Garrett Marino, Purchase College Assistant Director of Admissions, on who gets the fat envelope—and who doesn’t.
How many applications do you read each season?
About fifteen hundred.
And how long do you spend reviewing each one?
Anywhere from fifteen to twenty minutes to forty-five, depending on the length of essays and any supplemental artwork.
How do you stay up during peak reading season?
I was really happy when Starbucks came to campus.
What might prompt you to Google an applicant?
An essay that sounds a little disturbing or reveals something untoward.
What information gleaned online might negatively affect a student’s application?
Pictures of a lot of out-of-control drinking and partying might raise a red flag that the student could be more of a problem than a contribution to campus life.
What was the best essay you’ve ever read?
It was called ‘A Love Letter to Purchase.’ It was smart, clever, and well written, and very effective in delivering a message about the applicant. And, yes, she got in.
And the most unusual?
A handwritten essay silk-screened on a T-shirt.
What essay topic have you had your fill of?
As horrible and tragic as it was and as awful as this sounds, 9/ll. Unless a student has had real direct experience with it, the topic has been just about exhausted.
What’s the most unusual behavior you’ve witnessed on the part of an applicant’s parents?
I’ve sometimes sat with a student and parent in my office and the student says nothing and the parent says everything—and I forget who is applying.
Where did you go to school?
I got my associate’s degree from SUNY Delhi and my bachelor’s from SUNY Fredonia.
On what topic did you write your application essay?
It was a one-act play, set up as if I were at a trial being judged for admission to the various schools; it was very dramatic and over-the-top. I got a handwritten note from one admissions dean saying how much he liked it.
And your SAT scores—will you share them with us?
I really can’t recall them.
Photo by John Rizzo
What admissions trends do you anticipate for the future?
The number of high school seniors will decline steadily and we’ll all see far more first-generation college students and greater representation from Latino and immigrant groups, in proportion to their growing percentage of our population.
How many colleges did you apply to?
Out of high school, one: SUNY Delhi. After I finished my associate’s degree there, I applied to six schools to transfer: BU, Cornell, and SUNY Binghamton, Geneseo, Fredonia, and Purchase. I got into all of them except Cornell, and ended up getting my bachelor’s at Fredonia.
How has the economic downturn affected college admissions?
Because more applicants need financial aid now, we are seeing a more prolonged ‘shopping process’ to make final decisions while they consider the various financial-aid packages offered.
How many and what types of schools should students apply to?
No more than nine, including two or three safeties, two or three reaches, and three or four main choices. More than that and you end up taking a lot of short cuts and harming your applications by using cookie-cutter essays. Plus the application fees can be exorbitant.
Ever been stalked by an applicant?
Not personally. But there was one student who went to ten or so college fairs throughout high school, talking to my colleagues at each. She wasn’t stalking, just persistent about updating her profile. And she got in.
Do you look at applicants’ Facebook or other online profiles?
I can’t say I personally do a lot of that, but students should be extremely wary of what they put up on social networking sites. Be aware that someone Googling you may find out things you don’t want them to know.
The worst part of your job?
Having to say no to a student
What would you like to say to parents stressing out over their kids applying to college?
Remember it’s your child who’s applyingand, ultimately, the one who will be going to a particular school, so it’s in their best interests for them to decide for themselves.
What makes an application stand out in a negative way?
Poor academics or a student with an inconsistency in his record who offers no explanation for it. And on top of that, a lack of any real involvement outside of the classroom.
Have you ever Googled an applicant and uncovered something that negatively affected his application?
Not personally, but a colleague Googled a student to check claims about his outstanding athletic performance and stumbled across an arrest record. That didn’t automatically disqualify his application, but it did set up a process to investigate it further.
To visit or not to visit different campuses: what’s your position?
I think it’s wiser, if you can, to visit five or six key schools during the process and not just after you’ve been accepted somewhere. Visits give you an opportunity to talk to faculty and students, and to see if you can see working and playing with them. Plus, the college gets to know the student and vice versa; a visit indicates serious interest in the school and all schools keep track of that information.
