Let only the eager, thoughtful and reverent enter here. --motto carved on the gate to Pomona College At first glance, Mary Muronaka knew the answer. After all, the recent letter from Pomona College was a thin one and, in the ritual of college admissions, thin envelopes mean rejection. No dormitory information, no scholarship announcement, no party invitations need to be enclosed. Just a note beginning: "I regret to report. . ."
"Yes, I was upset," said the student who ranks academically in the top 3% of her class at a big public high school near downtown Los Angeles. "Pomona was my first choice." After also being rejected by Stanford University, she is trying to decide whether to attend Occidental College or UC Irvine.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Rene Vaca received the coveted thick envelope from Pomona, along with word of a hefty scholarship. In the top 2% of seniors at Franklin High in Highland Park, he was also accepted at UCLA, UC Irvine, Occidental and the University of Pennsylvania, although denied admission to Stanford. "I was surprised," he said of Pomona's decision, "especially when I saw what the competition was."
Both Mary and Rene are excellent students with, they thought, a reasonable chance at gaining admission to the highly selective liberal arts school in Claremont. Why did one get admitted to Pomona's class of 1992 and the other not? Who decides these things anyway? And how fair are the decisions?
The answers are not easy to find at any college. As with any matchmaking, many factors figure in the annual, anxious courtships between students and schools. Those include a student's grades and test scores, how well his guidance counselor knows him, the competition that year, the college's desire for ethnic and geographic diversity and how it weighs athletics and alumni connections. And, sometimes, there is just plain luck--catching the friendly or hostile eye of an admissions officer.
The effects, of course, can be enormous. "We could be affecting whom students are going to meet, whom they are going to marry, where they may get a job," said Bruce Poch, who is finishing his first year as dean of admissions at Pomona. "To be honest, I try not to think about that, because it could be paralyzing."
Despite such implications, decision-making methods usually remain secret. "It seems like such a complicated process to parents and students, but I think it seems more mystical than it really is," said Sally Reed, an editor of College Bound, an Evanston, Ill.-based newsletter about admissions.
Pomona College agreed to allow a reporter to observe its admissions process at crucial points between the Jan. 15 application deadline and the recent mailings. Pomona was chosen because as a private school its decisions can be more subjective than public colleges, which are governed by state master plans and generally rely more on grades and test scores. And of private, general-education schools in California, applicants' chances are slimmer only at Stanford University, which refused a similar request from The Times. This year, Pomona accepted 39% of its applicants, compared to 16% at Stanford, 52% at Occidental and about 68% at USC.
Pomona set one condition, to which The Times agreed: Applicants' real names would not appear in print if they were rejected or put on the waiting list. Names of these students have been changed.
During discussions of those students, many negative things--even sarcastic and brutal--were said, touching on their puffed-up resumes, political views, mental health and ill-conceived essays about fast cars and stuffed animals. In-house abbreviations were used: NRQ (no redeeming qualities), DIF (down in flames), D&B; (dull and boring).
However, any stereotype of admissions officers as arrogant taskmasters looking only for a reason to say no was dispelled. More often than not, Poch and his staff seemed sympathetic to strengths and problems of candidates, such as the girl bouncing back from anorexia and the Nicaraguan boy seeking political asylum.
They also sometimes seemed awed by the applicants and nervously joked that most of the staff would not gain entrance if they had applied this year, even though three are Pomona alumni. Plus, they admitted that some of their decisions may be inconsistent and prove to be wrong.
"Every so often I think, who am I to say yea or nay? Am I Nero or Julius Caesar? But then I remember we have only so many spaces in the class," explained Gavin Feliciano, a Pomona alumnus who, along with Poch and two others, was new this year to the seven-member staff of counselors.
The staff face many pressures. The school could have space and budgetary problems if enrollment is too large or small. Coaches want good athletes. Music teachers want promising violinists. And alumni threaten retribution if their children are rejected.
"Admissions officers are the target of a lot of anger and resentment," said Howard Greene, a private admissions counselor in New York. "They are seen as terribly cold-hearted, quantitative people who are trying to stop others from attaining the American Dream." But, the truth, he said, is admissions officers face "a no-win situation" and often leave the business after a few years.
