Keith Todd, Admission Dean, Reed College, Answers 8 Questions

Founded in 1908, Reed College is a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, known for its rich intellectual life.  Dean of Admission Keith Todd joins us this month to answer not five -- but eight questions -- in the generous spirit of inquiry that exemplifies Reed College.

Located on 116 acres in a residential neighborhood, the Reed campus is just five miles from downtown Portland, and about 90 minutes from the Pacific coast.  Featuring a lake and Reed Canyon, a wooded wetland with abundant wildlife and native plants, the campus is home to 1400 students.

The quirky intellectualism Reed is known for is on full display even on their website, which reads like a series of droll literary vignettes -- with comic overtones. (Not to go too Reedie on you.) In fact, Reed has produced 31 Rhodes Scholars, as well as numerous winners of the Fulbright, Watson, and National Science Foundation fellowships. Classes average 15 students with a 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio. Reed offers 22 department-based majors (from Anthropology to Theater), 12 interdisciplinary majors (including History-literature or Mathematics-economics) and 6 dual degree programs (such as applied physics and electronic science).  And students can also work with their adviser to design alternate interdisciplinary majors.

While there are no NCAA sports and no Greek life on the Reed campus, students can choose among more than 100 clubs and organizations from flute troupe Absoflutely, the Cycling Team, and KRRC: Reed College Radio to Praxis: Media for Social Justice, the ornithology club Put a Bird on It!, and TEDXReedCollege.  Physical education classes range from Aikido to Zumba and there are club sports in basketball, rugby, squash, rowing, curling, and ultimate Frisbee.  And the college's setting in the Pacific Northwest means it can host programs in whitewater kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing, sailing and snowshoeing. Reed even has its own Ski Cabin on Mt. Hood.

The Reed campus has a storied history of tradition and is a prolific source of lore. For example, the Doyle Owl, a roughly 280-pound, three-foot cement statue, has been continuously stolen and restolen since one misty night in 1913. It even made it into a Tears for Fears video a few years ago.  Whether it's Renn Fayre, Canyon Day, or Seventh Annual Nitrogen Day -- "a celebration of one of the universe's most important, yet under-appreciated elements" --  Reed traditions are presented with a light touch and a twist. From their Admission pages:

A Reed tradition is something that has occurred at Reed College at least once.
A Reed institution is something that has occurred at Reed College at least twice.
A Reed story is something that may have occurred at Reed College.
A Reed rumor is anything discussed in the coffeeshop. It has a truth probability of less than 50 percent.

You can read more Reed lore here.

No mention of Reed would be complete without noting that it was the college from which Steve Jobs dropped out yet forever credited a calligraphy class taken while there for the innovative typography of the Macintosh.  But other notable alumni include biochemist Arthur Livermore, co-founder of Wikipedia Larry Sanger, creator of Norton Utilities Peter Norton, food writer Mark Bitterman, poet William Dickey, novelist Kate Christensen, former president of Shutterstock Adam Riggs, fashion designer Emilio Pucci, and Hare Krishna guru Mukunda Goswami.

Join Keith Todd here to learn more about this unique institution and what kind of student thrives there, as well as his advice on selecting colleges and the essay:


What kind of student does well at Reed? How would you describe the student body?  What would you most want an applicant to the school to know?  

As our admission officers, and some of our students, say, Reed is a place for people who take academic life seriously, but don’t take themselves too seriously. Students who are self-motivated and love the work of intellectual creation, as well as classroom and laboratory learning, tend to be very happy here.  Since all seniors do a research-based thesis, and they have great freedom and latitude in choosing and developing the topic for that thesis, students here take a lot of joy in their work.

Socially, Reedies take good care of each other. Student clubs and activities are highly student-led and -designed; self-determination, for individuals and as a student community, is valued in life outside the classroom as well as inside it. In reviewing applicants, of course we look for the signs of academic talent that all selective colleges do, but we also look in particular for signs of creative thought (intellectually creative, not exclusively artistically), and for evidence that the student will be an active participant in our small, discussion-based “conference method” of teaching. For students in any major, strong writing ability is important.

