Getting In

By Kevin Tankersley

Top-tier universities use a holistic approach to admissions

As assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions and enrollment at Baylor, Jessica King Gereghty and her team sift through about 35,000 college applications every year. They look at high school transcripts, read thousands of letters of recommendation and decide the fate of students who will, frankly, shape the future of Baylor University. She has friends and colleagues at universities across the country, and while those colleges’ admissions processes might be different, every school focuses on the academic success of its applicants. Extracurricular activities and other things come into play, but it’s the classroom accomplishments that admissions counselors look at first.

King Gereghty, a native of Fredericksburg, has a bachelor of arts and an MBA from Baylor. She and her sons, 6-year-old Mac and 4-1/2-year-old Dean, love to hike in Cameron Park. The boys have also recently discovered Waco’s skateboard park where they ride their scooters.

King Gereghty and Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley talked for an hour or so one recent afternoon in her office on the fourth floor of Clifton Robinson Tower.

WACOAN: How long have you been at Baylor?

King Gereghty: I am a Baylor grad, and so it depends on where I start counting.

WACOAN: How long have you been in admissions?

King Gereghty: I joined admissions in June 2008, so over 10 years now.

WACOAN: How long have you been in your current role?

King Gereghty: Over two years. We’ve grown as an organization a lot in the last 10 years. A lot of what we’ve done has shifted, and we’ve expanded. As our department’s grown, then I moved into different roles. But the reason it’s undergraduate admissions and enrollment is because my role has expanded from just managing admissions practices and operations, we do admissions marketing.

I oversee the campus visitors center, and then we have a really great group of admissions counselors that function like recruiters all over the country and even internationally. But [we] added ‘enrollment’ because in the last couple of years the university has made a larger investment in the idea of doing large-scale and innovative enrollment projects. I get to work on those as well.

WACOAN: When did you graduate from Baylor?

King Gereghty: I graduated in 2001, and I got an MBA when I was working in this job. I did the executive program in Austin. It was a great program. I loved it.

WACOAN: How big is your department?

King Gereghty: Our department has about 65 professional staff, and we’ve even expanded it with regional offices in the last four or five years. We now have an office in Southern California and Northern California and Pacific northwest and in Denver and Chicago. Then we have two people that live full time in Houston now. And then I have three recruiters that are international. They live here, but we visit about 25 to 27 countries every year, step foot in those countries, stand in those high school classrooms and recruit students internationally. So it’s pretty expansive.

We have over 200 student workers if you add up all of our student worker teams, to manage campus visits. We have a student data team, we have our telecounselors that make phone calls at night to students all over the U.S. And we have other student workers as well, but it’s a pretty expansive group of people, and we all work really well together. It takes all of us to make the goals.

WACOAN: Let’s talk about students applying to college. When a student applies online, who does that information go to?

King Gereghty: Every school is different, and in my professional network, I’m friends with all the Big 12 admissions deans and then also a great network of selective private schools that are our peer and aspirant institutions. Those are a lot of top-tier schools like Boston College, [New York University], [University of Southern California], Fordham [University], Brandeis [University].

Depending on the size of the applicant pool and the selectivity of the school, every school reviews applications differently. Here at Baylor we get around 30,000 to 35,000 completed applications a year for our freshman class, and we’re accepting around 15,000 students usually. And the way that we review applications is different depending on the type of student.

WACOAN: Who reviews those applications?

King Gereghty: It’s a whole range of people, but definitely admissions counselors and all the regional counselors. So if you were in Southern California applying, our Southern California assistant director would be reviewing that. Then on a bigger scale, our executive leadership team reviews applications. The executive leadership team is myself; Mary Herridge, who’s our senior director of admissions counseling; and we have a director of operations, [Marissa Tiner]. We all work together to look at the entire pool weekly and then make decisions based on the competitiveness of the pool.

WACOAN: Does the senior staff look at all 35,000?

