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Rapelye: Class of 2008 'the very best'

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- The anticipation experienced by many of those on campus as a new class enters the University is especially intense for Janet Rapelye this fall.

The class of 2008 (see ''By the numbers'' on page 2) is the first group of Princeton students she has been in charge of selecting. Rapelye, who became dean of admission in July 2003, is understandably proud.

Dean with her staff

Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye (seated at center) said she was very pleased with the way her staff rose to the challenge of selecting the class of 2008.

''We were able to follow the mandates outlined by the trustees and the president to bring in the very best class,'' she said. ''We worked at identifying intellectual curiosity and academic excellence in the candidates we admitted, and also [considered] the leadership skills, talents and personal qualities that they would bring to this campus to enrich the community life here.''

Rapelye said she spent the first few months of last year's recruiting season learning the Princeton system. By the time early decision applications began arriving in the fall, she was ready to make a change by building a committee process into the review of applications.

Rapelye, who has worked in admissions at several institutions -- most recently as dean of admission at Wellesley College for 12 years -- drew upon her experience and her staff to develop a plan. ''We took the best practices from other schools,'' she said. ''We met as a staff and worked together to find the best process for Princeton.''

The admission office conducted both the early decision and regular decision processes by committee, and Rapelye said she was very pleased with the way the staff dove into the difficult task of selecting 1,175 students from among more than 13,000 applications. ''They were excellent readers,'' she said, ''and that made for very solid and thoughtful, responsible and reasoned judgments about which students to admit.''

Long-term plans

Rapelye has begun working with her staff to lay out some longer-term plans, including efforts to improve communication -- within the admission office, with other members of the University community and with prospective students.

Although the size and makeup of the admission staff has not changed dramatically in the past year, she expects to see a more substantial transformation leading up to the increase of the student body by 500 students, beginning in 2007.

''We will begin working on a recruitment plan for students who are still in high school, not just the year that they'll be applying to college,'' she said. ''We also are mindful of encouraging students to focus on their high school experience, to find a balance between their studies and the college process.'' In addition to increasing the size of the staff, she intends to work with her team on emphasizing professional development.

Communicating better with others who work with the admission office to recruit students also is important, Rapelye said. For example, this year the admission staff worked with faculty in the arts to smooth out the process of exchanging the audition tapes and work samples that students in those fields submit with their applications. Next year, the staff is hoping to improve the informational form that goes with the materials to the arts faculty and the evaluation that comes back to the admission office.

''It's extremely constructive for the admission process to have that kind of faculty input,'' Rapelye said. She said the office also intends to continue the communication established last year with the athletic coaching staff.

Rapelye said she was especially pleased with the success achieved this year in working with the School of Engineering and Applied Science. ''We brought in more engineers than we did last year and increased the number of enrolling students who want to pursue the BSE degree by 14 percent,'' she said. ''We also increased the number of women who want to pursue engineering from 28 percent of enrolling BSE students last year to 38 percent of the enrolling engineers this year.''

In addition, plans are under way to improve communication with another important group of recruiters -- members of Princeton's Alumni Schools Committee who interview prospective students around the country. A switch to a new software program next summer should make it easier to share information with the group in the future.

In the meantime, Rapelye is thrilled with the work of the ASC members so far. ''Of the 13,000 students who applied, our alumni network was able to interview more than 80 percent of those candidates, which meant that they interviewed over 11,000 students,'' she said. ''That must be some kind of record within higher education. It shows the dedication of our alumni and their willingness to help us with this process. Nick Allard, the chair of the committee, deserves credit for his efforts.''

Research-driven changes

Improving communication with prospective students hinges on some other plans in the works. The office is in the process of hiring a research firm to gather data from high school students, parents, guidance counselors and current students on their impressions of Princeton and other issues.

