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iconAmong educational windmills you might tilt at, admission to Stanford is one of the biggies. And Robin Mamlet is the person who's waiting when your application gets there. We've got the stats for you on the Class of 2003.  

Robin Mamlet:
'A human process'

In this story:

'You learn by doing'

Wielding the powerful pen

'Fulfilling and fun'


(CNN) -- "I did it all wrong," says Robin Mamlet with a chuckle.

As dean of undergraduate admissions at Stanford University, she knows better than most that there's a right way and a wrong way to apply to college. Her desk has been crossed by thousands of documented examples of the former. Those applications have showcased valedictorians with glowing recommendations, athletes and musicians with compelling personal essays, precocious teens who'd scouted out their top Top 10 college picks by freshman year in high school.

graphic How do you feel about university admissions careerists?

Most are good people in a difficult position. Someone has to make the hard decisions.
I want to think well of them, but I've seen cases in which fine applicants may have been hurt by capricious admissions choices.
No used car salesmen would give an admissions dean the time of day. They screw up lives and there's no court of appeal.
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And in the other category -- the wrong way to apply to college -- Mamlet has that "all wrong" personal experience of hers to draw on.

She talks about a scramble the night before her college applications were due a little over two decades ago. She'd barely started her essay. She hadn't visited the schools she was courting.

The tables have turned. After graduating in 1982 from Occidental College in Los Angeles -- with a BA in English and a minor in psychology -- Mamlet worked from 1984 to 1987 as an associate admissions director at Pomona College in Claremont, California. It was her first experience of the challenging and rewarding, if often misunderstood, career field of college admissions.

"You want to give every candidate a fair shake," Mamlet says, shortly before sealing the fates of thousands of Stanford early-admission applicants this month. "It's a very exciting job, but it's a grueling job."


'A craft you learn by doing'

Mamlet, raised in Santa Barbara, came to Stanford in September with 18 years of admissions experience, succeeding Robert Kinnally in the post as he left for study in the Roman Catholic priesthood. She'd been dean of admissions at Swarthmore College, a 1,500-student liberal arts school in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Now, as prime gatekeeper at one of the United States' most competitive universities, the 40-year-old is at the top of her field.

How competitive is Stanford? Last year, the school received 18,362 applications for freshman admission -- 2,408 were offered spots in the class, with some 1,600 expected to matriculate.

•   Stanford has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and a $4.7 billion endowment.
•   Undergraduate tuition in the 1999-2000 school year cost $23,058. Room and board cost $7,881.

Stanford people frequently figure in current events coverage. U.S. President-elect George W. Bush on Sunday named Condoleezza Rice, 46, his national security adviser. Rice is a former Stanford provost -- the school's chief budget and academic officer. (Philosophy professor John Etchemendy holds the position now.) Rice also has worked as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, a think tank based at Stanford.

And Chelsea Clinton took the fall quarter off from her Stanford studies to work with her mother's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. The younger Clinton has been linked with Jeremy Kane, a Stanford senior and classmate who worked this summer at the White House as an intern in the speechwriting office.

Mamlet is similarly new to her own office. The early-admissions letters Stanford hopefuls are getting this week are the first round of the school's admissions she has overseen. And she has something akin to an intern's appreciation for hands-on experience, too: She says she has climbed the ladder not by piling up degrees or writing books, but through on-the-job training.

"Advanced degrees can be helpful, but I haven't done that," she says. "Admissions is a craft you learn by doing."

The main thing all good admissions officers must learn, Mamlet says, is how to "analyze and synthesize" quickly and effectively. With so much information -- subjective and objective -- coming in for so many applicants, there's not much choice.

"Every year I go through that sort of crisis. "I ask myself, 'Why are you deciding this?'"
— Robin Mamlet, Stanford University

"You have to keep track of so many details and understand how everything fits into the big picture with respect to the individual applicant," she says.

At Swarthmore, Mamlet says she handled each application and wrote personal notes on all acceptances. At Stanford, organizational and management skills are crucial. With a staff of more than 50 people, she says she's also called upon to be a leader, diplomat and spokeswoman, among other things.

"At the very special places" in the realm of higher education, she says, "there are so many constituencies that want to be satisfied -- it's a zero-sum game. On one hand, you're talking about the lives of people. But every move you make is going to make someone unhappy."


Wielding the powerful pen

Of course, it's the image of the cackling, unsympathetic, power-mad admissions officer that bedevils many an unaccepted applicant. But don't think Mamlet isn't unsettled, herself, when she thinks about her life-changing powers.

"Every year I go through that sort of crisis," she says. "I ask myself, 'Why are you deciding this?'

•   Stanford opened in 1891, having been founded in 1885 by Leland and Jane Stanford.
•   The campus comprises 8,180 acres or 12.8 square miles.

"Ultimately, we're engaged in a human process, done by human beings."

Mamlet says some schools have very objective admissions standards, admitting applicants strictly on "the numbers" -- achievement test scores, class ranks, number of extracurricular activities. But Stanford and many other schools don't apply a formula approach.

"It's much more subjective," Mamlet says. "So many students are applying with the same type" of of numbers.

Each school has a system -- maybe a war room setup in which large groups debate each applicant; or one in which lower-level admissions officers decide teens' fates on the spot.

Stanford isn't known as a tough run for nothing. Check out our figures on its numbers when it comes to applications vs. acceptances and various details of how the Class of 2003 has shaped up.

At Stanford, Mamlet says, every application is read three or four times. A few applicants normally are standouts, automatic acceptances. The majority of the time is spent on applicants on the proverbial bubble. Interviewers and admissions staffers make comments, and finally a group of five senior officers, Mamlet in the lead, make the final decisions.

"We're looking for the complete package in terms of the total class," says Mamlet, adding that each student brings unique talents and perspectives to the mix. "If their talent's strong enough, they'll probably get in."


'Fulfilling and fun'

As difficult as many of these decisions are, Mamlet says working with 17- and 18-year-olds is one of the most rewarding parts of her career.

She says that the public-speaking, fundraising and diplomatic demands on her at Stanford leave her less one-on-one contact than she once had in her work.

•   Stanford operates on a quarter system.
•   Stanford has 1,595 faculty members. Twelve are Nobel Prize-winners and 22 are MacArthur Foundation grant recipients.
•   There are some 6,500 undergraduates. Almost half the class of 2002 had straight-A averages in high school.

Mamlet is married to Charles Brown, who was tapped to join the development team at Stanford Medical Center as his wife took over admissions -- Brown had been executive director of development for divisional programs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"There's a different scope to the job here," Mamlet says, contrasting her current position to her last one at Swarthmore. "It's more of a pulpit -- you're a figurehead. The issues that you confront here are different."

These very challenges and nuances keep Mamlet engaged in her career, she says -- the hectic schedule, conscience crises and political struggles notwithstanding.

"I just fell in love with admissions work from the start," she says. "I can't imagine a job that would be more satisfying, that combines more of both objectives," personal and professional.

"It's fulfilling and fun."



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Working your degree: An ongoing series of columns about concentrations in college and the careers they offer
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October 20, 2000
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September 15, 2000
Chelsea Clinton's boyfriend is a White House intern
September 8, 2000

Hoover Institution at Stanford
Occidental College
Pomona College
Stanford University
Swarthmore College

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