RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Spring is a mean season for high school seniors. It's college acceptance time. And if students don't get in, they never find out why.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Was it that C in Algebra 1, the lukewarm recommendation, the essay that should have gone through spell check?
MONTAGNE: NPR's Tovia Smith got a rare chance to sit in on an admissions committee at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The liberal arts college will accept only 1,000 of more than 8,000 students who applied.
TOVIA SMITH: High school kids may imagine the admissions officials deciding their fate as a bunch of tweedy old academics in spectacles and suits.
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SMITH: But if you got in to watch them work, as I did at Amherst College, you might be surprised to find how much they look like students cramming for finals.
WERTHEIMER: I never want to see another cookie as long as I live.
SMITH: Unidentified Woman #2: So we're going to start on page 522.
SMITH: This is the final stretch of the selection process. Eighty-five percent of applicants have already been weeded out. Only the crÃÂ¨me-de-la-crÃÂ¨me get presented to the full committee.
CHRISTINA NUEVES: He's a valedictorian. Started taking APs his freshman year - fives in world history, bio and U.S. history.
SMITH: Committee member Christina Nueves is one of two readers assigned to pore over this application and reduce it to the one-page, one-minute, rapid-fire review she presents to the rest of the committee.
NUEVES: Vice president of the National Math Honor Society. He's part of the Math League and the Chess Club. He's a tutor, a lab assistant, does community service.
SMITH: After giving his vitals, she also offers a few impressionistic notes on the student and his essays.
NUEVES: He writes a touching E-1(ph) about his work in pediatrics at a hospital. Overall, I like him.
SMITH: Unidentified Woman #3: Alrighty. Next up.
SMITH: But he gets not a single vote, and instead ends up on the wait list.
TOM PARKER: You know, I think the process to anybody who is not inside it is baffling. It's perplexing.
SMITH: Amherst's Dean of Admissions Tom Parker is the first to concede the absurdity of passing on such stellar students.
PARKER: It's just that these kids look remarkably similar, and we're making nuanced judgments. None of us are going to pretend that that's exact science. You know, it's a flawed process.
WERTHEIMER: I like him. I thought he was pretty cool.
SMITH: And it's a highly subjective one, where decisions can turn on as little as one line in an essay.
NUEVES: He said while my parents and doctor simultaneously asked how I was feeling, only two words came out of my mouth: chicken McNuggets.
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SMITH: This one will fly, but another student's essay, read by Dean Kathleen Mayberry, will prove fatal.
KATHLEEN MAYBERRY: I'm troubled by one sentence in the first essay: I rarely get truly fascinated with a subject. And then he goes on - music is his exception. What am I supposed to do with that?
PARKER: My jaw dropped. I mean, that was flabbergasting.
SMITH: Intellectual passion is a must, says Parker. The students who get in are the ones who come across as genuine. It also helps to come across as different.
J: Vice president of the Jewish Club, president of the Japanese Society, an active member of the Muslim Club, and lastly, an observant of Hindu traditions.
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PARKER: If you read, it's all - it's not gimmicky. I mean, this is a kid who's interested in all of that stuff.
SMITH: The committee buys it and the kid gets in. What's surprising is how much is consensus and how much everyone relies on the vibe they get from the two initial readers.
NUEVES: Overall, a great young woman. Obviously a strong student, but I feel like I'm missing something.
PARKER: You know, to make it through, you've got to have genuine enthusiasm from the readers, and it wasn't there.
SMITH: Just missing that je ne sais quoi.
PARKER: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And that's the appropriate phrase, because you can't quite name it.
SMITH: One committee member calls it the magic; another, the soul. We're trying to separate the James Browns from the James Taylors, he says, and it's a daunting task.
DALE HENDRICKS: Last night I was up and I was just like, wow. And I had a hard time sleeping, to be honest with you.
SMITH: Associate Dean Dale Hendricks says the responsibility is overwhelming.
HENDRICKS: You just feel bad, and you know, you feel like there's, you know, there's probably something you could have said or done to, you know, whatever, sway the committee or something like that. But if it's just not there, it's not there.
MAYBERRY: I think this is one of those cases that we may not feel compelled to consider further.
SMITH: Even for a veteran like Kathleen Mayberry, the emotion runs deep.
MAYBERRY: It's harder than it looks. I don't think people really realize that.
SMITH: You're getting emotional.
MAYBERRY: I am. I'm sorry. I think kids are important.
SMITH: Mayberry says she's especially moved by stories of disadvantaged kids who might have few other options. Amherst calls itself need-affirmative - it gives preferential treatment to kids who are first in their family to go to college or poor. The SP-31s, as they're called in admissions code, face a lower bar, like this kid being presented by Dean Parker.
PARKER: I get an offbeat sort of bohemian sense here. He's a thinker and a seeker. Still, it will be the SP-31s that will make the difference. Accept with it, wait list without.
MAYBERRY: Alright. So we're going to vote. Accept? One, two, three, four. My recommendation is this is one we should set aside.
PARKER: In some cases, if it's a split decision, there can be kind of gasps or there appears to be real pain.
SMITH: Parker says those applications can be set aside both to spare one member's feelings and to protect the committee as a whole.
PARKER: You can end up with one group pitted against another group and, you know, with people voting spitefully. Oh, so you don't support mine? Well, tomorrow I'll have my chance. It's a human tendency.
SMITH: This year, none of the set-asides will make it. There are already too many in the yes pile and members will soon have to make the really impossible decisions to pull some out.
PARKER: There is going to come a point where it's going to be very close to, you know, closing your eyes and doing that, because we're exhausting the meaningful criteria to separate John from Mary. For that group, it's effectively a lottery. It really is.
SMITH: Parker concedes it's a disturbing notion to many high achievers, but in an odd way he hopes it may also be a kind of relief to kids to know that the decision is a little random and not a referendum on their worth. It's kind of like that old break-up line: it's not you, it's me.
PARKER: Yes, indeed. There are years that it's great to be a runner and there are years that it's great to be a lacrosse player, and there are years that it's great to play the piccolo and there are years that it's great to play the piano. But the candidate doesn't know that.
SMITH: Parker will spend most of the next month trying to reassure kids a rejection is not the end of the world.
PARKER: Unidentified Man #3: That's it, folks.
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PARKER: Good job, guys.
SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.