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reading files and philosophy books

Posted by on Friday, February 1, 2008 in Application Process, File Reading Explained.

Yes, I am one of those gentlemen who views philosophy as a way of life. I incorporate as much of the intellectual musings of philosophers – as well as my own thoughts into just about everything I do. I have been reading student applications for most of the day. I take breaks. Listen to some music. Make a few calls. Sometimes, I take about 30 minutes to read some pages from a book. I also try to incorporate some philosophical thinking into my reading of files. For example, I enjoy reading the essays. Writing is a very cognitive process. An easy notion to accept. Yet, I like to dig deeper. I believe what a person chooses to write and the placement of their words are part of a subconscious process as well. Honestly, some essays sound the same. Cliche essays. I still read them because I am truly interested in solicting from the essay – something that gives me a sense of a student’s intellectual disposition and the critical thinking ability of the student. Yet, it is difficult to get a sense of a student’s intellectual disposition from essays with little or no depth. I wish students knew just how important the essay is for the most selective universities in the country. It is the only time when we hear from you – in your voice. At Vanderbilt, when we read files, we only focus on the good attributes of a student. That’s how you build a first-year class. Anything in the file that may not be helpful to a student’s candidacy for admission will crop itself up from the application – and I’ll see it. Aside from that, I am trying my best to see the best in a student – beyond the numbers. We are a country obsessed with statistics and measurements. Testing matters. Rank matters. Grades matter. Even the hours you spend in extracurricular activities matter. But you don’t build an amazing class of first-year students solely on numbers. Think about it. Why do applications ask for extracurricular activities and the positions held? The personal information about you and your family. Teacher recommendations. Guidance couselor recommendations. The short answer section. The additional information section. And the personal essay. The admissions process has always been about more than the numbers. Always. The aforementioned are all things that cannot be measured, but they are things that no number can measure or quantify with exacting success. I cannot count on my hands how many times a student has been admitted to a university based on the amazing intellectual strength of his or her essay, along with all the other factors. I have read a few good essays. With genius thinking, one student managed to infuse James Joyce with the musings of Hegel, Kant, Derrida and Karl Marx. One student wrote a piognant and moving essay about his daily struggle to bridge the racial divide on his nearly all-black high school basketball team at a predominantly white private school, where he is the only white guy on the team. He is now a captain on the team and every guy on the team is his best friend. I am still looking for another student who is willing to refrain from the mundane and brave the unfamiliar and the curious – in an expression of words in an essay.


  • Anonymous

    February 1st, 2008

    Very moving James, I hope all the other admissions counselors are as thoughtful and passionate as you!

  • New England Dad

    February 4th, 2008

    James, you have hit on a key point that has widespread application. As a partner in a large law firm, I can’t tell you how many times we have been disappointed with young attorneys who have incredible objective credentials and yet lack the intangible skills which are crucial to being a successful practioner. Like you, we have to make up or down decisions with just a glimpse at the real person. But it certainly helps us to be aware of this issue. I applaud your efforts. My daughter was accepted EDI and your process worked because her subjective attributes surpass her objective stats(which are pretty good as well).

  • Tsenguun

    February 17th, 2008

    Now I am feeling much more relieved. As an international student, I lack certain English skills that I had an English teacher proofread my essay. But I did not accept most of her suggestions, because I thought they might change the tone of my essay. Now I am sure my essay is okay. Some grammatical errors can be ignored, right? keke