How many hours a week do you work in peak season?
Fifty-five to sixty
How would you rank in order of importance the key elements of an application?
I’d say number one, transcript; number two, standardized test scores; number three, essay; number four, teacher recommendations; and number five, the application minus the essay.
If you had kids of your own, where would you want them to go?
In this economy and for trying to keep costs down, I think a state school is an excellent choice in terms of quality and bang for the buck. But, of course, I’d want them to go to the school that would be best for them.
How and when should a student begin the process?
Start in the beginning of your Junior year, meeting with your high school college counselor, and go online to research and visit college websites. Princetonreview.com is a good source for summaries, profiles, and admissions criteria.
What’s the most important part of the application?
After academics, wherever the student can tell about themselves in their own words; that’s usually the supplemental essay.
Have things gotten even crazier or competitive recently, and, if so, why?
Yes. Over the past three years, our applicant pool has grown by leaps and bounds, with a record number of ten thousand-plus applications for our current freshman class, It’s partly the economy—the reduced sticker price for New York State residents has made us even more attractive—and also demographics, with peak numbers of high school graduates.
What’s the best part of your job?
Meeting and getting to know the students on the road and helping those who are unsure of themselves find their voice.
What do people ask you about when they find out what you do?
It depends on whom I’m talking to. If it’s someone who’s just going through the process, they’ll often say “I just got into so-and-so; what do you think about it?’ If they are parents, they want the inside scoop. I tell them it’s a process and they can work closely with their child, but also give them enough room so that the student is the one making the effort and can find the place that’s right for him.
What makes an application stand out in a positive way?
A strong, consistent academic record of achievement and an interesting, well-written essay that follows the rules and maybe plays with them a little bit. It’s not wrong to be creative if you can do it within the parameters of what the school is looking for.
Do you weed out applicants who don’t meet specific minimum grades or SAT scores?
We don’t have any hard-and-fast guidelines, though we do have certain guideposts. You look for at least eleven hundred on combined math and reading SATs—we don’t use the writing score—and a
GPA of about a three point zero or eighty-five percent—but these are averages and we do accept kids with lower scores.
Have you ever changed your mind about an applicant who was denied admission after a call from a guidance counselor, a parent, or the student himself?
It’s not done on a regular basis but we will initiate a formal review on occasion if we see significant reason to reconsider; it’s usually prompted by a student or guidance counselor requesting an opportunity to tell us about mitigating circumstances.
What situation or information might lead to rescinding a second semester senior’s acceptance?
If they submitted a final transcript where the academics in the last semester totally fell apart and for which no explanation was offered, we might issue a warning that they could be placed on academic probation when they start school.
What essay topic would you like to read more about?
It depends on what program they’re applying to, but in general, tell me about who you are and why you want to come here.
Your best advice for an applicant?
Don’t misrepresent who you are for the sake of a particular college. If you have to do that, it’s likely that that’s not the right place for you, and you might end up unhappy there.
What do you think about the US News & World Report rankings?
They serve their purpose, but I don’t put a lot of stock in them personally. It’s a good initial guide, but you definitely have to dig deeper than that and take them with a grain of salt. It has to do more with brand and not quality.
Did you admit more students to this year’s incoming class and hoping that you’ll get your numbers? How did it compare to previous years?
Though there was a lot of handwringing, we actually accepted fewer students than usual, twenty-four hundred for a class of onethousand.
Have you ever received any gifts like, say, home-baked brownies, with an application?
Never. The students know that this is not appropriate and most just want to stick with the process.
I’ve heard that college admissions people refer to applicants with two or three adjectives or words, like the bassoon-playing ping pong champ raised on a commune.
That can be true in terms of shorthands, where we do get students with multiple interests.
What’s a combination of applicant interests that would really attract your attention?
Someone like the visual-arts applicant we had this year who also dances and does music and theatre and volunteered for autism fundraisers.