“All the workings of a bank should be as visible as the wheels and mainspring of a glass-enclosed French clock,” novelist John P. Marquand writes in “Point of No Return.” The public intrinsically mistrusts people who handle money, he says, so bank officers should conduct their business with “no deception, everything open and aboveboard.” John T. Osander ’57 thought that Marquand’s advice aptly applied to his own line of work as the University’s director of admission.
“Similar human mistrust overshadows any college admissions operation, dealing as it does with an equally valuable commodity: human lives,” he wrote in a 1969 report. A half century later, the public’s skepticism of college admissions has only intensified in the wakes of Harvard’s affirmative action lawsuit and the Operation Varsity Blues scandal.
Before COVID-19 wrecked the spring semester, I set out to pull back the veil on Princeton’s admissions process. I obtained previously-confidential reports from the Mudd Manuscript Library and interviewed more than a half dozen former employees who worked in the Office of Admission during the years 1965–2010, in positions ranging from application reader to dean of admission.
Together, they provided an unprecedented insider’s account of how the country’s top ranked college has — at least in the not-too-distant past — chosen whom to take from one of the world’s most talented applicant pools. While the former workers admittedly disagreed with several controversial practices, on the whole, they thought that admissions was a robust process and were proud of their accomplishments.
The initial screening
Before a single application is read, admissions officers hit the road to reach the far corners of the country, encouraging high school seniors to apply to Princeton. Because they can’t see everybody, they’ve been using Educational Testing Service’s “Student Search Service” to mail promotional material since the 1980s, according to an internal 1984 “Report to the President.”
As the submission deadline approaches, applications start pouring in. Randomly-selected first readers write summaries of their contents.
“You become a very good BS detector, in the sense that you can tell when someone has gotten a lot of help. You can tell if their essays were written right before the deadline,” said former admissions officer Kim Digilio ’95, who worked in admissions over 1995–97.
Next, files go to second readers, the regional admissions officers, who evaluate students’ strengths relative to their educational backgrounds. They give them two scores on a scale of one to five — where one is the highest score — for their academic and extracurricular achievements.
“They’re looking for students to show a love of learning at a high level outside of the classroom,” said Dan Lee, a co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting. Although Lee himself hasn’t worked in Princeton’s admissions office, his firm employs consultants who have.
Alumni send reports of their interviews with applicants to the Office of Admission. Their influence — while once very strong — has waned over time.
“Typically, interviews are not going to make or break your application,” Dean of Admission Karen Richardson ’93 told an audience of alumni and their children at an Alumni Day presentation this February. Chair of the Princeton Schools Committee Brad Saft ’00 explained at the same event that rather than evaluating students, the interview’s goal is for alumni to be exemplary ambassadors of their alma mater. “We are, for a lot of these kids, the only person from Princeton that they’ll ever meet in their lives,” he said.
Based on these materials, first readers make one of four recommendations: “Unlikely,” “Only If Room,” “Strong Interest,” or “High Priority.” The second readers can agree or disagree with them when giving their own advice. Compelling files go to committee for discussion and voting.
At this stage in the process, the Office of Admission starts weighing the needs of the incoming class that they are building, which involves balancing talent, diversity, academics, and lineage.
“Selective college admissions is a pizza pie that’s got a lot of different slices, with a lot of different tastes and flavors. There’s no exact quota for each slice of the pie, but there are targets,” former admissions officer Howard Greene (1965–69), the founder of the Howard Greene & Associates consulting firm, told me.
Late in the last century, applicants were grouped into one of several categories — such as athletes, engineers, and legacies — and judged only against other students within them. While applicants may still belong to these categories, since the 1980s, they have no longer been sequestered from the rest of the applicant pool.
“Not all legacies are created equal”
Princeton’s official websites make little mention of legacy status. But it exists and packs a punch in admissions. About a third of the “alumni children” applicants were admitted into the Class of 2022, compared with 5.5 percent of all applicants.
To be a legacy, a student must have a parent or step-parent who attended Old Nassau. Undergraduate and graduate alumni ties hold the same weight. While admissions staff are aware of applicants who have siblings at Princeton, they don’t receive preferential treatment and need to be competitive in their own right.
