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Admissions officers at Stony Brook often look beyond grades

Robert Pertusati, Associate Dean and Director of Recruitment

Robert Pertusati, Associate Dean and Director of Recruitment for Undergraduate Admissions at Stony Brook University, gives a presentation at Rocky Point High School about how to apply to colleges. (February 24, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Mahala Gaylord

It is 2:15 p.m. on a Friday in late February. Four Stony Brook University admissions officers stare at a high-school transcript displayed on a screen on the wall of a conference room.

The summary is intriguing: A 97 average at a competitive public high school, and a combined 1130 score on the critical reading and math sections of the SAT.

The student is a "gray" case - an applicant who was neither accepted nor rejected during the first round of decision-making. The next part of the transcript shows the student hasn't gone beyond basic classes. No calculus, no physics, no Advanced Placement courses; no math or science during senior year.

Then the screen shows recommendation letters from teachers and a guidance counselor, the student's essay, a list of extracurriculars: No one in the room is dazzled.

There's an oddity, too: The student wants to study a major Stony Brook doesn't offer.

Robert Pertusati, the associate dean of admissions, votes to turn down the applicant, as do two other admissions officers. A fourth, Chris D'Orso, votes to admit, saying the student shows promise. "Also, a lot of undergrads change their majors," D'Orso adds.

The decision has taken three minutes. A rejection letter will be mailed in a few days.

Pertusati shakes his head. "That's the kind of student who probably would've been admitted five years ago."

The admissions committee moves on. They still have dozens of applications to consider this day, at the height of what is the most competitive year for admissions in the university's 53-year history.

Increase in applicants

This is the time of year when colleges across the country scramble to review the final wave of applications, while 12th-graders anxiously await the verdicts. The recession has made Stony Brook especially popular because it is a major research institution where in-state students pay less than $5,000 in tuition.

Stony Brook expects more than 29,000 undergraduate applicants this year, a 60 percent increase from five years ago. The school will admit close to 10,000, about 35 percent (that compares to an acceptance rate of 58 percent in 1999). Less than one-third of the accepted students will enroll, filling the 2,700 spots in next fall's freshman class.

The increased attention has put more pressure than ever on Stony Brook's 18 admissions officers. "It's heartbreaking to tell solid students that unfortunately we're not able to find a place for them," said Matthew Whelan, the assistant provost in charge of admissions.

The admissions office the public sees is a bland reception room on the first floor of the administration building. The room had been scheduled for a makeover, with amphitheater seating around a large screen showing videos, but that plan was scuttled during a recent round of cutbacks.

The real work takes place behind an unmarked door across the way, in a warren of small offices where admissions officers peer into computers for hours on end. The silence is interrupted by the occasional laugh booming from Pertusati's office.

On a recent morning, Pertusati started his workday by glancing at two side-by-side computer monitors. They showed he had 44 applications to read by day's end. He also had to respond to a stack of phone messages from guidance counselors eager to make cases for students bent on attending Stony Brook.

'Amazing students'

One of the first applicants was a Long Island boy with a 94 average and a full load of honors and AP courses, including AP calculus, AP physics and AP literature. The transcript showed the student had already earned six college credits by taking courses at a local campus. The guidance counselor's recommendation letter praised the boy's volunteer work at a hospital. In his essay, the student wrote about his desire to be a doctor.

"This one is a slacker," Pertusati said sarcastically. He clicked a box that said "admit."

During the next six hours, Pertusati marveled as he read applications from class presidents, three-sport varsity athletes and would-be scientists who do research in their free time. In the past decade, the mean verbal-math SAT score of admitted freshmen rose 73 points, to 1232 last fall. In 2000, the middle 50 percent of those admitted freshmen had an SAT range of 1050 to 1260; by last fall, the range was 1130 to 1310.

"We have some amazing students applying - this is quite humbling," said Pertusati, 48, who graduated from what was then called Commack South High School and earned his bachelor's degree in psychology at Stony Brook in 1984. He spent six years at Hofstra University's admissions office, then moved to Stony Brook 18 years ago.

Pertusati's wall is decorated with Stony Brook pennants as well as a button that says, "I am more than a test score." He admits that's ironic, because scores often play a significant role in SUNY admissions. Pertusati agrees with national and Stony Brook research that indicates a student's grades in demanding high school math courses are a better predictor of college success than the SAT.

Like Stony Brook's other admissions officers, Pertusati works alone as he gives applications an initial read. By habit, he looks first at the transcript to see the rigor of courses the student has taken since ninth grade. He then looks at the grades and standardized scores. Next he reads recommendations and, finally, students' essays and activity lists.

