"I want to go to Pomona College so bad I can taste it," wrote an aspiring student, who sent a tray set for a meal along with his application for admission.
Applicants to Pomona College in Claremont often send the best they have of themselves--novels, plays and musical scores they've written, their puppets and model planes--as personal statements that they hope will convince school officials of their worthiness to enter the prestigious school.
While this kind of creativity delights Dean of Admissions Fred Zuker, it also alerts him to the feelings of at least 1,400 bright, deserving high school seniors each year who will never get a taste of Pomona College, no matter how much they want it.
Offer of Interview
Zuker has taken the unusual step of inviting those who have been denied admission to discuss it with him and his staff. The offer comes in a letter that is sent to all students who are denied admission.
Since he began issuing the invitations a couple of years ago, about 250 students have accepted, meaning that Zuker and his staff have devoted many hours to counseling young people who probably will never return to the campus.
Pomona, a private, liberal arts college, is one of five in the Claremont Colleges. In a special report last November, U.S. News & World Report rated it the seventh-best liberal arts college in the country.
Zuker said that scholarship is the single most important factor in determining who will be accepted at Pomona.
To be considered for admission, students should have Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of at least 630 on verbal tests and 680 in mathematics--out of a possible 800--and should rank in the 95th percentile in their high schools.
"It's easy to spot the extremes on both ends of the scale--those who are shining and those who don't qualify," Zuker said.
In between, most applicants are judged on the quality of their extracurricular activities, leadership, special talents and abilities, he said, adding that the school also must maintain a balance of males, females and minorities.
The Pomona College application invites students to write two essays and to submit "anything they want to tell us about
themselves," Zuker said. This has resulted in the tray, the compositions, cassettes, videos and even chocolate chip cookies, he said.
"The difference between those we admit and those we deny is negligible," he said. "We base our decision on whether they would benefit from the college and if the college would benefit from having them."
Zuker said that several members of the admissions staff study each application and make recommendations. All the applications then go to a 13-member committee, which votes on each. A large network of alumni conducts personal interviews all over the nation and in some foreign countries.
Last year more than 2,700 high school students in 47 states and 25 countries applied for the 375 spots reserved this year for freshmen. Of these, 1,000 were offered admission, with the expectation that one-third would accept. There are another 300 on a waiting list.
So at least 1,400 applicants, most of them top scholars, received letters denying them admission.
First Experience With Failure
"For many of these students, this is their first experience with failure," Zuker said. "They've never had a setback like this, and it's a jolt.
"Sometimes these are teary interviews. The first thing we usually have to tell these students is that they have not failed. They think they've done something wrong, that they're somehow deficient. They want to make some sense out of what is happening."
For many, such as the young man with the tray, Pomona had been the first choice. That was the case with John Mack, a 17-year-old South Pasadena High School honors student whose disappointment was compounded by anxiety when he erroneously received someone else's letter of denial one Saturday and had to wait through a weekend to get the mix-up straightened out.
His father, George H. Mack, called Zuker the next Monday, and the results of the interviews that followed left everyone pleased.
Pleased With Interview
"I thought the way they handled it was terrific," Mack said. "John was obviously crushed. But Dr. Zuker gave us his home phone number and then he encouraged John to retake the SAT in math, because that's where he fell short" of Pomona's level for acceptance.
John's score didn't go up much, but he felt better after talking to Zuker.
"Dr. Zuker just said this wasn't good enough, and I understood," said John, who was accepted by the University of California, Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, and American University in Washington, and is on the waiting list for Claremont McKenna College.
"I have trouble with SATs. I just need more time than they give for the math tests," he said.
John, who wants to major in international business, plans to attend UC Irvine.
Counselors Laud College
High school counselors applaud Zuker's effort.