Jeannine Lalonde, University of Virginia

University of Virginia may well have the richest history of any institution of higher learning in the country. Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 -- the first class entered in 1825 -- the Founding Father, third President of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence considered it to be one of his greatest achievements. The school was built on land purchased by the fifth President of the United States James Monroe. And when the cornerstone of the university's first building was laid, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and the fourth President of the United States James Madison were all in attendance.

Situated on more than 1,600 acres in Charlottesville in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and about 120 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., the campus is home to more than 16,000 undergraduates today. But tourists, history buffs and acolytes of architecture -- as well as prospective students -- still flock to this public research university to witness the imprint of Jefferson who planned the curriculum, recruited the first faculty and designed the campus -- its serpentine walls, gardens, the ten Pavilions interspersed with student rooms and the school's most recognizable symbol -- the Rotunda and its surrounding green lawns -- a model for universities across the United States.

At a time when most colleges were seminaries, Jefferson insisted the school be non-sectarian and introduced new specialties of study like botany and political science. Today, the university has eleven schools -- including the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Architecture, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Curry School of Education -- offering 51 bachelor degrees in 47 fields. The student-faculty ratio is 16 to 1.

When not in the classroom, students can choose among more than 600 student organizations, including clubs as diverse as Belly Dance or Judo, and activities such as Weekly Movies, student government, Improv, Alternative Spring Break, or the student-run newspaper The Cavalier Daily. UVa is also home to 61 fraternities and sororities. The university's Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, founded in 1825, -- and whose honorary members include James Madison, James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Margaret Thatcher -- is the oldest continuously existing collegiate debating society in North America and one of the campus' well-known "secret societies."  The secret societies include Seven Society, Eli Banana, The 21 Society, and P.U.M.P.K.I.N., and their orientations run the gamut from social and academics to philanthropy, politics and service.   

UVa's Cavaliers -- or Wahoos, as they're colloquially known -- participate in 23 NCAA Division I sports, primarily in the Atlantic Conference, including men's baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, lacrosse, swimming & diving, tennis and track & field; and women's basketball, cross country, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, indoor and outdoor track, and volleyball.

Prominent alumni include Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Institute; FORTRAN creator John Backus; Richard Lowry, editor of the National Review; comedian Tina Fey; former NY Giants running back Tiki Barber; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones; and Edgar Allan Poe who actually dropped out after losing his tuition gambling.

Join Jeannine Lalonde, Senior Assistant Dean of Admission and founder of the well-loved UVa admissions blog Notes from Peabody, to learn more about how the university reads applications, find some advice for students about using college blogs as research tools, and see some myth-busting about "well-rounded students" and "regional quotas."

How do you read applications? Does every application get read by the admission office at University of Virginia?

Every application to University of Virginia is read at least twice and often more times than that. A decision can’t be finalized until multiple staff members have weighed in on the file. Clearly, with just over 29,000 applications, this is extremely time-consuming. Our families and friends know we are immersed in review from early morning until late into the night during the reading season. There are wonderful moments that help you through, though. Last year, I was reading a file at 4:00 AM and I came to the application of a student who wakes up at 4:00 AM to help set up her mother’s food truck in a nearby city. That was one of those amazing moments that made me so glad I was up at that early hour reading files.

 

You were in the forefront of creating an admission blog. How are university blogs helpful to students and what information should they be seeking in using them to research colleges? Are there any pitfalls?

I think blogs written by admission officers generally fall into two categories: the newsletters and the narratives. The newsletter blog is kind of a living view book. It talks about all the great opportunities at a school in real time. The admission officer goes to a lecture and the admission officer writes about interesting lectures on campus. These blogs are great for students who want to visit a school virtually. I think many schools have students who write fantastic blogs in this genre, too.

My blog is more of a narrative about our process. I talk about what we do and my thoughts about the issues of the day. I’ll write about spending a week in northern Virginia visiting schools and then while on the trip, I’ll let the questions I get from students drive the blog topics I cover. For example, last week, a question about our financial aid program prompted a post about need-blind admission. When I get multiple questions on twitter about where we are in the admission process, I know it’s time to write a blog post about our timeline.

My blog started as a newsletter, but it didn’t really inspire much conversation. Then every time I wrote about the nuts and bolts of what we do, there was more activity on the blog. I realized that most of my readers have done their homework. They know UVa is a good school that offers lots of fabulous options for growth and discovery. The things that cause anxiety aren’t whether you can double major or attend cool lectures. You obviously can at most schools. Students are worried about how we’ll handle the components of their file as they trickle into our office, if we recognize the quirks of their school’s curriculum, or whether the rumors they’re hearing in conversation are true.

 

What is your best common sense advice about the application process for students -- and parents?

While there are parts of the application that can be tricky to complete, the activity section isn’t one of them. Colleges provide a format, usually a chart. They do this so they can review the information efficiently. So often, students ignore those charts and send an elaborate document that reformats the chart. It’s making a simple part of the application a bit more complicated than it needs to be.

 

As a Senior Assistant Dean at a public university, are there any myths about a state institution that you would like to address?

The myth of the regional quota is one that won’t go away and causes such unnecessary worry! While there is a mandate that 2/3 of the students at UVa be domiciled in Virginia (roughly 2/3 of the applicants are non-Virginians, so our admit percentage is higher for Virginians), there is no restriction on how many students we can take from a particular school, town, county, or region. In every densely populated area, the rumor of a quota floats around. Students at a high school aren’t competing with each other for an allocated number of spots for that school. I love the look of relief on students’ faces when I tell them this. It upsets me that someone is spreading that myth and causing so much undue worry among students.

 In addition, the phrase “well-rounded student” is still prevalent. That phrase was almost an obsession back when I was in high school. We were convinced that you had to either be the generalist, managing involvement in everything, or so gifted in just one area that you were fêted regularly for your skill. Our philosophy has evolved. We’re building a well-rounded class at UVa. We aren’t looking to check off items on a list (service, leadership, athletics, etc.) and with over 900 student organizations on the books at UVa, we certainly don’t prefer one kind of high school activity over another. There’s room for all kinds of students in our first-year class.

 

What is your favorite thing about University of Virginia?

Student self-governance is my favorite thing about UVa. This idea is the hallmark of our culture. Where appropriate, student hands are on the wheel. I think it increases student satisfaction and keeps us current. Students are expected to do a bit of steering here and while that might take some getting used to, I think people’s love of UVa stems from being part of the school’s development. We aren’t obsessed with change, but I think most students feel that it’s important to leave UVa better than it was when they got here. They look for ways to leave a fingerprint behind. While we love a good tradition, we don’t want to hold onto past practices with white knuckles. I think student self-governance helps us hold onto the things that connect us and find new practices to propel us forward.

 

 

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