King Gereghty: We sift through them. It would depend on the type of applicant, how competitive they were, if we needed to dig down into the file to make a decision or if it’s a really obvious decision.

WACOAN: What would make it a really obvious decision?

King Gereghty: There’s a lot of different things. We first look at students academically. We’re wanting to make sure that a student’s ready for the academic rigor of a Baylor classroom, and that means they would have really done well in their high school, with a transcript review, meaning looking at their grades and also we look at their class rank a lot of times. We look at that based on different schools. We know that, for example, for students applying from Live Oak [Classical School] that their educational experience is different than applying from Midway [High School].

So we look at them differently, but we do want to make sure that a student could compete against their peers and also outperform in the classroom. Then we also look at standardized test scores. That kind of helps us level set, especially across the U.S. in knowing that some students had a different educational experience than others. Those SAT and ACT scores just give us a good standardized level. We look at those two things in contrast with each other.

Then after that we start looking at a student’s additional steps to round out an application beyond just grades and test scores. And there’s the answer in our short answers: Why would you want to attend Baylor and what will you contribute to our community? It’s sending us a professional resume of your extracurricular activities or teacher recommendations. We kind of dig into all of those items as well. We want students to tell us as much as they can about themselves and then that helps us get a bigger picture of the type of student and if they’re a good mission fit for the university.

So first we’re looking for an academic fit. And then secondly, we’re looking for a mission fit, meaning that you understand the mission of our university, what makes us unique and different, and that you want to be here and you want to contribute to this university as opposed to just saying, ‘I’m looking for any school that will take me.’

WACOAN: SAT or ACT …

King Gereghty: Is there a preference? For us, it’s exactly equal. Truthfully, some students do better on one type of test than the other. They test students differently. For example, the ACT has science built into it, so a lot of times if we’re working with students that are science-minded, it probably would be an advantage for them to take the ACT as opposed to just the SAT.

Here at Baylor we take all of the different scores that the student ever earns, even if they earned them for multiple tests, and we do what we call super score, and that is we put the very best components together. So if you took the SAT two times and you took the ACT two times, we’ll take the best components of both of those settings and then we compare those against each other and give students the very best out of the two.

For Baylor, there’s no harm in taking the test multiple times or even attempting to do better in the test that you’re best at. And those scores here at Baylor go into a student’s merit scholarship package, which you receive for four years once you’re here, and it starts on the first day of class that you start your freshman year. We really encourage seniors to do well on that test because it can only advantage them for their four-year scholarship.

But every school is different. And there is a national concordance of SAT to ACT scores, so students and parents, when they’re looking into the college decision-making process, can start measuring which one they’re performing better in against each other. Those tools are all on college board websites.

WACOAN: Is what happens academically during a senior year —

King Gereghty: It’s important. We are always looking that a student doesn’t have a drastic shift their senior year in their grades and their class rank and all their transcripts. We do make decisions usually based on grades. We ask for six semesters, so usually it’s through the junior year, but sometimes if a student is on the fringe academically, if they’re not as competitive as other students in the pool but maybe we really think they’d be a good fit here at Baylor, sometimes we’ll wait until we get grades after Christmas, and we look at that seventh semester.

There’s a lot of times where if we think we have a student that we’re still making a decision on, we’ll go back and ask for more senior grades before we make that decision. It’s important. Colleges are looking at, and I know the more selective universities are watching for, not only what kind of grades you make your senior year, but also what classes you’re enrolled in.

WACOAN: So you can’t blow off your senior year.

King Gereghty: No, not if you want to be at an academically rigorous institution.

WACOAN: I’ve also heard that the grades before high school don’t really count.

King Gereghty: We just look at high school transcripts, and that is professionally a standard. So insomuch as those grades before high school prepare you to do well in high school, we definitely pay attention to the kind of curriculum students take. Honors and AP courses are the kinds of courses where we know you’ll be ready for a college classroom setting. I think it’s important to get prepared for high school, but the grades that you make in high school are what most colleges are looking at.

