After spending 30 years working in college admissions at small liberal arts colleges, Whitney Soule — Penn's new dean of admissions — has taken the helm of the second-largest Ivy League institution's admissions office.
Soule said she is not coming to Penn with the intention of enacting major changes to the admissions process. Instead, she hopes to continue and expand existing initiatives with active input from her colleagues.
"I did not come here with a plan, 'Penn needs to do X, Y, and Z,'" Soule said. "It's not about fixing a broken thing, but it is an opportunity to continue this conversation. I think, as an office, we will look for and create opportunities that are not here right now."
One of those opportunities is the option to submit a non-teacher recommendation when applying to the University.
Penn previously required students to submit two teacher letters of recommendation, but in the current admissions cycle, it will require only one teacher recommendation. The other letter of recommendation can come from anyone who can comment on the student's character.
"It could be a friend, a community member, a leader, a contributor – anyone who has a view on that student that would help us understand them," Soule said. "Students can still select a second teacher if they want, but not every student has teachers that they know really well and they feel could really honor that question. We want them to pick somebody who can because that's what we're trying to learn about."
She also explained that the new policy was made in an effort to reflect the Admissions Office's efforts to evolve traditional practices to better suit students' non-traditional high school experiences as amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As students return to campus life this fall, Soule said she has noticed the sheer size of the University more than ever, as it is much larger than her previous places of work.
“I just stopped and watched on Locust Walk and coming from a small school I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so many students,'" she said.
But Soule, who worked at Bowdoin College for 13 years, including as its Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid, said Penn is not all that different from Bowdoin, despite the nearly 8,000 undergraduate student difference.
"Bowdoin is a school that was built on the common good, so in some ways very much like Ben Franklin's ethos and disposition toward putting good things into the world," Soule said. "When Penn was looking for a new dean, I saw it as an opportunity to take the things that I already love and care about into scale at a place that also already loves and cares about them."
Soule began her new post at Penn on July 1 after the University announced her appointment as dean of admissions on Feb. 9. The search process for a new dean of admissions began after Eric Furda, the beloved former Dean of Admissions and 1987 College graduate, announced he would be leaving the Admissions Office on June 18, 2020.
"Whitney shares our strong belief — proven true in Penn’s growing strength and continued success — that excellence and diversity in higher education are inextricably linked," Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett wrote in the Feb. 9 announcement.
Soule said she will bring one key principle that has shaped her outlook on college admissions to Penn: it is okay not to have everything figured out.
"Students don't have to be fully complete right by the time they start college," Soule said, "Or on the other side of it, they don't have to be complete by the time they finish. There's no such thing as a complete person. You're always evolving into the next thing. We're trying to help students think about their application as a point in their time. Just tell us who you are and what you think about at this point in your life – you don't have to have it planned out."
This belief was a guiding principle in making a number of changes to the Bowdoin admissions process. Soule added an optional video response to the application process, so that applicants could provide additional insight into their experiences. She also advocated for the use of test-optional admission practices, which have been in place at Bowdoin since 1969, in her previous positons to make the admissions process more accessible to underrepresented populations.
As Soule prepares to welcome her first class as dean of admissions this winter, she said she has been enjoying adjusting to life on campus — one that is five times the size of what she is used to. She urged students to say hello if they recognize her on Locust as she acclimates to her new home.
"Having not been part of selecting the current classes at Penn, I don't have the benefit of connecting a name to a story in an application. Everybody is new to me," she said. "I am making an effort to make myself present on campus, even if it is just sitting there to have lunch or walking around. I want to be where students are, and I want to get to know students."