Pertusati can suggest admitting or denying; then the file goes to another officer for a second read and confirmation. Pertusati also can "hold" a student who is on the cusp. For some students on hold, Pertusati asks guidance counselors to send updated grades; others, the gray cases, are referred to the admissions committee for discussion.

Painful decisions

Pertusati admits to agonizing over many applications. On another morning, he read the file of a student who wanted to study engineering. The student had a 1040 combined SAT score and a GPA just below 80, along with grades in the 70s in Algebra II and trigonometry. The student's essay was a poignant account of fleeing a war-torn country as a child, but it couldn't compensate for the grades. "It pains me to do this," Pertusati said as he rejected the student.

He scours transcripts for what he calls "hiccups." A girl who wants to be a nursing major has avoided biology and chemistry classes. Rejected. A boy who plans to go into computer science got a C in calculus. Rejected.

While many admissions can be predicted by grades and test scores, Stony Brook makes dozens of exceptions. A persuasive recommendation or an exceptionally well-written or thoughtful essay can tip the decision for an applicant. In a couple of weeks, Pertusati, Whelan and the admissions dean will meet to discuss applicants who have special circumstances. For example, one has a disease that makes bones brittle, and for that reason had trouble finishing the SAT. Another got dismal grades for the first two years of high school, but recommendations explain that the student is a "late bloomer" who embraced academics by junior year.

This year, several applicants have disastrous transcripts, but their essays and recommendations explain they had to work long hours to help with expenses after their parents were laid off. Judging by past years, Stony Brook will admit some of those applicants.

Last year, a boy was admitted despite disappointing grades when the admissions committee learned his mother had died of cancer. Before that, the boy had frequently missed school to take her to chemotherapy.

Every few minutes, Pertusati is cheered by something he likes. A student who wants to be an engineer has a 1240 SAT and a 91 average, is active in a robotics club and is close to becoming an Eagle Scout. He's also a member of his school's wind ensemble and a jazz band.

"The engineer has musical talent - very interesting." He lets out a hearty laugh.

Admitted.

Who gets in?

Stony Brook University's admissions officers say they try to look beyond test scores when making decisions. In the two sets of cases here, the admissions office denied applicants with very strong SAT scores while accepting applicants with significantly weaker SAT scores who showed more effort in the classroom, had better grades and overcame some type of hardship.

COMPARISON No. 1

STUDENT 1

More driven, SAT scores: 590 critical reading, 580 math, 590 writing

Academic average: 94. Very good student, most Regents exam scores in 90s, two in high 80s, AP courses in senior year, 22 academic units, strong math through pre-calculus

Letters of recommendation: Strong, attesting to student's persistence and character

Essay: Well-written, about overcoming significant life change to persist and do well

Assessment: Student continued to take challenging courses and performed well through senior year while attending to family needs

DECISION: ADMIT

STUDENT 2

Higher scores, SAT scores: 630 critical reading, 750 math, 660 writing

Academic average: 75. Below average to very weak Regents exam scores, two failures junior year, poor performance all four years, weak math scores in classroom despite high SAT

Letter of recommendation: Unremarkable, with little new information

Essay: About wanting to attend Stony Brook, but not strong enough to make up for poor performance

Assessment: Student might be bright but is unmotivated and continues to perform poorly

DECISION: DENY

COMPARISON No. 2

STUDENT 3

'One-of-a-kind' SAT scores: 490 critical reading, 650 math, 490 writing

Academic average: 98. Excellent student, very challenging coursework, strong math through calculus

Letters of recommendation: All five indicate this is a 'once-in-a-lifetime,' 'one-of-a-kind' student

Essay: Excellent, about leaving all that was familiar to come to a new country even though she/he had an opportunity to stay

Assessment: Student a U.S. citizen but schooled in another country in a different language, recently arrived back in U.S. for high school; English is second language but did well in writing and English in regular, non-ESL classroom; indicates a thirst for exploration and curiosity; phenomenal leadership experiences

DECISION: ADMIT

STUDENT 4

'Underachiever' SAT scores: 690 critical reading, 770 math, 710 writing

Academic average: 73. Very poor performance all four years despite very high SAT scores, no improvement in either junior or senior year; student did win an academic competition in chosen field

Letters of recommendation: Use phrases such as 'late bloomer,' 'underachiever' and 'not working to potential' throughout; all indicate student is very strong in areas she/he likes

Essay: Flowery but not well-constructed

Assessment: Student likes to study things she/he enjoys; student needs to be able to pursue learning on his/her own terms without dealing with required curriculum, and would do quite well in that type of environment

DECISION: DENY

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