WACOAN: We have an eighth grader who is about to have a meeting to plan out her four years of high school.

King Gereghty: You don’t want to try to make decisions too far in advance, but you want to make decisions that open as many doors as possible for colleges. You just want to push yourself and learn to make A’s and B’s, and the more A’s that a student can make, the better. You need to be in a curriculum that matches your ability to make good grades.

WACOAN: What is holistic review?

King Gereghty: Like I described earlier where we’re looking not just at academic qualifications, but we’re looking at a student’s interest in the university, a student’s ability to match the mission of the university and what a student would contribute.

We look also at things like how invested was a student in the process and have we met with them. Did we hear from them? Did we get to know them? The more that we get to know a student, the easier it is to make a holistic decision on their ability to make a strong contribution to our university.

Some schools are just looking at academics, and that was true of Baylor many years ago, where we were only looking at academic ability and could a student make it in the classroom or were they not going to. But then we shifted to holistic review about five years ago where we started looking for much more.

WACOAN: So admissions officers look at fit, how a student is going to exactly fit into a college.

King Gereghty: Exactly. And the more we know about a student, the more we’re able to answer that question with clarity. For very selective institutions, they are really studying fit and really, really, really looking for students who show interest and to prove that they want to be at that university.

With the advent of the common application and a lot of different crossover applications, it’s easy now for a student applying to a university to just go ahead and check 20 more universities or five or 10 universities, but the more specific you can be in your short answers and your essays and in the relationship you build with your admissions counselor on why you want to be at that institution, the better that institution can make a judgment call on if it would be able to accept you or not.

WACOAN: So students have an admissions counselor they’re working with.

King Gereghty: Yes. Those are broken up by territories based on where you go to high school.

WACOAN: Once the student submits an application, will an admissions counselor be in touch, or how long should a student wait before getting in touch?

King Gereghty: We love to hear from students even in their junior year of high school to get to know and start answering questions about Baylor. This January, we’ll be headed out to high schools all over the United States and the world to meet with juniors and start building a relationship ahead of the application process.

It’s really important to know every university’s deadlines. For us, our main deadline is November 1 of a senior year, and so we only have a short amount of time from the time school starts in August to November to get applications completed before we start reviewing for acceptances. And so it’s better to build that relationship even before you start your senior year with your college admissions counselor. But from the time that you apply, and if you made like our first deadline by November 1, then we’d love to be hearing from students, even right before that because we’ll start making decisions right after we complete that deadline.

WACOAN: With that November 1 deadline, does it look more impressive if a student applied as soon as that senior year started or waited until October 31?

King Gereghty: There’s not a discernment process there on when a student applies. We don’t weigh that. We know that students are busy and that they all have a lot going on. It definitely matters that you make a first deadline. For us, for an early decision applicant, you have to apply by November 1, or for early action, you have to apply by November 1. [Editor’s note: Early decision applicants enter a binding agreement to attend Baylor if admitted, so long as they receive sufficient financial assistance; they are notified of admission by December 15. Early action applicants are notified of admission by January 15 but may wait to respond until May 1.] We are making a large majority of our class and our decisions from that [first] deadline pool.

Now we have a second deadline. It’s February 1, and we will also take students out of that deadline, but we’re going to be really competitive at that point because we will have had upwards of 20,000 applications, up to 30,000 applications, that are completing in that February pool. And we start narrowing the amount of students that we have space available based on that first deadline.

So just don’t miss a deadline. That’s my best admissions director advice. Know deadlines, apply by early deadline and don’t miss that first deadline for any college you’re interested in.

WACOAN: Is the 8 percent mark still in effect in Texas?

King Gereghty: That’s at the University of Texas. The state legislature decides, based on capacity at UT-Austin, what percentile of Texans they’ll automatically accept. In the last couple of years, it was the top 10 percent that would automatically get accepted into UT-Austin or Texas A&M. That has increased in selectivity to where it’s been the top 7 percent or the top 8 percent. It’s all based on demographics of the state and the institution itself. If you were interested in those two universities, which are outstanding places to choose, a student does need to remain in the top 8 percent of their high school class.

