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The Early College Admission Process by M. Leslie Davidson

The Early College Admission Process
by Dean of the College M. Leslie Davidson

In many ways, applying to Bard College at Simon’s Rock looks identical to applying to other small liberal arts colleges: an application requiring biographical information, transcripts, information on extracurricular and community activities, recommendations, and essays. Both the application itself and the process of applying involve, many aspects of the process that we feel are particularly important for our younger applicants are simply good practice with students of any age. Other aspects are specific to early college.

At any college or university, the admission process should be an educational experience for the applicant and should model the culture and expectations of the institution. It should require applicants to do the kinds of things they will be expected to do when they arrive—develop and articulate ideas, think critically, and connect with adults on campus. It should leave even the best-prepared candidates more ready to enter the classroom and to participate in the community than they were when they began the process. And it should also model the experience students will have if they enroll. For example, we talk a lot with applicants about the personal attention they will receive if they come to Simon’s Rock. If that commitment is not modeled during the admission process, there is no particular reason people should believe it to be true.

Another crucial element of the college admission process is providing applicants with sufficient information to determine fit. The process should encourage self-reflection on the part of students and candid assessments by recommenders, while providing an accurate and authentic picture of the institution. Admission counselors must bring the academic program and campus culture to life for applicants and their families in ways the print publications and website cannot. They also need to know the college well enough to make wise judgments about the kind of students who will succeed. At Simon’s Rock, students are expected to engage deeply in their own educations; to develop close working relationships with faculty and other adults; to develop a foundation in a broad range of subjects, some of which may be outside their primary areas of interest; and to be active participants in a small and close community. By the time students enroll, they should understand this and know that it is what they are seeking.

The unique aspects of the Simon’s Rock admission process are all designed to address the fundamental differences between applying to college midway through high school and applying as a twelfth grader. Awareness of early college is growing, but to many it remains a new concept. Our job in admission often involves educating students and parents about early college in general and then about Simon’s Rock in particular. Leaving home at the age of 16 to attend college is a big decision and very much a family decision. While our primary contact is the applicant, we spend more time communicating with parents than is typical with older students and we include parents in the process in explicit ways—they even have a brief section of the application to complete.

Early college does not intersect with the K-12 system at the point of a natural structural break. College-bound students expect to apply as seniors, rather than as sophomores or juniors. Students considering early college can also make the choice to stay where they are; high school is not ending and there is no external pressure to change course midstream. Families may spend considerable time pondering whether this is the right step. Some students start an application early in the school year, subsequently decide it is fine to remain where they are, and then later reconsider and return to complete the process. Others get most of the way through the academic year, or into the summer facing the following school year, before determining that they need a greater challenge and a more vibrant learning environment now. Awareness of this planning and decision-making timeline is reflected in our application deadline of May 31, which is considerably later than most colleges. When space is available we continue to review applications over the summer; every June and July, a few terrific students first learn of early college, or become clear that it is the right choice for them.

Also influencing the decision-making process and timeline are the two separate points at which students enter Simon’s Rock: after the tenth and after the eleventh grade. Thus, there is the question of whether they leave high school early at all, and also the point at which they are most ready to do so. The admission staff works closely with students and families on the question of timing. Sometimes we think a tenth grader will prove a good fit after additional academic preparation or personal maturation; it is not uncommon for us to deny students with the explicit recommendation that they reapply the following semester or year after taking specific steps to better prepare themselves. In working with younger students, open communication and honest feedback are particularly important. We discourage students from applying in the first place if it is clear they are not ready. Encouraging applications for the sole purpose of decreasing our acceptance rate does not serve our younger population well; in fact, this practice is becoming increasingly controversial throughout higher education.

Evaluating intellectual readiness and academic preparedness is in many ways the easy part of our job; determining social maturity and readiness to live away from home is more challenging. For this reason, every applicant must have an interview. This conversation between an admission counselor and a student augments the essays, recommendations, and the parent supplement and gives a much more nuanced sense of the applicant as a person.

Like the educational experience at Simon’s Rock, the admission process is labor intensive and deeply personal. We not only determine whether students are academically prepared for a rigorous liberal arts education, but also whether they are socially mature enough to begin this experience at age 16, and we work with families as they navigate a major decision. Building relationships with students and challenging them to think deeply is at the heart of an admission counselor’s work, just as it is for faculty and staff once those students arrive at the college.