Why do you do the work that you do in admission and financial aid?

I guess I find irresistible the combination of making a difference for a great college and making a difference for individual students and their lives. It amazes me to think that I work in a beautiful, 100-year-old building at a renowned 100-year-old college, that my colleagues and I have inherited a century-old tradition of intellectual inquiry. We get to be a part of a continuing, living community of scholars reaching back and forward in time. And I get to help shape Reed’s community of young scholars, thinking about who will best benefit from what we have to offer academically and who will give the most back in classroom discussion and campus life.

I’m the first in my family line who was able to earn a college degree, and I come from a town in Texas where the majority of students did not go to college. So I’ve seen first-hand what amazing doors college can open for people. It’s really exciting, and often humbling, to find a student who has inspired her teachers, who brings new ideas to his high-school classroom, and who might add a lot to intellectual life at Reed.

You have worked in admission at Stanford, Northwestern and Rice among other places and did your own undergraduate work at Southern Methodist University. Now that you're at a small liberal arts college, what do you believe is offered by that kind of education that students may not get at larger institutions? Overall, what advice do you have for students about size when creating their college lists?

My nephew is very happily attending a large public university, so I am seeing in my own family that one size does not fit all! Smaller colleges such as Reed are truly more personal and personalized. You can get to know classmates quickly, especially on a mostly residential campus like ours. Freshmen are on a first-name basis with professors even first semester (we have no teaching assistants—only professors teach). Mentoring begins early and continues consistently through the four years. This culminates in the highly hands-on, week-to-week work seniors do with their professor-mentors on their senior thesis, which also includes three other faculty reading and making suggestions along the way.

The student community is of a size where every individual matters and can have a voice in what happens. Now, Reed doesn’t have a medical school, NCAA athletics, or fraternities and sororities. But we do have research opportunities leading to an outstanding medical school placement rate, all manner of athletic offerings (including three kinds of yoga, as well as rowing and rugby teams), and self-created clubs like the Ladies’ Pie Society or Reed Arts Week. Some students know, early in their college search, that they want the range or energy of a large university. But smaller places often have more range than you might think—and plenty of energy, as students make their own community.

There is a lot of conversation these days about "non-cognitive" measures in admissions. When words like "grit" or phrases like "the ability to meet goals" are used to describe what colleges are looking for, it can be perplexing and anxiety-producing for students. Can you address this change and the reasons for it?

I think colleges—not only admission folks, but people in student services and researchers in education and psychology—are continuing to learn more about what helps students succeed in college. Certainly, test scores alone will never tell you who will do the best work once in college, or who will drop out. Some colleges are emphasizing non-cognitive elements, such as those you cite, more than others. At Reed and many other selective colleges, they’ve already been part of the evaluation, in that they’re already reflected in academic performance and teacher or other recommendations.

Even when I first started in admission twenty years ago, we talked about “overcome factors” and other non-measurables. To be sure, some students have huge things to overcome during high school, while others have had fortunate lives. Neither group should be penalized for the world in which they have lived. Rather than worrying about how to add in non-cognitive aspects to their applications, I hope students will just understand that this conversation is more about context. Selective admission offices have always wanted to be holistic and understand a student in the context of her home, her school, her circumstances. Maybe we’re just talking about it now with more clarity, more research, or different terminology.

You have done a lot of work in international admission and have worked at institutions in the Midwest, West, and Southwest United States. What is your advice for students about relocation when considering colleges?

As someone who went away 14 miles for undergraduate and 2,000 miles for graduate school, I can at least say that, no matter where you attend, college really will be a brand new world! Certainly, selective and/or independent colleges strive to build an incoming class with students from everywhere. Geographic diversity goes alongside having students with different economic backgrounds, ethnic groups, talents, or possible majors. One the one hand, Reed and the University of Oregon share a uniquely beautiful region, where you can literally ski and go tide-pooling on the same day. Both of our institutions benefit from the progressive, innovative, and environmentalist culture of Oregon. Yet, Reed is in certain ways more like Oberlin in Ohio, Bard in New York, or Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, than like the University of Oregon, which in turn is more like UC Berkeley or the University of Washington in key ways.