Some schools aren’t ranked, like a smaller private institution or even large, really selective and academically rigorous Texas public schools like Westlake in Austin and Memorial in Houston and Highland Park in Dallas. They quit ranking a few years ago as well. In that case, those state schools have to recalculate a GPA for those students.

At Baylor, we are looking for students that perform well in their high school, so usually that means most students are in the top 25 percent of their class. But we don’t have just a blanket cutoff for academics or guaranteed mark where if you make a certain academic threshold you’re in at Baylor. It’s just two different philosophies.

Then from the University of Texas standpoint, that doesn’t apply if you’re applying from out of state. Out of state, they don’t have a guaranteed threshold.

WACOAN: If a student has maybe below average scores or grades, is there still a chance to get into a good college or university?

King Gereghty: Well, so that is an interesting question because it definitely depends on the school. If your grades are not great, then I do think it does limit your options. It would certainly limit you out of a tier one application process, top 50 schools, top 100 schools in America. With us, if your grades weren’t great, it would take a lot of responsibility on the student’s part to get to know their admissions counselor early to show us with standardized test scores that you can still perform academically.

Sometimes it takes telling us more about yourself, and a lot of times we see students that have had a special circumstance, like maybe something happened with their family or maybe this student got sick. We have students that have to fight cancer or have a tragedy in the family. That will happen at their sophomore, junior year or even their freshman year. And in the case that something like that happens, if we have insight and understanding as to what happened with the student academically and if their standardized test scores can reflect that certainly they are smart and they are intellectually capable of making it in our classroom, then with that story, with those test scores, we’re able to look holistically at their file.

If a student is really committed to Baylor — maybe they grew up here, there is legacy family — and we understand why their grades weren’t good for a while, but we are always going to look for an upswing. That’s where that senior year comes back into play. When I review a student, if they started off strong their freshman and sophomore year and then their grades dive deep their junior or senior year and there’s no good explanation for that, then we absolutely would not accept them because we’re not seeing a student that’s proving that they’re going to really compete in the classroom here.

If the opposite, that maybe a student had a learning disability or had something happen in their family in their freshman, sophomore year [and] they didn’t perform as well, but then by their junior year they got the hang of high school, they got good study skills under their belt, they learned how to succeed in the classroom, and then we can see that their junior and senior year, then that’s a different scenario. It just depends, and that’s where a holistic review is important. That’s where the higher-ranked universities can really get to know a student and can make an assessment based on what they will contribute in college.

WACOAN: Does Baylor require an essay?

King Gereghty: We don’t require it. It’s optional, but it is recommended with the two short answers that we do, so that we can understand you better. And that’s the place where we can see a student that might write a shelf essay and then they just pop it into almost every college application. And that does not bode well to a university. Writing a specific essay for that university, telling your unique story and why you’re interested in that college, that goes a long way.

WACOAN: What can students do in the junior and senior years of high school to help them do well wherever they go to college?

King Gereghty: The most important thing for every university is academics, and so learning how to stand out in the classroom, learning how to engage your peers, your teachers so that you can start learning how to be an active member of a university community and develop faculty relationships. I think that’s really important.

I know a lot of parents say, ‘What’s more important: extracurriculars or academics?’ Any rigorous institution would say academics first, but [also] learning how to manage your time, having something that you devote yourself to with extracurriculars and being a well-rounded student, in and outside the classroom. And learning how to do that your junior and senior year of high school and get that balance right helps prepare students to succeed in college when all of a sudden no one’s taking care of your time other than you, and where your schedule drops from a 30-hour assigned schedule for the week to just maybe 10 hours of your week are scheduled and the rest of it is up to you.