Yet as Dan Lee said, “not all legacies are created equal.” He explained that top universities — including Princeton — rank their legacy applicants. The children whose parent contributed more time or money to their alma mater are prioritized over those who gave less.
Former Dean of Admission Jim Wickenden ’61 (1978–83) said that he read every legacy’s application. The Alumni Affairs and Annual Giving offices gave him reports telling him whose alumni parents were “particularly loyal.” His 1980 “Report to the President” noted, “the extent to which [a] father was committed to and interested in the University” tilted decisions toward admission for legacy applicants who were “on the edge.”
Richardson told her Alumni Day crowd that the legacy component is used as a “tiebreaker,” and that these students still have to meet “all of the markers” that her office looks for when it builds a class.
If that’s true, then there’s a lot of tiebreaking going on. In recent years, the legacy admission rate has remained four times higher than the overall applicant pool’s.
The Office of Admission doesn’t lower the bar for legacies as much as it did in earlier decades. Janet Rapelye, Richardson’s predecessor, said in a 2015 interview with The Daily Princetonian that legacy applicants are generally “strong students” who had the fortune of attending good schools. Lee added that when elite colleges give legacies a slight break, it’s usually in their extracurricular component.
Wickenden said that he aimed to have legacies comprise 12–14 percent of a class. In the Class of 2022, 14.3 percent of students were children of alumni. Legacies also had the highest yield — the percentage of admitted students who accept their offers — among the applicant categories that Princeton’s “Profile” reported. Almost 89 percent of them enrolled, versus 69 percent of all admits.
The University told the Wall Street Journal in February that 27 percent of legacies admitted last year were racial minorities. In contrast, half of the undergraduate population are people of color. Although the Office of Admission has never abandoned its legacy policy, some past employees disapproved.
“You could say it’s a preference for Princeton alumni, or you could say it’s a preference for well-to-do white kids,” said former admissions officer Tom Rawls ’68 (1973–77), who is himself a legacy graduate. Former Director of Admission Steve LeMenager (1983–2002), now the founder of Edvice Princeton consulting, agreed that he had “always been skeptical” of legacy policies.
Former admissions officer John Friedman ’68 (1969–73), who had two children admitted to the University and one attend, thought that Princeton might admit a similar number of legacies, regardless of whether it gave them preferences or not, because their privileged upbringings make them competitive on their own.
With declining admission rates for everyone, he fears that guaranteeing special treatment for legacies over-promises and under-delivers to alumni, angering them more than if this preference didn’t exist. “As it is, they’re probably turning down 70 percent of legacy applicants,” he said, “so you still have 70 percent of parents who are pissed off.”
“There were alumni who assumed that because they had a Princeton diploma, they would automatically get special treatment from the admissions office when their son or daughter was applying,” Wickenden said. He warned that reducing the number of legacy admits would result in a “significant diminution” in graduates’ loyalty and donations to their alma mater.
Development, deferral, and faculty kids
Donations are the lifeblood of private colleges. Princeton has used admissions as a means to raise them in the past.
Wickenden said that the Office of Development sent him two lists each year. One of them had 10–12 names of children whose families could make “transformative gifts” to the University. He usually admitted three-quarters of them. The other list had 20–25 names of students who came from “well-resourced” families, but they were not as wealthy as the applicants on the first list. A much smaller fraction of them were admitted, mostly limited to those who were academically strong.
“I have no contact with our advancement office throughout the process,” Richardson replied to a high school student who asked on Alumni Day if Princeton practiced development admissions.
Some children of faculty and other University staff get special treatment, too. Wickenden said that the Dean of the College regularly identified which professors were “deserving of their child’s special consideration.”
A few students also applied each admissions cycle who had family connections to the University but lacked academic credentials that were up to par. Wickenden told them to take a year off to work or start college elsewhere and to reapply the next year when their credentials improved. They often got in on the second try.