As with many factors in college choice, whether to move far away or not is a very personal matter. But your world changes after high school, even if you stay in the same city, so it’s worth at least thinking about the best possible matches you can find, even if they at first seem far away. Living and studying in a well-matched college gives you a fine new home and hometown.

You have taught freshman writing and rhetoric at a selective university. What tips do you have for students nervous about writing the college application essay?

We admission people try to turn two-dimensional applications into three-dimensional portraits of students. Before that, though, students must try to turn their three-dimensional selves into meaningful writing on the page or screen.

My first recommendation is that you think of the written application as a potential place of power. Everything else in the application is indirect or statistical: a test score, a letter grade, a recommendation letter. But in the written portions, you get to determine exactly what you want the admission committee to know about you.

Many students get nervous because they feel writing, particularly creative writing, is not their strongest suit. I can say emphatically that the admission essay is not a literary contest. A good application essay communicates clearly, readably, and in an organized, short format, about your beliefs, goals, values, or experiences.

Another myth I’ve encountered is that you have to have a big story, and preferably an emotional one. My sense is that most of our applicants have had fairly undramatic lives—and why not? They are all quite young. Most have had happy upbringings. And only a small number have had highly unusual life experiences. Some of the best essays I’ve read were those that simply had a clear voice, that helped me understand the student more clearly. Even the seemingly least exciting, most average life can be carefully and well observed.

One last bit of advice: Don’t just revise, but give yourself time to revise. Just setting your writing aside for a day or two, then approaching it afresh, can make a big difference. Be yourself in all of your unperfected, unique aspects: be ruminative, politically engaged, pensive, idealistic, undecided, curious. If you’re an amusing writer, don’t be afraid to use a little humor. But if you’re not sure if you’re funny in print—please—don’t start with the college essay. Good luck!

What are the college admission-related issues that you have been thinking about lately? What keeps you up at night?

My team and I have been thinking a lot about “the dreamers”: students attending high school in the U.S. but who do not have documentation to live here as legal residents. With the talk of the Dream Act, more students are “coming out” as undocumented and aspiring to attend college. Often they have lived most, or nearly all, of their lives in the U.S., but their non-citizen status keeps them from being eligible for federal and state financial aid for college. We saw more such dreamers this year, and we feel the number will keep increasing. Issues of financial aid make admission very challenging for them—and we wonder if our country is missing out on their talent and contributions, since even with a college degree, their job prospects are often minimal as of now. What changes will come in the legal and social landscape? How can Reed, and the larger admission and academic field, address the situation of these bright students whose legal status puts them at a disadvantage?

What is your favorite thing about Reed?

Short answer: I love the Daily Planet station in the Commons dining area. Every week, it features food from a different country and cuisine, handmade on the spot. I’ve discovered happiness with dishes from Mozambique, Lithuania, and Peru just this semester!

Longer answer: I love the afternoon of the Thesis Parade, the celebration for the seniors at the end of the year, after they’ve completed their senior projects. In true pagan fashion, the seniors burn their thesis notes in a big cauldron in front of the library, while the whole student body cheers, hugs, plays the drums. Air cannons on the library roof shoot out rose petals on the crowd. It’s the one day of the year when you not only can make noise in the library, but must.

After the notes are burned, the seniors parade through the library, where students, faculty and staff line up to congratulate them. They cross over to the President’s Office for his handshakes and hugs, then conga-line out onto the Great Lawn outside Eliot Hall for dancing, laughter, tears of joy, and celebration into the sunset.

I love that one of the biggest parties of the year has nothing to do with wealthy, private clubs (which we don’t have), or with varsity sports tailgating, but is intrinsically linked to the capstone of our intellectual life. I also love that, while each student does his or her own senior thesis as an individual journey, the whole senior class comes through together and celebrates the thesis as one community.








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