BU Alumni Web

Record Number of Applicants to Class of 2016

Both quantity and quality of potential students surging

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

The Class of 2015 Matriculation ceremony last September welcomed the new BU freshmen. Photo by Cydney Scott

As one of the record-breaking 43,655 applicants to next fall’s freshman class, Amy Horenstein is a barometer of both quantity and quality, personifying the high-powered achiever the University has targeted. With a high school GPA of 4.4 (of a possible 5), the martial arts black belt from Connecticut was so certain that BU was the school for her that she applied for early decision. Horenstein, who will enter the School of Management, says she wanted an education to prepare her for the era of globalization, and “no other school seemed to be as sincerely global as BU.”

That achievers like Horenstein flock to BU (the Class of 2015 was the most academically competitive in the school’s history) is not happenstance. It’s the payoff from the University’s years-long drive to reach the forefront of American universities. In an era when schools lure students with nonacademic amenities, from dining halls to snazzy dorms, BU has found that telegraphing its top-caliber faculty and classroom experience draws top-caliber students, a strategy formalized in a five-year communications plan launched in 2008.

In last year’s film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network, Zuckerberg tells his girlfriend that she doesn’t have to study, “because you go to BU.” The audience may have chuckled, but the joke was antiquated. Provost Jean Morrison says that since 2003, when 71 percent of applicants for the freshman class were accepted, admission to the University has grown more selective: the percentage for the Class of 2015 dropped to 49.

“We’d like to get that down” further, Morrison says. Selectivity breeds quality, according to the provost, because “the harder a place is to get into, the more desirable it is” to quality applicants. In 2001, less than half of the freshman class had a high school GPA exceeding 3.5. By 2011, the figure was 60 percent, says Kelly Walter, assistant vice president and executive director of admissions.

“We’re an institution that is keenly committed to increasing the quality of the students here,” says President Robert A. Brown, who believes that top students are attracted to universities that help them get their degrees and land top graduate schools or jobs, and BU has “put a big focus on student success—retention and graduation.”

In 1993, 69 percent of BU undergraduates completed their degrees; the figure is 92 percent today. “There are very few universities of the size and scale of Boston University that are in that kind of ether,” says Brown, citing the new Center for Student Services, which will pool BU’s panoply of tutoring and career advising services, as evidence of the commitment “to help students navigate a big university” to graduation and beyond.

Brown points out that the greater numbers of students completing their education builds a stronger community and allows faculty to form more productive relationships with students.

The Brown-mandated five-year plan remade the University’s communications with students, their families, and high schools, drawing on feedback from focus groups of parents of applicants and high school guidance counselors around the country, as well as from an online survey of high school seniors who had accepted BU’s admission offer and some who had declined. The bottom-line question: Aside from financial aid concerns, why did you choose, or not choose, BU?

That research revealed that students who came “felt strongly that the quality of academics at Boston University was superior, while students who declined our offer of admission believed their preferred college had superior academics,” says Walter. BU had already augmented “the existing, substantial faculty base with more substantial faculty,” Morrison says. With its five-year plan, the University took steps to ensure that perception of that rigorous academic program caught up with reality. Among those steps:

New communications. About 300,000 inquiries about BU from prospective students around the world flood in annually, says Walter. For the first time this year, inquiring students received a barrage of literature telegraphing BU’s academic prowess, starting with We Dare You, the admissions office’s hallmark guidebook. Its 30-second overview calls BU the place for those who like “the idea of being challenged, pushed, pulled, confounded, and inspired by Pulitzer Prize winners, Fulbright Scholars, and MacArthur Fellows.”

Foreign students got a similar brochure, and outreach is intense. Walter, who helps recruit students in China, is learning Mandarin and adorns her office with Chinese books, a Chinese tea set, and a Chinese fan.

Rolling out the welcome mat. Because students who visit BU are more likely to apply, the push is on to show them the campus. Five years ago, BU hosted just over 49,000 prospects; in 2011 there were more than 65,000, many drawn by newly implemented recruitment programs. Three years ago, the University debuted a workshop to demystify the intimidating admissions process. High school juniors and their parents come to campus and are given three applications (composites of real applicants) to evaluate, playing admissions officer for a day. “It’s to help them better understand how we make our admissions decisions,” Walter says.

For two years, the University has had special visiting days just for seniors finalizing their college applications, “to allow them to take a much closer look at the University than just coming in for a tour,” she says. Those visitors hear from, among others, Charles Dellheim, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history and founding director of the Kilachand Honors College for high-performing freshmen.

Expanded recruitment. Five years ago, BU recruiters visited 187 high schools in California, the University’s third largest feeder state. This past fall, they hit 287. In number-one-feeder Massachusetts, where the number of high school graduates has dropped, BU has maintained its “market share” in the last five years by boosting from 87 to 220 the number of schools visited. During the same time, recruiters increased their visits abroad from 33 countries to 46.

To better recruit students from under-resourced high schools, the University is increasingly partnering with groups like A Better Chance. “Five years ago, we worked with 11 community-based organizations; this past year, 73,” says Walter. And BU has added a multicultural weekend, housing minority students with a host student in dorms and chauffeuring them by complimentary buses from New York City.

In short, says Brown, “we’re not your old BU.” Which is not to say that connections with the past aren’t still a pipeline for high-caliber students. Rena Gluck gained early-decision admission this coming fall to Sargent College, the school her mother graduated from in 1984. Gluck comes to BU with a 4.31 GPA and a phone book–size list of high school extracurricular activities, among them captain of the varsity volleyball team, student council member, technical director for plays, youth groups leader, and hospital volunteer.

What attracted the busy Marylander to BU, she says, was a perfect fit of student and program. After researching Sargent’s athletic training and physical therapy instruction, “I knew that was the program I wanted and that BU was my top choice.”

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