Admission Impossible: Exploring the HW Admissions Process

Admission Impossible: Exploring the HW Admissions Process

Illustration by Hannah Mittleman '20

After each interview, Senior Student Ambassador Co-Chair Sirus Wheaton ’19 always asks perspective Harvard-Westlake students how it went. One tenth grade applicant’s response, however, left him speechless. The student was distraught because his interview did not play out as he and his family had carefully planned. He knew that his mom would be upset with him for not mentioning his community service accomplishments.

“I was telling him, ‘Just try to be yourself; just have your conversation; just be present,’” Wheaton said. “I understand that the parents will give the kids a script whether they want it or not, but I think that it is your choice whether to follow it and be that scripted kid. He had nothing outside of what he was told to say.”

Wheaton said that he has encountered many students who do not seem authentic when conversing with tour guides, which he said may come from the pressure families put on their students during the application process.

“For some of the kids, their personality comes out, but for a lot of them, it feels like their parent has coached them,” Wheaton said. “All the parents are so much more worried than the kids about if the kid will get in.”

A student tour and faculty interview is only one part in the larger process of applying to Harvard-Westlake.

This year, the admission office received over 1,200 applications, the second highest number that the admission office has received in the school’s history, with 2017 being the highest, according to Associate Director of Admission and Enrollment Management Nancy Jeon ’89.

Acceptance decisions are released March 8 for ninth through 12th grade applicants and March 15 for seventh and eighth grade applicants. The admission process to Harvard-Westlake begins in the fall with outreach to local schools, community-based organizations and events on campus, Director of Admission Aaron Mieszczanski said. Later in the fall and winter, applicants are welcomed on campus for interviews and tours. After the Jan. 18 admission deadline, members of the Admission Committee and faculty readers review submitted applications and prepare for committee meetings.

Mieszczanski, who has worked in admission at two other schools, said that Harvard-Westlake’s large applicant pool and strong yield set it apart from other independent schools.

“Every school has differences in their process depending on the size of the school, location, restrictions on the use of the facilities, main points of entry and size of the inquiry pool, to name a few,” Mieszczanski said. “One of the biggest differences I have seen is how we manage the volume of people interested in the school that want to get to know us. We had over 2,000 families inquire about Harvard-Westlake for next fall, so while I am confident that our office and school community has done a great job connecting with as many interested people as we can, it will always be a challenge for us.”

Jeon said that when making decisions, the admission office takes into account interviews, transcript grades, recommendations, standardized test scores, demonstrated interest in Harvard-Westlake and how a student’s strengths and interests will contribute to the school community.

It is hard for the admission committees to evaluate sixth graders in an interview since many do not have a declared passion or interest, Jeon said. The admission team’s primary purpose is to get to know students and see if what they say in the interview matches the information presented in the rest of their application Jeon said.

“What we are really trying to get a sense at is: ‘Are they interested in Harvard-Westlake?’ ‘Can they have a conversation regardless of what it is?’ ‘Do they seem like they can have good peer relationships?’” Jeon said. “It is just to get a snapshot, a quick glance on things and see that whatever you see or hear in an interview is confirmed in recommendations, applications or other teacher comments on the transcript.”

Ninth Grade Student Ambassador Co-Chair Bronwen Roosa ’22 said that she thinks the professionalism of the admission process at Harvard-Westlake draws applicants to the school.

“When I applied to another school, on my Shadow Day, my student ditched me as she had a free period and then proceeded to lose me,” Roosa said. “At Harvard-Westlake, something like that would never happen. Seeing someone so young represent the school is honestly amazing. It is comforting to the parents of incoming seventh graders to see how knowledgeable they are about the school even though it is their first year.”

Mieszczanski has made changes to the method by which Harvard-Westlake collects and evaluates applications this year. Families now see their admission decisions by logging into their account online, and the school no longer sends out letters or emails detailing them. Students’ files are also organized online instead of on paper, and the faculty who review applicants use an online system.

Head of Upper School Laura Ross said that having a paperless system has been helpful to the committee review process.

“That has made a huge difference in being able to share files and get more files read,” Ross said. “In the committee room, all of us can have the application right in front of us whereas before we had a paper file and people had to be projecting parts of it and we could not really see. I feel like we are more engaging as a committee as a whole because we can all be looking at the application at the same time.”

Senior Student Ambassador Co-Chair Lucy Kim ’19 said that although Harvard-Westlake does make it clear that they are looking for engaged, academically involved students, the admission process in most educational institutions is not very clear-cut.

“The extent to which Harvard-Westlake is transparent about the application process is providing information on the website and stating on the website what factors are important to the admission process,” Kim said. “Admission processes across the board, whether it be elementary, high school or higher education, do not tend to be very transparent because the institution reasonably does need to protect their confidential information and ensure that their applicants are not sticking to this cookie-cutter ‘this is how I will get in’ method.”

The admission office evaluates students applying to different grades through different lenses and has diversity at the forefront of their minds when making decisions, Mieszczanski said.

“The school’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion are clearly stated in HW mission,” Mieszczanski said. “As the group responsible for building the composition of our student body, our office thinks about all the ways each individual will contribute to the richness of this place. We believe that a diversity of backgrounds, interests, talents, aspirations and perspectives are what make an excellent school community.”

Harvard-Westlake does not “recruit” student-athletes because there are strict California Interscholastic Federation rules regulating communication and contact between athletes and the school Mieszczanski said. However, when making decisions, the admission office works closely with the various departments of the school to ensure that students with a wide variety of interests are accepted to Harvard-Westlake.

“We have faculty staff readers that read our files, so they represent all the different departments of the school on both campuses,” Jeon said. “We definitely work closely with performing arts, athletics and visual arts to an extent. We want to pay attention to getting students that will fill all the different kinds of options we have here.”

Ultimately, admission comes down to finding students who can meet Harvard-Westlake’s challenging demands and pursue their individual passions, Jeon said.

“I think it is a great thing that we can not say we are just looking for this type of student because so many different kinds of students can succeed at Harvard-Westlake,” Jeon said. “The thing they have in common is that they want to be here, they can handle their academic program, they are committed to their learning and that whole process.”

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