''I hope we will take that information and use it to craft our message in how we reach students,'' Rapelye said. ''We want to talk to students about what they care about and what really helps them make a decision.'' She also hopes to glean information on the best ways to reach students, whether through publications, the Web site, e-mail, telephone, programming on and off campus or other means.

As a first step in this process, Rapelye and her staff worked with the Office of Communications team to update and redesign the Admission Information publication -- the viewbook that is mailed to prospective students -- as well as to produce a succinct ''Princeton in Brief'' brochure.

In a continuing effort to attract more students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to the University, Rapelye and her staff identified the need for a new publication focusing on diversity. That book, also compiled and designed by the communications team, is due out later this year. In addition, the admission staff is planning special events on campus for these students and their families.

''We are finding new ways to reach out to the African-American, the Hispanic-Latino, the Asian-American and the Native-American communities in this country as well as students who see themselves as bi-racial and multiracial,'' she said. ''There are more students who see themselves as a member of perhaps one or two or many communities, and we want to honor that.''

Another group the admission officers are continuing to target is students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. ''This is a long-term commitment for Princeton -- to help those students and families who earn less than what our tuition even costs to think about applying,'' she said. ''Our generous financial aid package, with the no-loan component for every student who qualifies for financial aid, is a significant factor for low-income families. That is a message we will articulate even more as we move forward.''

Rapelye said that efforts in this area include diversifying travel schedules for admission officers, inviting students to campus, making students aware of Princeton's Web-based financial aid estimator, taking into consideration the hurdles students must overcome just to complete applications, developing a more comprehensive Web site, and increasing the number of phone calls from current students.

This past year, the office began organizing online chats for admitted students with current students and admission staff. ''The chats were not just for students from low-income backgrounds, but from every background -- again not separating out low-income students but including them, making it accessible for them in the process at every stage,'' she said.

A broader range of students

The general goal of opening up Princeton's admission process to a wider range of students was behind the decision to start accepting the Common Application with the class of 2009, Rapelye said.

''We need to provide every avenue for students to be in our applicant pool,'' she said. ''We are not doing our jobs if we are not reaching out to every student -- it may be lower-income students, or it may be students from regions of the country or the world we cannot travel to because they're so remote. It's one more vehicle for them to use to get in our applicant pool.''

Prospective Princeton students will be able to complete the Common Application -- a set of forms widely accepted by universities across the country, including five of the eight Ivy League institutions -- or the Princeton application. Those filling out the Common Application also will complete a Princeton supplement. Both applications will be available online.

''The Common Application, along with the supplement, will contain exactly the same information we have in our application,'' Rapelye said. ''We made sure in our supplement to include all of the unique and wonderful parts of our application that we value so much.

''We intend to reach out to students from every background to say what we value about their applications are their personal qualities, their achievements and their intellectual successes,'' she said. ''Either form is going to allow us to see that. We must care about the students more than we care about the form.''

The world is watching

In addition to dealing with some of these new challenges, Rapelye has spent the past year addressing perennial issues such as early admission and legacy admission.

For the immediate future, the University is standing by its policy of requiring the binding early decision plan rather than the nonbinding early action plan some institutions now favor. ''We have not made any new plans as to what the future might hold, but we are having ongoing internal conversations about what our responsibility is in terms of the early arena,'' Rapelye said.

And she has continued with her view that admitting offspring of alumni is important -- but not to the exclusion of other more qualified applicants. This year, in fact, she said the University admitted and enrolled more Princeton sons and daughters than last year.

Whatever the issue, Rapelye said her experiences during the past year have reinforced something she understood coming into the job as dean of admission at Princeton: the important role Princeton plays in the field of higher education.

''What became clarified in the process was Princeton's standing in the world and the responsibility all of us who serve this University have in making good decisions not only because that's the right thing to do but because the rest of the world is watching,'' she said. ''There is great scrutiny on our choices.

''That's also what makes this job very exciting and very worthwhile because there is again a real responsibility in serving in this role at this institution at this time,'' she continued. ''I feel very fortunate to be here.''