That, however, is of little consolation to rejected students. "One thing troubles me about this process," said Jean Dawes, a college adviser at Palo Alto High School. "So many kids who worked so hard put themselves on the line for rejection at an age when they are very vulnerable."
In the admissions game, a college tries to catch as many fish as possible, using several baits: targeted mailings, campus tours and booths at college fairs. In addition, Pomona's staff divided up the nation and visited an estimated 700 high schools during the fall.
At the high schools, officials stressed Pomona's intimate size--1,350 students, with 14 in an average classroom. They explained how Pomona, celebrating its centennial, is the oldest of six schools in the consortium called The Claremont Colleges, located in the leafy community often used by Hollywood as a stand-in for New England college towns. They described Southern California's beaches, mountains and culture and answered questions about earthquakes, smog and perceived anti-intellectualism.
And they discussed costs. Tuition, fees, room and board at Pomona next year will total $16,840. However, the school offers relatively generous financial aid, and officials insisted that admissions decisions were made regardless of financial need.
Pomona received 2,944 applications this year, about 7% fewer than last year but still 50% higher than in 1984. Educators say competitive schools nationwide have seen a dizzying leap in applications over the last decade even though the overall pool of high school graduates has dropped.
A major cause is that pressure to get into a prestigious school increased during the 1980s as young people become more career-minded. Rather than chance four or five applications, as the previous generation did, many worried students now try eight or 10, and some try as many as 20.
Ranked in Top 10
Pomona's numbers swelled further because U.S. News and World Report ranked it among the top 10 small liberal arts colleges in its biennial survey, which some applicants take as gospel.
As a result, some students who graduated from Pomona five years ago might not be admitted today, said Lorne Robinson, admissions director and No. 2 in the department. Of the 1,166 who received acceptance letters this month, 76% were in the top academic 10% of their high school class. Their median Scholastic Aptitude Test score was 1330 out of a possible 1600--in the top 4% of all those tested nationwide this year.
"The fact of the matter is that even if we took a random sampling, we would still have a pretty good class," Poch said.
An application to Pomona required $35, a high school transcript, recommendations from two teachers and a counselor, Scholastic Aptitude Test or the rival American College Testing scores and two essays. An interview was not required, although staff and alumni conducted many.
All of this was put into a folder and read by at least two staffers who wrote a few sentences summarizing their reactions, graded the applicant on academic and personal qualities, and then entered a vote: A for strong admit, B for weak admit, C for weak denial, D for strong denial.
Readers concede that timing and mood can influence gradings. Some started out generous and turned tougher after the 100th folder; others softened up as they got a better sense of the applicant pool.
If there was strong disagreement, a file went to a third reader and possibly three more reviews. Poch looked at all summaries, then the entire staff debated and voted on cases that were not clear-cut. The most controversial cases went to a committee of faculty, alumni and students.
"You have two choices in this business. Either you are totally objective and stick completely with scores. Or you admit you are subjective and build in as many checks and balances as you can and make the process as fair as possible," said Terry Cowdrey, a part-timer on the Pomona staff.
Takes More Than Grades
A high grade-point average alone did not impress the staff. As important were class rank and a tough high school course load. The school's quality also was discussed, although Poch said, "We won't punish a student for the poor quality of his high school. We just want to see that he took advantage of whatever was available."
Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, that bane of college-bound teen-agers' lives, were compared to classroom grades, and a mismatch provoked a closer look.
Very high scores and a moderate grade point average could mean that the student was bored or troubled.
Low Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and a very high grade-point average might mean that a student had stretched his abilities, charmed his teachers or froze during the test.
Poch preferred the high-SAT, moderate-GPA candidate: "I'd rather take the kid who has some horsepower in reserve than the kid who is grinding himself to death."
That philosophy hurt Mary, who had a 3.74 GPA and strong recommendations, but only 1050 in SATs. In addition, her science achievement tests did not show unusual strength, although she wants to major in biology, and her essays were good but not outstanding.
Japanese-American with college-educated parents, Mary was judged against Anglos and most Asian applicants and was rated a C by both readers. Asian students who immigrated recently to the United States were not judged as heavily on the SATs.
