Douglas Christiansen, Vanderbilt University

Our inaugural dean answering five questions for us in 2012 is Douglas Christiansen, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Founded in 1873, Vanderbilt is a private research university with an enrollment of approximately 12,000 students, including almost 6,800 undergraduates. Christiansen oversees the selection and enrollment of  each year's incoming freshman class -- about 1,600 students -- as well as the offices of Student Financial Aid and Honors Scholarships. Join him here to learn more about the kind of student that thrives at Vanderbilt, how the Admissions office makes decisions,  why he believes the school's two rounds of Early Decision are a good idea, and how the future is shaping up on the 330-acre campus, part of which is a registered National Historic Landmark.

1. What kind of student does well at Vanderbilt? How would you describe the student body?

Undergraduate students at Vanderbilt are academically strong, intellectually curious, socially involved, and tireless advocates of big ideas and each other. Our students are looking for more than a piece of paper with our Chancellor’s name printed on it – they’re looking for opportunities to make an impact and to grow from the minute they step foot on campus.

Students who do well at Vanderbilt are leaders in the making who yearn to get to the core of life’s toughest questions – be they scientific or existential. They haven’t settled in any facet of their youth, always asking for more from their teachers and themselves. They see hard work not as a thing to decry, but as a necessary means to make the most of their time on-campus and beyond.

Vanderbilt students also embrace and learn from each other’s differences in background and belief – they come from all over the world – which contributes to the collaborative feeling that permeates every corridor of campus.

2. Vanderbilt has two rounds of early decision. Can you explain why and how this works for the school?

While most students who intend to apply ED do so by the first deadline, Vanderbilt offers a second round because we recognize that some students need a little more time to decide that Vanderbilt is their top choice. Early decision is binding, which can be daunting to, say, a student who visited campus for the first time in October yet would be expected to commit by November 1 under a system that only offers one round. Historically, EDII presents a much smaller applicant pool, but the quality of our applications is not diminished because of it.

3. What’s your favorite thing about Vanderbilt?

Of course, that’s a hard question to answer … but I’d start by pointing out the opportunity to wake up every day and interact with students and faculty from every walk of life, who are equally committed to learning from each other. Our 8:1 student-faculty ratio gives students access to faculty members of prominence in every area of academic study. Moreover, we have long prided ourselves on the opportunities our undergraduates have to conduct research alongside their professors, which has led to students making groundbreaking discoveries and presenting papers at professional conferences.

I also find great pride in the fact that, when we say Vanderbilt is “diverse,” we aren’t just spouting a line of admissions-speak. Our students hail from Nashville to the Caribbean, Nepal and beyond; imagine the liveliness this brings to a campus that already encourages collaboration and involvement. And geographic diversity is just the beginning – diversity at Vanderbilt also means diversity of thought, religion, ethnicity and more. Rarely (if ever) has there been a greater need for well-informed global perspectives in all areas of academic inquiry, so it brings me great joy to know we’re contributing significantly in this way.

4. How do you read applications? Does every application get read by the admission office at Vanderbilt?

At Vanderbilt, every application is reviewed holistically by at least two readers. We take into consideration every part of an applicant’s file: the academic performance of the student (more on that in a moment), the extracurricular activities discussed in the file, the student’s writing samples, and how others write about the student.  The core piece of an application is the student’s academic preparedness for college-level work. We are interested in understanding how well the student has taken advantage of the curricular choices available to them at his or her high school. We hope applicants have taken a rigorous course load and that they have performed well in that curriculum. We also take into account standardized testing and how the student ranks in his or her class, if that information is available.

We are also very interested in understanding how the student has contributed to his or her community—this could be the school community, their religious community, or their local or state community. We want to understand how the student might make a difference on our campus and eventually in the wider community.  We take great care as we read applications to try to get to know the student’s strengths and to understand how each student might impact Vanderbilt.  Vanderbilt’s vibrant campus life is perpetuated by students who want to be involved and make meaningful contributions across a wide spectrum of activities. It’s up to us to be sure we seek out those students and invite them to join the next Vanderbilt class!

5. What is the future direction of Vanderbilt?

The first class entering as freshmen in The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons will graduate in May 2012. The vision of building a first-year living and learning community has been realized and has been a tremendous success. We know from research and from observation that students are connecting more easily with faculty and that they transition from high school to college easier and with more purpose than ever before.

But that vision has taken the next turn as we will break ground on the next phase of our College Halls facilities this summer. Plans are underway to build a living and learning community for upperclassmen; two college halls will be built, each housing approximately 330 sophomores, juniors, and seniors.  These college halls should be completed by August 2014. This investment in the future and in the constant improvement of our campus life represents the forward-thinking environment that is Vanderbilt.

We are also continually looking at access – access to a Vanderbilt education for all qualified students regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances. In 2009, we announced our Expanded Aid program and we continue to emphasize the importance of meeting 100% of students’ financial need without loans. As we look to the future, we will continue to seek students from diverse backgrounds, from all geographic areas and all walks of life.

Similarly, Vanderbilt is committed to increasing the international presence on campus. We are traveling to more parts of the world than ever before, seeking students who will bring an ever-increasing global perspective to campus.

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