Interview with Rice University Senior Admissions Official

In Houston (and all over the country where people have done their reading), Rice University is synonymous with academic excellence. We’ve known many college applicants who listed Rice as their first choice – as much as for its incredible location and size as for its commitment to maintaining reasonable tuition and instructor access. It’s a wonderful school that is only getting better with age, as the city of Houston (my favorite) grows up around it.

In an effort to understand the admissions process at such an elite university, we interviewed Tamara Siler, the Senior Associate Director of Admission at Rice. Check out her thoughtful answers as you consider which path to plot through school. Please note that the parts in italics are the All-in-One Academics emphasis, not part of Ms. Siler’s responses.

AIOA: In a given application season, how long does it take for your desk to start filling up with applications?

TS: Well, in this digital age, my desk doesn’t fill up with applications any more – all applications for undergraduate admission to Rice are read online.  My reader queue is usually quite manageable in November, and in early December.  Late December and early January would be when my queue reaches triple digits, and keeping up is a real challenge.  This volume lasts through February and into March.

AIOA: Do you notice that, in general, the lengthy Rice supplement helps limit the number of kids who apply to those who see Rice as a top choice and really know about the school?

You must remember that the first step in this process, the Common Application, has already streamlined the process for many, so completing the supplement simply takes the place of completing individual applications.  I’m not sure the supplement prevents students from applying, but I will say it becomes very apparent with the quality of the applicant’s responses on the supplement whether Rice is a top college choice for them.  Students who have done their research on Rice will be able to infuse specificity and personality into their responses, which often allows their application to stand out from the masses. 

There’s been a recent study released out of Harvard, which explains that competitive schools, such as Rice, use a measure called “institutional fit” to determine whether or not a student matches the with the school itself. It basically states that great schools receive applications from countless great students, so they have to look beyond the numbers at a certain point to find students with real passion. Can you say anything to parents about the importance of having their kids think out of the box and go beyond the typical high school experience of sports, community service, and academics to differentiate themselves?

I think students and parents are constantly focused on a perceived checklist of items colleges are seeking in their students, which includes certain classes, sports, music, community service, etc.  I always try to get them to focus on passion – it is important that students identify not only where their talents lie inside and outside of the classroom, but also what they love to do, so much so that they would spend hours doing it without complaint.  With Rice being a research university where experiential learning is emphasized, it truly helps if the student has found a way to pursue their intellectual passions outside of the classroom through research, internships, finding a mentor.  The summer months are a great time to find these type of opportunities.  Students can also find some experience which takes them outside of their comfort zone, and possibly allows interaction with people from different ethnic and social groups, such as a job or service trip to another region, or even another country.  

An important complement to passion is impact.  One of my favorite questions during an interview is this:  “What do you think your school will miss about you when you graduate?”  Getting involved in a variety of activities is a step in the right direction.  But making sure you have quality impact in at least one or two chosen activities is what will often make you more memorable.

Finally, we encourage kids to take as challenging a curriculum as their school allows because it provides evidence of self-discipline and motivation. We also tell kids that a B here and there in AP classes, along with excellent standardized testing scores, an interesting, deep resume, and a well-considered essay, won’t keep them out of a great school like Rice. Do you see students with the occasional B getting accepted?

The short answer to your question is yes – that is why we practice holistic admission, to get a full sense of the student’s talent, preparation, and fit.  However, I must stress that many students present excellent test scores, a compelling resume, a well-considered essay, strong recommendations, a challenging curriculum AND straight As – this is the reality of highly selective admission.  So, the fewer Bs in those rigorous courses, the better, but as a rule students are better served by the more rigorous coursework even if they end up with a slightly lower grade.

 What is your takeaway as a reader of our blog?

Get your applications in early. Do substantial research on the schools to which you apply. Investigate your passions and go out of your way to make an impact on your community. Take challenging courses, and DO WELL in them!!