Posted by Aditi Thakur on Friday, October 27, 2017
From the outside, any admissions office can seem like an impenetrable and secretive place where your fate is decided. Four years ago when I was a high school senior applying to colleges, I didn’t really know much about the individual people who worked behind-the-scenes and read my applications. So here’s your chance to get to know Vanderbilt’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions a little more intimately!
Today I had the opportunity of interviewing Jay Watson, the advisor of Inside ‘Dores! Jay has worked at Vanderbilt for over a decade, and he is currently the Interactive Project Strategist for the admissions office.
Q) What’s your favorite spot on campus?
Jay: My favorite spot is Bishop’s Commons. It’s the lawn right outside Furman Hall, Calhoun Hall, and the Law School. I love that part of campus because I love the old trees, and you feel like you’re in a park and out of the city.
Q) What is one thing that must be on everyone’s Nashville bucket list?
Jay: Hot chicken at Prince’s in East Nashville! It’s the best hot chicken in Nashville.
Q) What is one word you would use to describe Vanderbilt students?
Q) Which musician or band do you want to see play on campus?
Jay: I would love to see The Decemberists come to campus, but I don’t know if anyone else would!
Q) What is your funniest admissions story?
Jay: I’m trying to think of one that is publishable! Maybe the funniest and craziest one is that a few years ago when decisions were released, I was looking at social media for responses and a lot of times there are happy students out there. But we had a student who didn’t get in and made a video of himself burning a Vanderbilt shirt. That was probably the most extreme admissions story I have!
Q) Why did you decide to work for Vanderbilt Admissions and as an Interactive Project Strategist?
Jay: I started work at Vanderbilt eleven years ago, and I started at Vanderbilt’s Programs for Talented Youth as a part-time employee, so I didn’t think I’d be here that long. After seven years on the Programs for Talented Youth, I had the opportunity to move to the admissions office. I had worked with the admissions office before and I knew there were great people at the office, so I was very happy to join admissions. I love being the Interactive Project Strategist because so much of what I get to do is think about new opportunities and strategies that the admissions office needs to use to communicate with prospective and admitted students. I love that part of my job is learning new social media platforms, coming up with new ways to engage prospective students, and there’s always something new. It’s a great way to always be learning something new and to not have to follow the same routine over and over.
One of the cool projects I did this summer was getting us started on a whole new event schedule for prospective students to engage with the admissions office, for Black and Gold Days and PreVU. As for strategy, I’m always thinking of using our resources in the best way to connect with and reach out to new students, and tell them why Vanderbilt might be a good fit for them.
Q) There is so much information out there on social media and College Confidential, so what do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the admissions process and for getting into Vanderbilt?
Jay: Probably the biggest misconception that people have in general is that admissions offices are this secretive group of people who get together and make these obscure selection decisions. Our office especially is very open, and if you want to talk to your admissions officer, you can come to the office and talk to them and to the director. That’s one reason the admissions blog exists, to show people what’s going on behind-the-scenes. Obviously we make tough decisions, and we can’t share all the details about why we make them, but we’re not just shrouded in mystery. We don’t want to be! We want people to understand what we’re doing and help them through the process, and we want to help people find their right fit at a college.
Some people think that there’s a magic formula, and the truth is that there are more qualified and great students who apply every year than we’re able to bring into the new class. We are faced with a really competitive pool; there is no one specific thing that you can put in your application that’ll get you into Vanderbilt. It all really depends on the pool of applicants and the tough decisions we have to make. I think people assume that there is some sort of ironclad math behind it and that if they look at all the decisions, it would all add up. But what the admissions committee does is try to find the admitted students who are right for Vanderbilt to make a class that is an interesting mix of students who are going to do great things, on campus and beyond.
Q) How do you think college admissions have evolved over the past few years, and how is Vanderbilt’s admissions office keeping up with these changes?
Jay: I think it’s just more and more competitive, and for Vanderbilt in particular, it’s really changed in terms of the number of applications we receive. So putting together a class in 2007 is very different from putting together a class in 2017, when there are now over 31,000 applications every year. That changes perspective as well, so I think a lot of people may have memories of what admissions at Vanderbilt looked like a few decades ago, but the landscape for college applications has changed, so they may not know what the current applicant pool is like. What we want to do is draw on the best applicants in the country and the world who think they want to apply, and make our decisions based on a worldwide applicant pool.
We have a really large office, one of the largest offices compared to our peer schools. We try to do innovative things to reach out to such a large applicant pool. Things we do for digital recruitment are good examples. We have a virtual tour, and we make ourselves available on a lot of different media platforms. You can email us, call us, and comment on our blogs to ask questions. We’ve also done things like Google hangouts, and recently, the directors of undergraduate admissions and financial aid did a Facebook live Q&A. We try to reach students in a number of ways so that we can manage a larger applicant pool.
Q) If you could travel back in time and meet your high school-self applying to colleges, what advice would you give yourself?
Jay: I would tell myself to ask more questions. I definitely thought of the admissions process as something where you take the application, fill it out, submit it, and hope for the best. There is no reason you can’t meet your admissions counselor, ask questions, talk to current students, talk to professors, and find out as much as you can about the place you want to apply. There are so many benefits of doing so because you get a better sense of what a college is like and who its people are, and you also have that insight that’s useful for you beyond the application. You may find out things about a school, whether it’s Vanderbilt or some other place, that help you make your decision. There are so many different ways you can find information if you talk to people. As a high school student, I wouldn’t have expected people to be that open.
Q) Admissions is a two-way street because it’s not just colleges accepting students, it’s also students making choices about where they want to enroll. What do you think sets Vanderbilt apart from its peer schools? How would you pitch Vanderbilt to a high school senior who’s received multiple acceptances?
Jay: That is definitely the case because students who are getting into Vanderbilt are also getting into other schools and they have a lot of choices. We put a lot of work into the messages we give to admitted students, and we have our stock responses. We talk a lot about how Nashville is a great city, how the Commons is a wonderful place to live, and how Vanderbilt has some of the best academics in the world. So all those sorts of reasons you can find in a publication. For me, the real pitch is the people on campus, and it’s hard to replicate that without actually coming and being here. So a campus visit is probably the best way to really know, and if you can’t do a campus visit, then talking to a current student is a great option.
Vanderbilt has an environment that is a very exciting and interesting place to be. I hear so often from students that only when they stepped on campus and felt that connection to the people and the place that Vanderbilt felt like the right fit and the right place for them. That’s the reason I think admitted students should choose Vanderbilt. There’s a community feeling on campus, and when I talk to students, they really value the balance between academic and social life, and the ability to do so much when they’re here, not just in terms of grades, but also socially.
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