Choosing Gaels: A Conversation with Mike McKeon

McKeonThe Admissions staff, who have been looking a little distracted lately, are just finishing up the arduous task of reviewing applications and deciding which young people are going to get the opportunity to be Gaels. The Dean of Admissions, Mike McKeon, says the process is far more than just a numbers game.

What factors do you consider when you assess whether an applicant is right for Saint Mary’s?
First of all, we can’t admit anyone who’s not prepared. You have to be prepared to be successful here. It’s a sizable investment, so if you blow it in a semester, you will have taken on a debt that could hamper your ability to get an education for a long time. This is an ethical consideration for us. You have to think that that individual is a member of a community, most immediately his family. We ask ourselves what impact this decision will have not only on him but also on his family. Then, of course, we are a community here at Saint Mary’s. We have to think about whether or not this prospective student is the right fit for our community. We are very conscious of who we are as an institution. Community is a strong part of our heritage. We’re asking these young people to join our community and our responsibility to our community underlies our decisions to admit.

Another important element of the admission decision is motivation. How motivated is the student to succeed? The numbers are an important element, but you really need to look at the person’s story. If you see an aberration in the numbers in any period of time, you look to the essay, the short answer and the letters of recommendation to better understand what happened with this kid.

So, how important are the numbers—the grade point average (GPA), the test scores?
High test scores or high GPAs by themselves, don’t really tell you whether a person is prepared or sufficiently motivated. You have to know what has gone on in his life to understand. That’s why the student writes an application, so that we can understand what those numbers mean. You have to look at that person’s story.

For example, we were having a conversation with this one student who has a 3.5 GPA but low test scores. He goes to a good school, doesn’t have any other factors that might affect his preparation. (We know that test scores correlate with family income and whether or not English is the first language.) So, we’ve been trying hard to understand what those numbers mean. We talked to a guidance counselor in the school to try to figure this out. In the end, we put this applicant on the wait list and said tell us more, try and convince us. But at this point, we don’t feel we can admit. You want to be fair and consistent, but you can’t be myopic. Equitable decisions are not linear decisions.

So, it comes down to a process of elimination in the end?
No, not at all. We are looking for reasons to admit students; we’re looking to believe in people. When we read an application we approach it from the hope that we are going to be able to admit this kid. That’s how we start off. That’s the mindset in which you enter into it, and you’re disappointed when there’s a problem.

Is that a distinctly Saint Mary’s approach?
Actually, I think that’s the case in most schools that read the applications. It’s only in the most selective schools where they’re saying “We only have so many spaces; why do you deserve one of them?” However, here, presidential scholarships are highly competitive and akin to the experience of getting into the most competitive institution. Again, here we start with the hope that we will admit; then the icing on the cake is not only that we can admit a kid, but we can offer her a scholarship. This makes us very happy.

What are the most difficult decisions?
The decisions that are most difficult are the decisions to deny or to wait list. Those are the ones that are most difficult for us. We obviously take the greatest pleasure in admission and it’s really exciting and fun when you find somebody to whom you can offer a scholarship opportunity. But the ones we go through the greatest angst about are those denials and wait list decisions.

What leaps out at you from an application?
There was a fascinating application I read this year. I happened to know the student was from a hardscrabble place on the East Coast. He wrote a very interesting, very cerebral, but not overly polished essay that reminded me of an author I like to read. I read that application over and over. It had been passed on to me by my colleague, Drew Riley, who’s across the hall from me. He didn’t say anything; he just wanted me to read it.

I gave this application a lot of thought. I think you have to calibrate your expectations based upon the opportunities that were available to students, based upon the constraints they’ve faced, and look at what they did within the reasonable opportunities that were available to them. Motivation isn’t measured by the numbers. We can’t allow ourselves any simplistic conclusions solely on numbers.

So, in this case, I thought this decision was going to be an outlier, but I think the kid’s got it. This could be his chance, that could make a real difference in his life. If he needs to move 3,000 miles away to be put in an environment like this in order to realize his potential, so be it.

So, did he get in?
Oh, he was admitted. I read the application very carefully. I slept on it and then the next day went in and talked to Drew and said, “I’ve decided that I’m going to admit him.” He’d left the decision up to me, but was pleased to hear I’d come to the same conclusion.

Seems to involve taking some risks from time to time?
Sometimes you have to take the risk. I have to take what I think is the most ethical road, but I can’t always take the safest road. You have to risk doing what’s right and be willing to accept the consequences if it doesn’t work out. And sometimes when it doesn’t work out, it’s not because you made a bad decision. Everything is circumstantial. There are times when you would have never questioned the decision and the student fell completely apart. Then you see others for whom this is their chance and they make the most of it.

Do you feel like you are good at reading the tea leaves?
No, I don’t know that I can. You try your best. And you go through a lot of angst about those borderline decisions. There are applications that I sit on for a long time. I always say that I’m waiting for great wisdom, waiting for an epiphany, that it’s all going to fall on my plate. Like a jigsaw puzzle and suddenly all the pieces will fall together and I’ll suddenly have a clear idea of what to do.

And how does that work out for you?
Well—if I’m lucky. One thing we need to realize is that these are young people, evolving human beings. We are looking at a snapshot of a person and not where they will always be. Maturation comes at different rates. You can’t look at a kid and think he’s always going to be like that forever. But we see 3.9 high school kids become 2.5 college students and you see what happens when you give a kid an opportunity in the right environment and they just soar. You just don’t know for sure.

In the end, no matter what we do, we understand that we have an impact and we take it very seriously. We’re not just moving beans around. Each person is a family, each family has a story and it’s all important.

Then, when we’ve done our job and invited a new class of young people to join us, we have to wait for their decisions. And when they get here, we turn them over to the faculty.