Rice receives record 20,898 applications

For the first time, Rice received over 20,000 applications for admission. The nearly 20,900 applications for admission this fall also represent the largest year-to-year growth in the university’s history. “We had an overall increase of about 16 percent in applications, which is extremely exciting,” said Yvonne Romero da Silva, vice president for enrollment, who joined Rice last August — and just in the nick of time.

Incoming freshmen attend a Rice Village block party during O-Week. (Photo by Jeff FItlow)

Incoming freshmen attend a Rice Village block party during O-Week. (Photo by Jeff FItlow)

“It’s thrilling to see a strong interest in Rice University. But more applications means more work for our team,” said Romero da Silva, who noted that the increases came from across all regions of the country, across all racial and ethnic groups and across all socioeconomic levels. “We were grateful to have adopted a new evaluation process, committee-based evaluation (CBE), which makes the evaluation of applications a conversation and analysis of qualifications between two admissions officers. That it also proves to be more efficient is a plus or else we’d still be reading applications right now!”

During her time as vice dean and director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, Romero da Silva was responsible for overseeing the development of an innovative means of assessing undergraduate applications called committee-based evaluations (CBE), in which teams of admissions staff read and discuss applications together. She said this holistic evaluation model is extremely efficient; it focuses officer’s time on analyzing student’s strengths and context versus reviewing a file alone and writing a lengthy summary of the information contained in the application, and it provides ample benefits to prospective students as well.

Each student is evaluated in his or her individual context, with two people discovering the student’s strengths and uniqueness simultaneously. “It also allows for staff to have an awareness of their individual biases because you have to articulate why you’re supporting a student or why you’re a little less enthusiastic,” Romero da Silva said. “By speaking out loud and articulating your perspective, you really have to think about why you are advocating a particular point, and this allows for someone else to disagree. That’s the benefit: CBE requires professional judgment but it also requires us to lean on our experiences and to learn, to be open-minded, to value what students value — what they do with their time, what they think is important and why that’s part of what they want to do with their life.”

Photo of Yvonne Romero da Silva

Yvonne Romero da Silva

Since writing her dissertation on the ways CBE has changed admissions offices across the country, Romero da Silva said she is now aware of over 30 colleges and universities adopting the new method, including Southern Methodist University, Georgia Tech, Swarthmore College and Penn. “Implementing it here at Rice has been really wonderful,” she said.

Romero da Silva’s two-person teams of 20 admissions staff members can evaluate six to 10 applications in an hour. Even Romero da Silva herself participates on the teams one or two days per week.

“I still read applications; I still get to be a part of it,” she said. “I’m right in there reading the essays, looking at the qualifications, reading the counselor letters, the teacher evaluations and interview reports from our alumni. I’m in there just as much as anyone else, and that’s one of the things that’s exciting about committee-based evaluations.”

In many other admissions offices, it’s not unusual for a single admissions officer to be handed a stack of 25 to 30 applications to read in a day. “There’s no means of getting feedback or asking questions,” Romero da Silva said, noting there’s only time to plow through the painstaking process before the day was over. “Will that 30th application read on a day get the same consideration that the first five or 10 did? This reduces some of that ambiguity.” The Rice Admissions Office has made the entire evaluation and selection process more discussion-based, so that no applicant is ever acted on by one individual. The entire staff gains visibility and expertise about institutional priorities and needs.

CBE can also help to reduce professional burnout in admissions, a field in which turnover has long been a significant issue as universities receive ever greater numbers of applications each year, Romero da Silva said. In a 2014 National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey of nearly 1,500 admissions officials, 55 percent of respondents said they planned to seek a new career opportunity within two or three years. Of those, 15 percent said they were looking or would look for a job outside the profession, and more than one-fifth of admissions officials age 30 or younger said they were seeking new opportunities outside the field.

“My first year at Penn, there were people in tears,” Romero da Silva said. “And that’s not just Penn — it’s the profession. I think it just got to a place where there were no new ideas for how to do things differently.”

Throughout her nearly 25 years of experience in college admissions and recruitment, Romero da Silva saw plenty of solutions proposed. But none seemed as practical or student-focused as CBE. Some universities discussed deploying human resources algorithms to select students. Others hired more and more outside readers at great expense. “How many schools can afford that?” asked Romero da Silva. “And how does an institution account for quality control?”

CBE incurs no additional costs, though it does increase morale among staff and provides teachable moments as junior admissions staff members are paired with more experienced colleagues. But even the productivity it achieves would be meritless if students themselves weren’t at the heart of committee-based evaluations, Romero da Silva said. And this is what continues to motivate her every day.

“We have to be thoughtful,” she said. “This is a really important job and an important responsibility, and we’ve found a way to do it that provides more efficiency, provides more training, reduces bias and allows for the student voice to come to life.”


About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.