Time management, study skills and learning how to build relationships with professors and faculty. Doing that as a high schooler with your teachers is all really important. Another thing that’s important — it’s harder and harder and harder because of parents — is for students to learn to stand on their own two feet and for parents to learn through the senior year how to let go. We always say to parents who want to be engaged and want to have their fingers in the middle of everything and maybe sometimes want to make a decision for students, the best advice we can give parents is that you can think of a college admissions process like you’re on a team, but the student needs to be the captain of the team. They need to be the leader. They need to be making the phone calls the most. They need to be filling out their own application.

We can tell when a mom writes an essay. We can tell when parents are getting too many professionals involved with the college application process and the student’s not doing it themselves. Students just need to learn to take ownership for this big decision that’s gonna impact the rest of their lives. And it’s a great opportunity for parents, however hard it is, to kind of take a step back and take off those training wheels and start to let your high school student be the leader of the team for the family.

WACOAN: What kind of professionals can families get involved in the application process?

King Gereghty: They can hire professional college counselors that are like independent college counselors, and some families have had great luck with that. We work with independent college counselors sometimes, and it can be very, very successful. I know of a Waco family that used one last year and their daughter ended up applying to a whole different tier of colleges and in the end chose between Columbia [University] and Stanford [University], and picked Stanford.

So sometimes college counselors can help prepare a student even better than they can do on their own. Other times, independent counselors can help with a student that maybe has learning disabilities or a unique set of challenges and they need to find a small private college that will assist with their unique challenges.

WACOAN: How can you tell when a professional, independent counselor has overstepped the boundaries?

King Gereghty: We will hear from them on behalf of a student. We want to work with high school counselors a lot because they know our institution and they’re able to advise their students. But when an independent counselor gets involved, sometimes they can look more like a controlling parent is involved. That’s just not what we’re looking for in the student that we know will succeed in our institution.

WACOAN: How important are letters of recommendation?

King Gereghty: They’re really important. They’re, for us, a critical piece of understanding your academics and, like you said, what if your grades don’t tell the whole story? Then that letter of recommendation from a high school teacher or from your high school guidance counselor really rounds that out.

We’re making an academically minded decision on students, so we’re looking for an academic recommendation. Other institutions, maybe small private schools that are even less academically rigorous, they might like church recommendations or they might be looking for more social recommendations. But here at Baylor we’re looking for an academic recommendation, knowing that you can compete in the classroom.

WACOAN: Do more recommendation letters help?

King Gereghty: Is it the more, the better? We just ask for two. It’s just a matter of what we can handle and what we can manage because of our large applicant load. At some universities, I’m sure, every recommendation makes a difference. But for us it’s two great academic recommendations are all we need.

WACOAN: Do you look at applicants’ social media pages?

King Gereghty: We do not. I do know schools that do.

WACOAN: Why does Baylor not look at those?

King Gereghty: We just don’t feel that, first, we have the time.

Secondly, we will get to know a student on social media. Like I said, I manage the admissions marketing team, and we have our own social handles and we use every social platform. If you go to @BeABaylorBear and leave comments, we actually develop a relationship with students. We also text students from our system and that stays in the student’s file. So that’s an actual record of communication that we have back and forth between students. But we just frankly don’t have the time to get into social media, nor do we feel like it’s an accurate reflection of a student’s academic preparation.

But there are schools, I can think of other Baptist institutions that I know of, that have the time. They have smaller applicant loads, and their counselors individually get to know every single student in their territory and they will use social media and audit that.

That said, if anything ever comes to our attention through a student’s admissions process where we feel like there’s something that a student has done or said on social media that’s a threat to the Baylor community or that doesn’t reflect the kind of student that we have, we do revoke admissions based on social media. So that happened even last year where other students brought to our attention an admitted student’s social pages that we found were absolutely not a match with our Baylor culture or mission and in fact was a threat to our campus community. And so that student did not enroll at Baylor. So it matters. It matters. It’s just not something that we’re studying at the point of making a decision.

But I would say to students this day and age that your social media account is a record of who you are, reflects your character, and for students to know that when they’re posting, even as an 18-year-old, that life-altering decisions can happen because of what you put on social media. It’s a record of who you are and your character. And you need to take all of that very seriously.