The Tab reported that Princeton still engaged in this practice as recently as 2017. Four applicants, one of whom The Tab described as “low-income,” were allegedly asked to take a $50,000 gap year at the Lawrenceville School to be admitted the following spring.
Admissions officers aren’t the only people from Princeton who go on road trips. Coaches crisscross the country to find athletic talent. The Brown Daily Herald reported that the Tigers spent $1.22 million on recruitment expenses — the most of any Ivy League university — in 2015 alone.
When coaches find athletes they can attract to the University — and who meet Academic Index standards — they submit reports telling the Office of Admission who they want on their teams.
“Being an athlete is the biggest advantage there is in admissions in terms of the hooked applicant pool,” Lee said. Statistics on this subject at Princeton aren’t readily available, but court filings in Harvard’s affirmative action lawsuit showed that 83 percent of academically qualified players were accepted. The athletics department confirmed in 2010 that many athletes have academic credentials “slightly lower than the average admitted student.”
“Our coaches are very good at recruiting the right students,” Rapelye told the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2012. “I’ll do whatever I can for our coaches. But we reserve the right to say no.”
Wickenden recalled that more than 400 soccer captains applied in the last year of admissions for which he was dean. Without the coaches’ recommendations, he said, the Office of Admission couldn’t distinguish between them.
A similar — yet smaller and lesser known — recruitment process exists for the arts. Past admissions reports mentioned that there were categories for “Writing,” “Music,” “Visual Arts,” and “Theatre and Dance.” As occurs for athletes, faculty and directors send reports to the Office of Admission specifying which applicants are the most skilled.
The strength of the arts admissions preference in any given year varied with performing groups’ needs. Academic faculty may submit recommendations for applicants whom they consider phenomenal students.
Being Number One
The strongest applicants — those who scored ones in their academic and extracurricular ratings — have little trouble sailing through the general committee. A “1” in academics used to guarantee admission.
But the late Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon (1988–2003) ended that practice to avoid “automatically equating a very narrow range of high test scores as the sole determinant of academic ability.” During the 2000s, it was common for around half of a class to be academic “1’s.”
Admissions officers flag engineering applicants and try to meet the enrollment goals that the School of Engineering sets. Recent statistics suggest that they try to maximize the number of female BSE students that they admit.
Minority applicants are flagged as well, though the preference for them varies with their race. Old admissions reports reveal disparities in their standardized test scores. In the Class of 1989, the Native American applicants’ average score for an SAT section was 598, whereas the average for Asian American applicants was 696. Minority students who applied to join the Class of 2022 had an admission rate of 6.2 percent compared with 5.5 percent for the overall applicant pool, according to Princeton’s “Profile.”
Nearly all of the former admissions employees interviewed believed that nowadays, the Office of Admission also flags first-generation and low-income applicants.
Today, Princeton ultimately rejects 95 percent of its applicants. But many admits reject Princeton. Since at least the 1960s, students who found thick letters in the mail from Old Nassau and the Crimson have tended to pick Harvard. Yale has frequently swapped places with Princeton as the second most popular college among joint admits. Stanford emerged as a fierce competitor in the 1980s and has remained one ever since. Why do high school seniors prefer Cambridge?
“I wouldn’t say the word ‘humility’ and Harvard are used in the same sentence,” Wickenden, who has a master’s degree from Harvard and previously worked there, said. “The reputation of Harvard is internationally widespread.”
Of course, Princeton has its own problems in attracting talent. Admissions reports from across the past half century have unanimously stated that Bicker and the eating clubs’ cloistered social atmosphere give the University a bad reputation. For Black students, the college’s historical image as a southern school was off-putting.
Princeton offers a spot on the waitlist to 470–1,500 applicants, according to the Common Data Sets of 2003–19. After the regular decision admits decide whether to accept their offers, Rapelye told the ‘Prince’ in 2010 that the Office of Admission takes in zero to 164 students from the waitlist each year to fill demographic deficiencies — such as in academics, extracurriculars, geographic representation, etc. — in the incoming class.
The percentage of students admitted from the waitlist was highest in years for which the yield was low. From 2008–12, the yield dropped when Princeton abandoned its early admission program. Since the University is temporarily reinstating a uniform application deadline this fall, it’s likely that an unusually high number of students will join the Class of 2025 from the waitlist.
