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Admit, deny, done.

How much time do students spend perfecting their college applications? Considerably more time than most Florida schools spend deciding their fate.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2004

Anthony Dudley thinks he has a good shot at getting into Florida State University this fall.

His application lists a number of extracurricular activities, including membership in the National Honor Society and the NAACP Youth Council. He wrote a moving essay about caring for his terminally ill aunt. And he has three letters of recommendation.

None of that, however, is likely to make the slightest difference.

Admissions officers at most Florida universities rarely read entire applications. Some spend as little as four minutes on a file before single-handedly deciding an applicant's fate.

One reason is volume: Florida universities are among the largest in the nation. They get tens of thousands of applications, forcing admissions officers to work year-round, sometimes on weekends, sometimes curled up on the couch at home, crunching numbers and comparing scores.

And since most Florida schools aren't overly selective, most admission decisions are based on grades and test scores. When evaluators look at essays or letters of reference, it's usually because an applicant is right on the edge of qualifying.

Anthony, 17, should get his answer from FSU within a few weeks. The St. Petersburg High School senior has a 3.8 grade point average and a 1060 on his SAT - numbers that give him a solid chance to get in.

Still, he was surprised to learn that the weeks of work he put into his application probably won't matter.

"Wow," he said. "I hope they don't look at mine too fast."

That students and parents have little idea what happens inside Florida admissions offices isn't surprising. The state's 11 public universities keep the process mysterious, happy to let people think decisions are made by a roomful of academics who debate the merits of applicants for hours at a time.

"That's the Hollywood myth," said Matthew Hulett, admissions director at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. "It's not the norm."

There are exceptions.

At the University of Florida, the state's most selective school, several people inspect each file. The University of Central Florida in Orlando uses a committee, as does tiny New College in Sarasota. But even in those schools the discussions last minutes, not hours.

The universities have to put a premium on speed when each admissions officer is expected to review 80 to 100 files a day. It's why most Florida schools now accept applications year-round and make decisions within weeks. It's why they don't want or accept student interviews.

Even that college rite of passage - waiting anxiously for a thick or thin letter at the mailbox - is fast becoming passe.

Acceptance letters still go out, but an increasing number of students now apply online, and get notified of a school's decision the same way.

A production line

Drab brown folders are everywhere in FSU's admissions office, which is inside the school's gargantuan stadium complex. They are stacked on desks, piled on floors, hidden in the rows of filing cabinets that line the walls.

A gold star on the flap signifies dual enrollment - a student who takes high school and college courses at the same time. An orange dot means an applicant hasn't paid the $20 processing fee. An "R" is for students that apply online. They still get a paper file with their name typed neatly at the top.

Clerks compile the files, adding labels and checking for residency forms, high school transcripts, essays and a stamp showing the fee was paid. The files get frequent updates as applicants mail in new material, including videos and studio headshots. Those get very little attention.

Every morning, admissions officers grab bunches of files off the stack. Ideally, each will get reviewed in four to five minutes.

"At 20,000 or 30,000 a year, it's high volume," said Linda Bodiford, an assistant director of admissions. "We can't let it build up. We have to keep going."

Even by Florida standards, FSU has an assembly-line approach to admissions.

Katherine Nerona-Balog, another assistant director of admissions, recently grabbed a file that belonged to a high school senior in Navarre, a town near Pensacola. She quickly calculated his grade point average - 3.7 after the elective courses were thrown out. She glanced at the SAT score of 1140.

He was in. There was no need to look at the essays or letters of reference waiting in his folder.

A sliding scale wrapped in plastic on Nerona-Balog's desk tells her what combination of grade point average and SAT score is acceptable at FSU. The school also has a 20-point checklist that provides additional scores for each applicant.

Students with a 1020 SAT and a 3.3 grade point average can be admitted, but only if they have two pluses on the checklist. Taking tough courses in high school is a plus. So is being the first person in a family to attend college.

Students with a 1200 SAT and a 3.0 grade point average don't need pluses. They just have to avoid minuses, such as a weak course schedule or a ranking in the bottom half of their senior class.

Romantic notions

Lisa Semeyn's daughter went to FSU. Her oldest son opted for UF. Now 18-year-old Justin, her youngest, is waiting to hear if he can follow his brother to Gainesville.

The senior at Tampa's Plant High School has a 3.5 grade point average and a 1370 on the SAT. He isn't particularly worried.

His mom is a different story.

