was a second or third choice school for a lot of people,” DeTurck, who has been involved with Penn admissions committees over the years, said. “Today, I don’t think that’s so anymore.”
Top Colleges Educational Consultant Steven Goodman said this trend may be because admissions officers today are more likely to accept a student who they believe is likely to enroll.
“Admissions is now such a well-oiled machine that one has to offer something very tangible in the process,” Goodman said. “You have to give [admissions officers] something to show that you have a genuine interest … and truly want to attend.”
Goodman also said the advent of the Common Application — which Penn first adopted in 2006 — may have had some unintended consequences.
The Common App, Goodman explained, has enhanced the importance of essays and applicants’ personal characteristics in the admissions process. At the same time, however, he thinks that the sheer number of applications coming in “has made it a lot more difficult to distinguish exactly what those personal characteristics are,” he said.
Overall, “the process has become a lot more stressful for students,” Goodman added.
But that isn’t the case for everybody. College sophomore Sean Nadel, whose mother also graduated from Penn, said he was “pretty relaxed about filling out [his] application.”
And at the end of the day, one thing has remained resolutely unchanged.
“Outside of the numbers and technologies, the essence of what we do is still pretty much the same,” Furda said. “Our job is to create and build a class that’s going to succeed at Penn and beyond.”Comments powered by Disqus
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