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STANFORD -- For the 1.5 million American students who will begin post-secondary education this fall, the coming months will be spent waiting, often anxiously, for letters of admission to the college of their choice.

What makes the difference between the fat envelopes (admission) and the thin ones (regrets)?

At Stanford, as at most other selective universities, a student's high school transcript is the single most important factor, according to James Montoya, Stanford's new dean of undergraduate admissions.

"We look for a challenging course load, breadth and depth, as well as the level of accomplishment," said Montoya, who previously supervised admissions at both Vassar College and Occidental College.

High scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) also are helpful, as demonstrated by this year's freshman class at Stanford - 23 percent scored 700 to 800 on the verbal portion of the test, and 59 percent scored 700 to 800 on the math portion.

Then, there are extracurricular activities.

"Most admissions deans will tell you they are more interested in the quality, rather than the quantity of involvement," Montoya said. "I look at a student's ability to be committed to an activity, as well as depth and level of accomplishment."

Particularly important these days are activities that show a commitment to the world beyond home and high school, such as tutoring underprivileged children, planting trees or working with the homeless.

"A complete lack of public service in a student's application would be noticed, absolutely," Montoya said. "That by itself would not necessarily prevent an outstanding student from being admitted - there might be a student who worked 20 hours a week to support the family, or who might be extremely devoted to music or athletics and didn't have the time.

"But when you see a student who is not only an outstanding musician but has found time - made time - to be involved in volunteer work or public service, in my mind, that student really shines."

Another place to shine is in the essays many colleges require. For example, one Stanford essay question this year asks applicants what they would do if they were given a one-year, all-expenses-paid fellowship to pursue any interest.

"Since we don't conduct admission interviews, this is one of our few opportunities to get a sense of the student's personal qualities and characteristics," Montoya said.

"In addition, the essay also can tell us something about that person's level of maturity, insight and/or creativity, while offering us a more tangible sense of her or his writing abilities."

One way in which Montoya differs from other admissions officers is his approach to an applicant's file. He likes to read straight through, without making any notes. Then he closes the folder and conjures up a picture of the student in his mind.

"I prefer the more holistic approach - getting to know the student first," he said. "The challenge is to understand a whole person in a short period of time."

Montoya said he is uplifted by what he finds.

"That's one of the greatest benefits of this position - to be inspired by the optimistic nature of students," he said. "These students are going to change the world, and I think it's great that they feel so positively about the way in which they are going to do that."



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