Most blacks and Latinos, even if born in this country, were judged differently because Pomona, like many colleges, said it desperately wants to boost minority enrollment. Pomona's student body is 3% black, 7% Latino and 12% Asian. The SATs of blacks and Latinos were considered against the scores of their ethnic groups, which are considerably lower than the average Anglo and Asian scores, raising issues of cultural bias and inferior schools. Meanwhile, the staff looked for other evidence of promise.
That helped Rene, whose GPA was 3.7 but his SATs only 1010. The American-born son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up speaking more Spanish than English and some of the test's vocabulary, he said, "really threw me off." His very high 740 on the Spanish achievement test, fine essays and strong recommendations won him two Bs.
'Still a Secret'
"For a lot of minority kids, Pomona is still a secret," said Kelly Salazar, a Latino who attended Pomona and works as a minority recruiter for the admissions office, whose staff is ethnically diverse--three white men, one black man, one Latino woman, one Asian woman and one native Hawaiian man.
Poch insisted that a minority student was not accepted unless he appeared likely to survive the rigors of Pomona studies. However, some teachers privately expressed fears that Pomona may not give minority students from impoverished backgrounds enough special tutoring to flourish.
A faculty committee member mentioned the case of a Midwestern black, who received a C- from one reader and an B from another; he had a B average in high school but his SATs totaled only 830 and his essay showed "hideous grammar," according to this committee member, who decided not to force a debate because it would upset too many people.
The applicant was admitted. "Yes, he is a bit of a risk, but we gave him the benefit of the doubt because of his strong curriculum and teacher recommendations," said Kevin Brown, the other minority recruiter.
Rejected, on the other hand, was a boy who fled Nicaragua four years ago with his family to avoid the military draft and managed to earn very good grades at a Los Angeles high school. He also had 830 SATs, but his curriculum and recommendations were not that strong and his essays were poor. Plus, his stated desire to study business, something Pomona does not offer, did not help. Both readers ranked him C, and his case never made it to debate.
"A number of kids like this we stretch for," said one staffer. "But it doesn't make sense to have a kid get battered when he gets here." The student was accepted at UCLA, UC Davis, University of the Pacific and Pitzer College; he was wait-listed at Claremont McKenna College and UC Santa Barbara.
Officials said that the dropout rate for minorities at Pomona is slightly higher than Anglos' but that the school's size keeps both rates relatively low. In addition, they said the impact of affirmative action on non-minority applicants is slight because only 12% of acceptances went to blacks and Latinos and not all needed special consideration.
Problem of Definition
However, the definition of ethnic background is controversial. A Los Angeles-area girl, who was born in Argentina of European-Jewish parents and emigrated as a small child, described herself as Latino on her application despite her non-Latino surname. If judged as a Latino, she seemed sure of admission, but she was placed in the Anglo pool and lost there.
"Her background is very comfortable, and she didn't seem to reflect Latino culture," said one staffer, who insisted that the girl's self-description was not held against her.
Many Anglo and minority applicants were put over the top by recommendations. Rosemary Choate, the alumni representative for admissions, said she worries that overworked counselors at many big public high schools have little time to write the reports compared to their counterparts at private prep schools. "We want to counter that as much as possible," she said.
In fact, one public schoolteacher this year sent identically worded reports on two candidates, prompting an angry letter in response from Poch. However, the dean said that did not hurt those applicants because he relied on the other letters in their files.
Students at public high schools appeared lucky if their counselor had a reputation as a dependable straight-shooter. A rave carries more weight from someone like Jack Wright at Franklin High, Pomona officials explained, because Wright has been writing recommendations for two decades and most have proved true.
"My job is to make the decision easier at Pomona," said Wright recently in his office, with a line of students waiting to see him. On the wall was a large map of the nation pierced with colored pins to show colleges that had accepted and enrolled Franklin students.
Given the fact that most students ask for recommendations from teachers who like them, readers looked for what the reports did not say, as well as what they did. If a counselor wrote that a student had much potential, did that mean the student is lazy and not working up to his potential? Did a teacher stress an applicant's warm personality because the intellect is so low or because he or she knows that sociability is important at a small school like Pomona?
