Solving the college admissions puzzle; Shelton High graduate offers insight

Academic achievement can help open the door for college applicants, but extracurricular engagement and personal qualities may be what gets a high school student through that door.

This essentially was the message from Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University in Massachusetts and a Shelton native, during a recent talk at Shelton High School.

“What might this person add to the college?” is what admissions officials ask when considering an application, Coffin said.

“We’re trying to build a community,” he said of the university’s perspective.

Coffin spoke last week to SHS students and parents in the high school auditorium, during an event organized by SHS and the National Honor Society. “It’s always nice to be home in Shelton,” said Coffin, a 1981 Shelton High graduate.

'Better equipped'

Coffin said he wanted the 150 or so people in the audience “to feel like you’re better equipped” for the college application process after hearing his presentation.

While we live in a transparent, instant world these days due to social media and the Internet, he said, the college admissions process still involves completing and sending an application, and then hearing “nothing until you get the answer. And how we get to that decision is often very opaque.”

This leaves many students and parents wondering “what counts, and why does it count,” he said.

Four key areas

Coffin said four areas basically determine whether someone is accepted at a college — academic achievement (merit), extracurricular engagement, personal qualities, and institutional priorities.

A certain level of academic accomplishment is needed to be considered, but this varies greatly depending on the competitiveness of the college.

Tufts accepts only 17% of its applicants. That percentage is obviously lower at Harvard, but it's higher at most other institutions.

Admissions officials and professors want to know new students are capable of doing the work on day one, he said.

Factors include grades, test scores, class rank, courses taken, and the standing of the high school they attend (such as the fact that 69% of SHS graduates go on to attend a four-year college). He said taking either the SATs or ACTs is fine.

Also important is “transcript trends,” indicating whether a student is progressing as the person matures. “The way you finish your junior year is critically important,” Coffin said.

He said juniors should be thinking about teachers to ask for recommendations, focusing on which teachers saw them “stretch and grow” the most.

‘Fill in the pieces’

When it comes to extracurricular activities, Coffin encouraged people to get involved in things they like to do. “It’s not just who does the most stuff,” he said.

Not everyone can be a leader, he said, and showing you are a collaborator or team player can be a plus as well.

As for personal qualities, college officials are looking to learn about a student’s passions and curiosity.

Coffin said it’s important to write essays that offer unique perspectives, noting many essays fail to stand out. The essay should provide insight into the student as an individual.

These two non-academic areas, extracurricular involvement and personal qualities, “give you the opportunity to fill in the pieces,” Coffin said of an application.

Institutional priorities is the one area that applicants can’t control. He said colleges have needs for certain kinds of students at certain times, such as those majoring in a particular subject and who excel in a particular sport or skill.

Tufts has a great women’s softball team, Coffin said, so when the coach tells him she needs a pitcher, “I pay attention.”

Audience decides

Coffin then provided information on six imaginary college applicants to the audience, asking them to decide whom they would accept.

He went through test scores, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, and essays, stopping at each stage to ask who would be accepted.

He later noted that “the numbers people have” (students’ grades, test scores) became less important to the audience as they learned more about the applicants as individuals.

Alex Azary, an SHS sophomore who attended Coffin’s presentation with his father, Joe, said afterward it was interesting to learn that academics weren’t the exclusive determining factor. “It seems they’re interested in personality,” Alex said.

Joe Azary called the talk “excellent and informative,” and also was intrigued with how whether someone is accepted “is more about a mixture of things and not just grades.”

Journalism and drama at SHS

While at SHS, Coffin was editor of the student newspaper and president of the drama club, performing in many shows. He described himself as being studious.

He later earned a bachelor’s degree at Trinity College and a master’s degree at Harvard University. As a Trinity senior, Coffin saw a job opening in the school’s alumni office and pursued it. “It opened my eyes to higher education as a career,” he said.

Before working at Tufts, he worked his way up the admissions ladder at Connecticut College in New London. He’s now lived in Boston for 20 years.

His sister, Lynn Coffin, is a longtime English teacher at SHS and attended the presentation. His parents, Lee and Joyce, as well as his three siblings — Lynn, sister Melissa and brother Matthew — all still live in Shelton.

“I left and they all stayed,” Coffin joked.

Lots of questions for him

Coffin said when people find out what he does for a living in social settings and elsewhere, he’s always asked why certain students get accepted and others don’t.

He recalled a recent flight from Europe when a woman passenger — sitting with her teenage son — started peppering him with questions, once she found out his job title.

“The look she gave me was like when a hunter finally sees a deer,” said Coffin, noting he’s always happy to share his knowledge with others.