President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Defining the Undergraduate Face of Princeton
November 3, 2004
The Class of 2008 is the first to bear the stamp of Dean
of Admission Janet Rapelye, who came to Princeton from Wellesley
College in the summer of 2003. I have invited her to share her thoughts
on the admission process, including the essential role of Alumni
One of our international freshmen saw Princeton for the first time this fall. When asked about his impression of the University, he said with a beaming smile, “It’s grand.” Princeton is indeed “grand,” and I only have to look out my office windows to be reminded of its beauty and vitality. The Class of 2008 includes 109 international students, who form a crucial part of the rich mosaic that we strive to create through the admission process. I often try to imagine the courage it must take to board an airplane and leave family, friends, and a familiar culture behind, bearing in mind that even “homegrown” freshmen must make a significant adjustment when they begin their studies here.
Princeton’s annual influx of freshmen, whether they hail from New Jersey or North Africa, is a tribute to their intelligence and determination, as well as a mark of our ability to convey to prospective students the exceptional nature of a Princeton education and to promise them a level of financial aid that is the envy of our peers. Every student who applies to Princeton is evaluated on a need-blind basis, and every student who enrolls is given the loan-free financial assistance that he or she needs to graduate. Fully 52 percent of freshmen this year and last received financial aid, thanks, in large measure, to the generosity of alumni. Our goal is to ensure that talent, not means, determines access to Princeton, and while we celebrate the outstanding quality of the students we admit, it saddens me that we have many more qualified applicants than places. Last year, we received 13,695 applications, representing some of the finest students in our country and abroad, yet we could only make offers to 12.7 percent of this remarkable pool. Nothing is harder than telling intelligent and enthusiastic students, who have done all the right things from our perspective, that we lack a place for them.
It is essential, therefore, for us to read each application thoroughly and thoughtfully. A team of experienced readers combs through each file, looking for strengths and weaknesses. Last year, we instituted a process whereby files are read twice, after which the strongest are brought to a committee for discussion and a vote. Since intellectual curiosity and scholastic excellence top our list of criteria, we give the heaviest weight to a prospective student’s transcript. We then evaluate their personal qualities, extracurricular achievements, special talents, and commitments outside the classroom, whether political, religious, athletic, artistic, or service oriented. In order to build a truly multicultural community, we look for diversity using the widest definition of this term. We also value a student’s employment history, leadership skills, independence of mind, and sense of responsibility, such as helping to support their family or overcoming personal hardships. We weigh the recommendations, essays, test scores, legacy status, and school systems from which students come, always asking whether they have taken full advantage of their opportunities. Every file is considered individually and in relation to other applications; we have no formula.
Over the next 18 months, we will be conducting research to assess the perceptions of students, parents, and guidance counselors with respect to Princeton. This will allow us to refine our recruitment strategy and our message to prospective students, something that is especially important as the 11 percent expansion of our undergraduate population, to begin in 2007, approaches. Such an expansion is partly dictated by the caliber of our applicant pool, but it also reflects our desire to extend our reach to gifted young men and women whose strengths are currently underrepresented in our student body or who for socioeconomic reasons may not consider Princeton within their sights. If we are to realize our informal motto of service to our nation and all nations, Princeton must be a place that talented students of every nationality, background, and skill set can view as a potential destination.
Alumni play—and will continue to play—a critical role in fulfilling this mission. Last year, the National Schools Committee, working through a far-flung network of local committees, interviewed over 80 percent of our applicants (more than 11,000 students) around the world. Nick Allard ’74 chaired this effort, and I extend my thanks to him and all alumni who helped us to form connections with the Class of 2008. The contact with alumni that a prospective student has in his or her senior year of high school can make an enormous difference in how such students look at Princeton. The professional and personal accomplishments of alumni speak volumes to students about the educational foundation that Princeton gives its graduates.
I am pleased to report that Nick also has started a new tradition of recognizing an outstanding Schools Committee member with the Spencer J. Reynolds ’61 cup, which was presented this year to Anita Fefer Harris ’73 of New York. As many know, Spence retired from the Admission Office last spring after 38 years on our staff. His loyalty to Princeton, his devotion to students, and his strong character will be remembered each time the cup is given.
I have enjoyed my first year at Princeton, and I am deeply impressed by its unique qualities. It is a privilege to serve this University, and I am grateful for the counsel and inspiration that I have found at Old Nassau.
Dean of Admission