A hard night’s day
Overall, the former admissions employees said that they were proud of what they accomplished despite their work’s difficulty.
“I thought it was an excellent process. The people I knew in admissions were smart, decent people,” Rawls said. LeMenager was glad that his team incrementally changed admissions to focus on “more inclusivity and more openness.” After reading thousands of applications, Digilio said that she developed “respect and love” for the “unique qualities and values” that each person brings.
“I was proud of being able to work with my colleagues and trying to make the best decisions we could to bring in incredible kids for an amazing institution,” said former Associate Dean of Admission Brian Walter (2006–10). He explained that the bulk of deliberations occur over a four-month stretch in the winter. For one of those months, he remembered having to work from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. six days per week — sometimes even on Sundays.
The truth about admissions
The truth about elite college admissions, I learned, is that they’re not nearly as exciting as Operation Varsity Blues makes them seem. In this tedious business, bribery is the exception, not the norm. Most applicants are just exceptional students from across the world, and the Office of Admission has the impossible task of offering seats to merely several hundred of them.
Relatively few receive any kind of special treatment. But those who do comprise a fraction of a class disproportionately larger than their representation among all applicants.
It appears that many of the most controversial practices exist to satisfy the demands of factions within the University community. Whenever a new scandal about admissions comes to light, the public’s immediate reaction is to condemn admissions offices. I mistakenly made that same rash conclusion in an earlier column upon analyzing the student body’s hometowns.
But placing the blame solely on the colleges ignores the forces that push them to act in this way. It’s time for us current and former students to recognize our roles in perpetuating college inequities.
Graduates exert pressure on their alma maters through their wallets by controlling annual donations. Legacies and athletes — who are mostly white and wealthy — together fill up almost a third of each class, and it has been documented that preferential policies benefiting them exist to maintain alumni loyalty.
It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to picture an influential person or a disgruntled coach riling up a group of alumni if an administrator tried to strike down a policy that benefitted their kids. I witnessed a sliver of this potential backlash on Alumni Day.
One woman chastised Princeton for limiting legacies’ college options by offering Single-Choice Early Action admissions without sending likely letters to them — never mind that everyone else is in the same boat. “You want the best students, but you don’t want to make your alumni mad,” she said. “The best way not to make us mad is to not take away a chance from our child to do something else.”
Was that a complaint or a threat? I couldn’t tell. Either way, I shudder to think how incensed she — or some of my classmates — could be if their kid were rejected.
Ralph Nader ’55 gave the best advice about donating when he wrote to the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1966: “[Alumni] should strive to be nobler of purpose and send their sons up before the same screening process as other applicants must confront. When these alumni generously contribute to Princeton’s future, they should expect gratitude, a job well done, and the ever improving quality of their alma mater in return.”
If giving were more altruistic in spirit, several of the most controversial practices in college admissions could probably disappear overnight, improving Princeton’s reputation.
Next time a scandal breaks out, don’t be too quick to criticize. Instead, let’s think about what we’re doing to corrupt the process.
I must caution readers that they should not treat what I’ve described as a strict blueprint of how admissions currently works at Princeton. My information is biased toward older sources. Former employees who worked from 2000 onward were careful not to divulge what their friends who are still in the Office of Admission have told them about how it operates today.
Instead, I sought to provide a general understanding of all the factors that go into admission decisions and how they are used. Dan Lee assured me, “The process hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years.”
I tried to fill gaps with online information. I dug up past articles from the ‘Prince’ and internal admissions reports from the Mudd Manuscript Library. Confidential documents dated 1990–2020 — “ADMISSION: Legacies” (2007, 2011), “Asian American [Admissions, Studies]” (1994–95), and “Admissions (Affirmative Action)” (1995–99), for example — are under 30 year embargoes.
Twenty-one former admissions employees declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to my repeated requests for comment.
This is the first article in a series about Princeton’s admissions process.
Liam O’Connor ’20, from Wyoming, Del., concentrated in geosciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.