Robinson became suspicious when a wildly laudatory report, complete with misspellings and poor grammar, came for an Arizona student whose grades and scores did not seem to merit such praise. The student was rejected because of his grades and the matter was not pressed. Officers looked for signs that essays might be plagiarized or rewritten by an adviser hired by the student's family; they found no obvious signs of such cheating.
Each Pomona applicant had to write two essays, one to "give a more complete and accurate picture of yourself," the other on one of the following topics: Describe your three most important possessions and their significance; what issue or problem would you work to solve and how?; imagine an alternative outcome to a historical event. Readers hoped for logic, flair and individuality.
Some essays discussed painful circumstances: divorce, immigration struggles, illnesses. "You've got to not give in to your heartstrings, although you may want to," Choate said. "We can't have a whole school of heartbreak cases."
One of Mary's essays envisioned California if Japanese-Americans had not been forced into internment camps during World War II. But her overall writing was not above average. Readers were more impressed with Rene's essays, especially one that described the devastating effects that gangs have had on his neighborhood.
Others' essays reflected fads or recent studies. An astonishing number wrote about what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War or if Hitler had won World War II. And, to Pomona's dismay, many composed paeans to their sports cars and stuffed animals.
"You've got to wonder about an 18-year-old who still cares a lot about her Winnie the Pooh," Poch said. "But then again, one of the things we have to fight against is getting jaded. Every now and then we have to remind ourselves that these are still teen-agers."
The essays sometimes provoked debates that contributed heavily to a vote of denial or of being sent to the wait list, considered a soft denial. The essay "can be the rope you use to hang yourself," the dean said.
For example, one East Coast boy wrote graphically about a sexual experience and the use of a condom. His convoluted point was to show how he learned about his own sexism. His counselor later learned of the essay and forced him to write an apology letter to Pomona. But the damage was done; despite his good SATs and grades, the admissions people could not get over his lack of judgment, if not taste. Clinching the decision was a teacher's report calling him "erratic."
In a more controversial case, a boy wrote that the way to end world hunger was to push birth control for "the lower classes." To several reviewers, that smacked of elitism and possibly racism. So Poch handed the hot potato to the faculty committee, which later voted to deny admission.
30 Files a Day
But before such debates could begin, the staff had to finish the giant task of giving each folder two readings. By Feb. 29 they had fallen behind, and Poch scolded them to hurry. Some wondered aloud whether weariness was blurring their judgment as they each spent the next few days poring over as many as 30 files a day.
Meanwhile, Peter Osgood, the admissions office's sports specialist, had compiled applicant wish lists from coaches who had recruited candidates during the fall. Pomona and neighboring Pitzer College share athletic teams, and some candidates said they were urged to apply to both schools because Pitzer might take them if Pomona did not. In a small-college division for athletics, Pomona is not a jock school, but still tries to snare its share of good athletes. Altogether, athletics pushed about 25 candidates onto the acceptance list, Osgood said.
Ranked 18th on the women's swim coach list was Susan Johnson from an ultra-competitive and affluent Northern California school. Her SAT total was 1250, and her 3.65 GPA put her in the top 28% of her class. However, she did not take many of the tougher courses available. "Perhaps good in the swimming pool but mediocre in the applicant pool," wrote one reader who, as did another, ranked her C.
A few days later, Poch finished reviewing all the work cards and divided them among four piles: 731 clear admits, 976 clear denies, 25 wait lists and 1,116 in between that required more debate. Mary wound up in the denies and Rene in the admits; their fates were sealed. But whether Susan and others could pass through the gates of Pomona as enrolled students was still to be decided.
Next: The final cut.
POMONA'S STUDENTS A summary of the students applying to Pomona College's Class of 1992.
APPLICATIONS Total 2,944
THE ACCEPTED STUDENTS ETHNICITY White 67.8%
HIGH SCHOOLS Public 65%
Private independent 28%
HOMES California 38%
Rest of West 30%
SAT SCORES Median SAT score 1330
(Possible total) 1600
COSTS Tuition, fees,
room and board $16,840
Offered financial aid 50%
Average Aid $12,000