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College Admissions : Getting in the Door at Pomona

First of two parts

April 24, 1988|LARRY GORDON | Times Education Writer

Let only the eager, thoughtful and reverent enter here. --motto carved on the gate to Pomona College At first glance, Mary Muronaka knew the answer. After all, the recent letter from Pomona College was a thin one and, in the ritual of college admissions, thin envelopes mean rejection. No dormitory information, no scholarship announcement, no party invitations need to be enclosed. Just a note beginning: "I regret to report. . ."

"Yes, I was upset," said the student who ranks academically in the top 3% of her class at a big public high school near downtown Los Angeles. "Pomona was my first choice." After also being rejected by Stanford University, she is trying to decide whether to attend Occidental College or UC Irvine.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Rene Vaca received the coveted thick envelope from Pomona, along with word of a hefty scholarship. In the top 2% of seniors at Franklin High in Highland Park, he was also accepted at UCLA, UC Irvine, Occidental and the University of Pennsylvania, although denied admission to Stanford. "I was surprised," he said of Pomona's decision, "especially when I saw what the competition was."

Both Mary and Rene are excellent students with, they thought, a reasonable chance at gaining admission to the highly selective liberal arts school in Claremont. Why did one get admitted to Pomona's class of 1992 and the other not? Who decides these things anyway? And how fair are the decisions?

The answers are not easy to find at any college. As with any matchmaking, many factors figure in the annual, anxious courtships between students and schools. Those include a student's grades and test scores, how well his guidance counselor knows him, the competition that year, the college's desire for ethnic and geographic diversity and how it weighs athletics and alumni connections. And, sometimes, there is just plain luck--catching the friendly or hostile eye of an admissions officer.

Paralyzing Implications

The effects, of course, can be enormous. "We could be affecting whom students are going to meet, whom they are going to marry, where they may get a job," said Bruce Poch, who is finishing his first year as dean of admissions at Pomona. "To be honest, I try not to think about that, because it could be paralyzing."

Despite such implications, decision-making methods usually remain secret. "It seems like such a complicated process to parents and students, but I think it seems more mystical than it really is," said Sally Reed, an editor of College Bound, an Evanston, Ill.-based newsletter about admissions.

Pomona College agreed to allow a reporter to observe its admissions process at crucial points between the Jan. 15 application deadline and the recent mailings. Pomona was chosen because as a private school its decisions can be more subjective than public colleges, which are governed by state master plans and generally rely more on grades and test scores. And of private, general-education schools in California, applicants' chances are slimmer only at Stanford University, which refused a similar request from The Times. This year, Pomona accepted 39% of its applicants, compared to 16% at Stanford, 52% at Occidental and about 68% at USC.

Pomona set one condition, to which The Times agreed: Applicants' real names would not appear in print if they were rejected or put on the waiting list. Names of these students have been changed.

During discussions of those students, many negative things--even sarcastic and brutal--were said, touching on their puffed-up resumes, political views, mental health and ill-conceived essays about fast cars and stuffed animals. In-house abbreviations were used: NRQ (no redeeming qualities), DIF (down in flames), D&B (dull and boring).

However, any stereotype of admissions officers as arrogant taskmasters looking only for a reason to say no was dispelled. More often than not, Poch and his staff seemed sympathetic to strengths and problems of candidates, such as the girl bouncing back from anorexia and the Nicaraguan boy seeking political asylum.

They also sometimes seemed awed by the applicants and nervously joked that most of the staff would not gain entrance if they had applied this year, even though three are Pomona alumni. Plus, they admitted that some of their decisions may be inconsistent and prove to be wrong.

"Every so often I think, who am I to say yea or nay? Am I Nero or Julius Caesar? But then I remember we have only so many spaces in the class," explained Gavin Feliciano, a Pomona alumnus who, along with Poch and two others, was new this year to the seven-member staff of counselors.

The staff face many pressures. The school could have space and budgetary problems if enrollment is too large or small. Coaches want good athletes. Music teachers want promising violinists. And alumni threaten retribution if their children are rejected.

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