In early March, the ten members of the Sarah Lawrence College admissions committee filed into a wood-paneled room in a brick Tudor Revival building close to the campus’s main gate. They were there to decide the fates of the 1,904 applicants for 340 spaces in the class of 2014. The room was cozy and collegiate, with a big red rug and floral couches.
Tom Marlitt, director of West Coast admissions, a spiky-haired man in all beige, read a name. This applicant, from a large public high school in Los Angeles, was a 1-1-1. That meant she’d gotten top scores (the scale is one to five) in all three categories the school uses to rank students: academics, writing, and “personal”—extracurriculars and other background. The letters of recommendation declared her a “wow,” Marlitt read from his notes. She was an easy admit.
But for those applicants who garner less than an immediate “wow,” the process is a bit more complicated. Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal-arts college located just north of the city, in Bronxville, New York, claims to be the only college in the country that doesn’t consider SAT scores. Standardized tests are supposed to correct for the ways high-school grading systems vary, so to make up for that, Sarah Lawrence’s committee uses a sample essay graded by a high-school teacher to determine the curriculum’s rigor. But the samples also tell something about the readers. “I had one essay that said how awful Twilight was”—the essay was about damaging themes of female submissiveness in the series—“and I was like, ‘Admit her!’ ” says Melissa Faulner, a 2006 grad on the committee. Whereas what the readers wryly call TCML essays—“theater changed my life”—are looked at more skeptically.
A girl from Texas scored a three in academics while getting top marks in the other two categories. “Her grades really are bad,” Will Floyd allowed. She hadn’t gotten one A in high school. “But her writing was gorgeous,” he noted. The girl explained in her application that she has test anxiety and problems with rote memorization. But she had good recommendation letters. Besides, Sarah Lawrence’s curriculum emphasizes writing over test-taking. She got in.
A straight-A student from a small charter school had a less convincing writing sample, and her highest math class was algebra. She wrote in one of her essays about how she’d like to work on an undergraduate project about the humanities and quantum physics.
“Interesting,” responded a committee member. “It would have been more interesting if she knew more about quantum physics,” Marlitt said. The room erupted with laughter.
“Well, she wants to learn about quantum physics,” admissions dean Amy Abrams said.
Marlitt, grinning, asked his colleagues to guess what her sample essay was about.
“Hamlet,” guessed one.
“Catcher in the Rye,” said Marlitt. “It’s either that or Hamlet.”
“I don’t get a lot from her about her academic intellectual ability, so it’s somewhat of a leap of faith,” Marlitt said. But he added, “I would say she’s No. 1 in her school for a reason. She’s always gotten A’s. Yes, she hasn’t been challenged, but she’s the type of student who’s always done the right things. I would vote admit, but I will take a group consensus.”
“I think her getting A’s shows she can step up,” said Faulner.
Marlitt joked, “If we keep talking, she might become a BOT candidate,” referring to the school’s Board of Trustees scholarship. She got in.
They were less inclined to admit a girl from Texas who had impressive grades but whose main essay was “extremely young-sounding throughout and awkwardly worded at times,” Floyd read from his notes. “Her discussion of T. S. Eliot involved a simple quoting from ‘The Waste Land,’ ” he said. Her interview apparently wasn’t that hot either. When asked what she thought about the advanced writing load at the college, she responded with a shrug, her interviewer noted.
“No,” another member said, shocked. “A shrug?”
“Yeah, a shrug,” Floyd said. They added her to the wait list.