"I really don't have a sense of how this is done at all," Mrs. Semeyn said. "We send the application and we pray."

Her confusion is understandable. Florida schools use no less than four different admission methods - rolling, early action, early decision and regular. Each has distinct timelines and requirements, and some schools use more than one.

The universities also differ in their admission standards. Some accept almost any student who meets the state's minimum academic requirements. A few, most notably New College and UF, have standards that rival those at Ivy League schools.

Perhaps most confusing is the fact that admission decisions are often made by a single person - 90 percent of the time at some Florida schools.

"Students have a romantic notion of us sitting around tables," said Albert Colon, the admissions director at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "But for big state institutions, it's a matter of volume."

Few states have as many large universities as Florida, which has always valued access. At least three Florida schools rank in the nation's top 10 in terms of enrollment.

That causes problems.

UF, the state's largest school, will have to sift through 24,000 applications this year while filling its 4,250 freshmen seats. The University of South Florida will select its 5,600 students from more than 17,000 applications.

At FAU, each evaluator is expected to examine 60 to 80 files a day. At USF, the daily quota is 75 to 100, with reviews taking up to 10 minutes each. The Tampa school also holds on-the-spot admissions days at area high schools, where they accept some students immediately.

Not all cases are cut and dried. If an applicant is on the borderline, or looks promising despite falling below a school's minimum admission standards, evaluators may turn to essays, letters of reference or factors such as family income. Sometimes an evaluator will even call up a student to chat.

"We don't necessarily hide what we're doing," said Dewey Holleman, the admissions director at USF. "But there still may be a lot of misconceptions."

College and high school advisers say students pepper them with questions at college nights, recruitment fairs and individual counseling sessions.

What SAT score will get me into UCF? What essay topic should I choose for UF? Whom should I ask for a letter of reference?

Surprisingly few students ask who will review the applications or how it is done. Unless they don't get in.

Nicolas Vilaret, 17, was stunned when UF turned him down for early decision this year. So were his parents and his guidance counselor.

The Seminole High School senior has a 3.8 grade point average and a 1300 on the SAT. His grandfather and both parents are UF graduates. He has an older brother there now.

When he got rejected, Nicolas went searching for answers. He still doesn't know what happened.

"Was it a whole group of people or just one person making the decision? I couldn't tell you why I didn't get in," says Nicolas, who applied again to UF, this time for regular admission.

Even some high school guidance counselors are surprised to hear that final decisions often are made by a single person.

"How does one person make that decision?" asked Kim Costello, a counselor at Boca Ciega High School in Pinellas County.

In some cases, one person doesn't.

If accepting a student would force a university to deviate greatly from its admission standards, the file can be referred to top administrators or academic committees.

Sometimes the students get in. Sometimes they don't.

Making compromises

At least twice a week, six admissions officers gather in a room at New College to talk about the school's latest crop of applicants. They spend 30 to 40 minutes on each.

Within three weeks, all will know whether they made the cut.

New College, a highly regarded liberal arts school, is a rarity in Florida. It is the only school where evaluators debate the merits of every applicant. It also is the state's smallest school, with fewer than 700 students.

Administrators will only get about 600 applications this year. That's one-fortieth the number that UF will receive.

"We really feel like the best decisions are made this way," said Kathy Killion, interim dean of admissions and financial aid at New College. "We have the luxury. We have 500 applicants as opposed to 5,000."

UF and UCF, the state's largest schools, try to adhere to a more traditional method of selecting students, but have had to make compromises.

Like other Florida schools, they look closely at grades and test scores. But they also try to look at the courses applicants took in high school, their extracurricular activities, their economic status, even what part of the state they are from.

UF calls its approach "holistic." It's supposed to help the school determine whether an applicant has qualities that will add to the university community.

"We have some applicants who will ask about the process, but when you employ a holistic process, it's difficult to fully explain," said UF admissions director Bill Kolb. "As with most selective admission processes, the process is primarily subjective."

At UCF, most applicants are considered by a committee of five or six people who hear a presentation of the file before making a decision. Only very strong applicants are admitted by a single officer.

"It's a fair and balanced tact," said Chris Lynch, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCF. "It takes longer, but it offers more of a human touch."

Admissions officials say one thing about their business is indisputable: Selecting students will always be more art than science.

"I think part of the mystery of admissions is intentionally kept," said John Barnhill, FSU's director of records and admissions. "Some schools prefer to say, "We control your destiny.' "

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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