Jennifer Delahunty, Kenyon College

This month, we have turned the interview tables on Jennifer Delahunty of Kenyon College to ask her our 5 Questions for the Dean. In addition to her work as the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the 1600-student Gambier, Ohio, campus, Delahunty is a well-known writer on all things admissions. (Full disclosure: we have been lucky enough to participate in one of her editorial projects!) In 2006, an op-ed she penned for the New York Times on gender issues in admissions, To All the Girls I've Rejected, went viral. It's just one example of the honesty and transparency that she brings to the admission process in all that she does.  Join her here to gain some of her trademark insight into Kenyon -- the classroom, the campus, and the admission office -- and some of her sage advice for parenting through the process. You'll also wish you could sign up for the "American Voices" class she teaches.

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

Kenyon is ideal for students who are self-directed learners, who are intellectually confident and are as comfortable studying the classics as they are curious about chemistry -- and well, for that matter, cartooning.  I often say that Kenyon students aren't left brain or right brain but, rather, whole brain. They are, in essence, true liberal artists.  Students at Kenyon double major in math and theater - - and don’t even register how unusual that is.   They are ambitious for themselves -- but collaborative with classmates (it's not cool to talk about grades here).  They are wildly imaginative, creative and expressive.  In fact, I would say that those who choose Kenyon feel they have something to say to the world and they are looking for a college that will help them discover, refine and strengthen their voices.  We’re often known as the “writer’s college,” but I think Kenyon is ideal for anyone who has something they want to say – musically, scientifically, politically, in any field.

2. What is your favorite thing about Kenyon?

One of my favorite things about Kenyon is the delight I feel when I witness a moment of creativity and ingenuity.  I teach a class at Kenyon called "American Voices" in which we study the essay through American History.  During the section on privacy, in which we read Faulkner (who was hounded by the press) and contemporary authors on social media, my students were required to make a presentation on the essays we had read.  Imagine our horror—mine and the other students--as the presenters put photo after photo of class members (including me) up on the large screen, photos the presenters had harvested from Facebook.  They made their point through their inventive presentation.  In another class we were studying the women's liberation movement through essays and the presenters came dressed as 1950s housewives, complete with pearls.  I just love our students’ intellectual playfulness.

I also love the feeling I get when I walk into the dining hall, a musical performance or a basketball game and see students warmly interacting—especially students I never imagined being friends with one another.  The social groups are very permeable at Kenyon.  And then, because I'm a writer and have a terrible habit of eavesdropping, I love to hear their conversations.  They might be talking about "Tintin," which our students were reading way before Spielberg decided to make it into a movie, or a book for a sociology class ...  It's all "on topic," for our students.

Okay, and here’s a third thing I really like about Kenyon.  Our faculty likes – I mean, really likes—their students.  I went to an a cappella concert last week and saw one of our most senior faculty members sitting in the audience.  Why was he there, I asked?  “Because one of the soloists is my advisee.”  And that’s usual at Kenyon.  Most faculty live within a short bike ride or walk of campus and so the intermingling of students’ lives with faculty lives is legendary at Kenyon.  When you care about your subject and those you’re teaching, a kind of educational alchemy occurs.  And that’s perhaps my favorite part of Kenyon – the magic of the student-faculty relationship.

3. How does your office read applications?

Kenyon’s admissions officers have a kind of sacred pact with every applicant to read their application, plus any supplemental materials, thoroughly and fairly.  So even though we’ll get more than 4,000 applications in a single year, no applicant is shoved to the side because a GPA or scores are too low.  We read them all thoroughly.  And the overarching approach we take when reading is to find reasons to admit the student, and those reasons may be in the essay or the teacher recommendation or in the interview write-up.  And while it may seem very subjective, we use a very objective grid that contains nine different factors – from the level of rigor to the GPA—to guide us toward an application “rating.”  Each application is read twice and if both readers agree, then a decision is made.  For a full third of our applications, there is no easy conclusion.  Those applications go to “committee” for full discussion.   And while this might seem like a very inefficient way to construct a class, there is a kind of wisdom in making decisions in a group setting.  It’s very egalitarian – the youngest member of our staff has as much voice in committee as the most senior member.

4. What role do college counselors play in this whole process?

College counselors are like coaches—they help students understand the plays, refine their skills and be successful.  But just as coaches don’t win or lose games, college counselors don’t get kids into colleges.  A college counselor can be an invaluable partner in the process.  Trust them and follow their direction and you’ll have a more successful game.  Remember that college counselors are juggling a lot, especially in public high schools, so attend to their deadlines and cooperate.  It’s like any relationship – you’ll get out what you put into it.

Admissions officers and college counselors are members of the same tribe.  They understand one another and in the best case scenario, they trust one another to share important information.  I love picking up the phone or dropping an e-mail to a counselor and saying, “Tell me about so-and-so” or “explain this class to me” and knowing that I’ll get a straight answer back.  Remember that we are all in this business because we love and believe in young people and we want them to have successful—even transformative—college experiences.

5. How can parents support their son or daughter through the college search process?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot since I was working as an admissions dean when I went through the process with my own daughters.  The most important thing to remember is that this is not about you, parents.  It’s about ushering your child onto the next phase of their lives.  How you “usher” depends on your relationship with your child.  Some students require more prodding than others, while others want to manage the whole process on their own.  It’s an awkward dance between student and parent but the one rule I’ve seen proven over and over again:  the more invested the student is in the process the better decision the student will make.  Parents trip all over themselves wanting the best college for their child and they usually interpret “the best” as the most selective.  Don’t use prestige as a proxy for college “fit,” parents.

I actually came to know my daughters as emerging adults through the college search process and that was very rewarding.  Both chose colleges I never imagined they would choose, and they were both very happy.  Now here’s the shameless plug:   I edited an essay collection by parents for parents of college going students:  I’m Going to College, Not You:  Surviving the College Search with Your Child (St. Martin’s Press, 2010) It features an essay by Christine K. VanDeVelde, co-author of the book that guides this website!



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