WACOAN: When your system texts a student and then the student texts back, should the student treat that as a formal type of communication?

King Gereghty: If we text a student, we’re texting them in an admissions formal voice. I would say anytime you correspond with a university you need to treat it as a professional communication. We are used to dealing with 18-year-olds and communicating with 18-year-olds, and texting is easy because it’s brief and quick. And if we’re sending event reminders or shooting off little texts to say, ‘Complete your file’ or ‘Make sure you get your transcript in,’ then we don’t expect to get paragraphs back. But I would recommend that all students treat a university with a level of professionalism.

WACOAN: If you text a student that applications are due in a week, and a student texts back the thumbs-up emoji, that I got the message, would that count against a student?

King Gereghty: [Laughs.] No. No. We enjoy and get to appreciate our 18-year-olds for who they are.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

King Gereghty: The college admissions process is a big deal. I get to work and live, and we all do, in a space where we get to see people’s lives change every day, and it’s a really neat profession. We joke all the time that none of us went to college saying we can’t wait to graduate and be admissions directors. It’s not something that you even usually think of. It’s something we all fell into. But for my team and my colleagues, we think representing the mission of Baylor and getting to watch students’ and parents’ lives change and getting to watch them make such a big step forward in their life journey is a big privilege. We’re really passionate about it.

I know from sitting with hundreds of parents that it’s a big process for parents. It’s changing all the time. For any parent that went to college, and then they’re walking through it 18, 20, 25, 30 years later with their sons and daughters, it changes all the time. I think learning as much as you can and getting to know your admissions teams of the schools that you’re interested in is the best way to navigate that process. And you do need to learn about it early. Don’t miss a deadline is our best piece of advice.

But we know it’s hard and we know it’s tricky, and we know at the end of the day it’s going to be a logical decision. It’s going to be a financial decision. It’s a huge investment on behalf of parents and students. And then it’s also going to be an emotional and spiritual decision. And all of those things have to come together.

And for a student to pick their academic home, it’s not just four years. I tell that to parents and students all the time. It’s really who’s the community of people that you’re going to be associated with for the rest of your life? Where are you going to be an alumni from? What kind of organization reflects the trajectory of where you went and met your future business partners and your future life partners and your best friends forever? It’s not just a four-year decision. It’s an entire life trajectory decision, and we want to help students make that decision wholeheartedly and with the full picture in mind.

WACOAN: You said start early, so when should students start looking at colleges?

King Gereghty: I think at least by their junior year spring break. Every spring break when it’s Texas’ two big weeks of spring breaks, we’ll see over 4,000 visitors each week those two weeks. That’s a great time to go if you’re a junior and start visiting schools.

We host a lot of events throughout the year. We have big preview days, we have little events. There’s a lot of them that are open to juniors and sophomores and even freshmen. So starting to think about it those early years, but then going back to visit your junior and senior year is what we would recommend.

You can’t start too early, but you don’t have to get totally rolling until your junior year. By the end of your junior year, I’d say students should have an idea of maybe the top 10 schools that they are interested in. By the time you’re applying, which would be early on in your senior year, you want to know the application process for at least your top five schools.

WACOAN: We were in Nashville this summer and stayed across the street from Belmont University, so we started talking to our eighth-grade daughter about Belmont.

King Gereghty: And you were right across the street from Vanderbilt too. Family vacations are a great time to add in a college experience. I’ve visited almost all of our competitor institutions all over Texas and all over the United States just to know what other schools are doing.

This semester I went up to Chicago to Northwestern [University] while I was there working with our Chicago admissions associate director and went and popped into Northwestern and saw their visitors center and went on a college tour just to know what other schools are doing. You can really get the flavor of a school from even a one-hour visit. It doesn’t have to be anything substantial. It can just be adding it in on family vacations and starting to think and talk about it, like you said, even before high school starts.

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