Supply and Demand at Penn State

With 94,000 applications this year, getting into Penn State can be a daunting task. Here are some tips from admissions officials

If you want to get into Penn State's Smeal College of Business this admissions season, you'll face quite a bit of competition. For students beginning their studies this fall, the university as a whole received the most applications of any school in the country—94,000. And Smeal was the most popular among the university's colleges, says Randy Deike, associate vice-president for enrollment management and executive director for undergraduate admissions.

The majority of Penn State's undergrads reside in University Park—the school's main campus and home of the famous Joe Paterno and his Nittany Lions football team. Also known as "Happy Valley," the campus and surrounding area provide a positive all-around college experience for most undergraduates.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets into main campus right away, as admissions standards have been rising as application numbers pick up. However, if Penn State is your prime pick and your grades and test scores don't quite measure up, you still have a chance at attending. The university has 19 other campuses around Pennsylvania, and students can study business at all of them, says Smeal Dean Jim Thomas.

Thomas and Deike recently spoke to reporter Julie Gordon about Smeal admissions. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Students apply to Penn State's general admissions office. How does it work for potential Smeal students?

Deike: When students apply to Penn State, they give us a first and alternate choice major and a first and alternate choice campus location. They'll list a major, but then they declare their major in their junior year.

What type of GPA are you looking for?

Thomas: Well, it depends on the major. For example, finance is an incredibly high-demand major, and the GPA cutoff—the enrollment control, as we call it—is a 3.3 out of 4.0, and then it varies. In finance, we have 300 openings and we'll take the first 300 who come in at 3.3. The problem is that we get 375 that have 3.3. So the number isn't the issue. But for the most part, it's a 3.3 that gets you entered into the finance major.

If you take another major, like management, there's a 3.0 GPA cutoff to get in. We have 185 slots in management, and the first that come in with a 3.0 can get in. This year, we didn't get to the 185 for 3.0. So we actually went down to 2.9 to fill the 185 slots within that particular major.

Say you're admitted to Smeal and you want to declare a finance major and have taken those types of classes but your grades aren't up to par. Would you have to choose a different major?

Thomas: Well, you're admitted into a pre-major as a freshman, but you're really not admitted into the major until your junior year. So that's the gateway, as it's referred to, and that's the decision point of admission into the major. But all business students have had the same prerequisite courses.

So they don't take major-specific classes until junior year?

Thomas: That's correct.

Deike: And that's true of all of the majors in all of the colleges at Penn State. The first two years are really a time during which students take a lot of Gen Ed courses, and then the core courses for the college, but they're not really finance majors or accounting majors or management majors until they declare their major in their junior year.

What was the average SAT score for this year's class?

Deike: For new students, the median SAT is about 1220.

I know that the essay isn't a required portion of the application. How is each of the application portions factored into decision-making?

Deike: Right, it's not required. The high school GPA accounts for about two-thirds of the admission decision. SAT scores and other supporting materials, like the activities lists that students will provide and essays if they choose to complete, would make up the other third.

With an institution this size, we certainly don't read every essay, but there are times when students are close in terms of placement at one campus or another. If it comes down to it and there are a number of students with similar credentials, we'll read essays and look at activities lists and make decisions based on the additional information.

Do standards differ for Pennsylvania residents and nonresidents?

Deike: There's no distinction.

I guess there are just more Pennsylvania residents applying, and that's why there are more Pennsylvania residents in attendance?

Deike: Actually, at the university as a whole and to University Park in particular, we're seeing more out-of-state students applying to Penn State.

Thomas: It's the most popular application destination in the country.

That's what I had heard but I wasn't sure if it was true.

Deike: We received just shy of 94,000 applications to the university. But that's across all of Penn State's campuses, the med school, the law school, etc.

Why do you think that is?

Deike: We're doing a lot of things very well.

The football team also did really well this year.

Thomas: We think it's because of Smeal.

Deike: And the dean of the College of Engineering would say it's because of engineering. But Smeal has come out on top as our most popular college in terms of applications to the university this year, for fall.

Thomas: Not only is it the most popular but it's also the toughest to get into in the admissions gate. So while we're big—we're at about 5,300 students this year in total, across-the-board, and we admitted around 1,200 students—we're still the most selective to get into.

And one of the other reasons for the applications that come into Smeal and the university is that we have the largest number of alums. We have about 66,000 Smeal alums that are active, and they're out there as living testimony to what a Smeal degree can do for you (see, 4/24/06, "Menus at Your Fingertips"). There are also in the neighborhood of 460,000 active Penn State alums. So it's like one of every nine families has a Penn State alum in it.

What would you say to students who are intimidated by Penn State's size?

Thomas: I was one of those students, by the way. I came up from a town that was about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh—Library, Penn.—and came into this environment.

We deal with this over and over and over again. It's like any other environment in some sense. You have your set of friends, you have good relations on your dorm floor, with those who may be in your major, study groups, and so on. So it becomes very small very quickly. It isn't a large bureaucracy that will overwhelm you. You need to be able to navigate it, but we have so many counselors and help and mentors and folks that are dedicated to making sure that your arrival at Happy Valley remains happy, and that's part of what we're about at the end of the day.

Deike: We have the third highest graduation rate in the Big 10. We have one of the highest graduation rates in the country for a large public university. Our six-year graduation rate at University Park is about 85% or 86%. So students are incredibly satisfied with their experience here. They're telling their friends about that when they get home, as the university has grown in size over the years. That's a network of getting the word out. Satisfied students—that goes a long way in helping people understand the kind of experience that they can have at Penn State.

Since grades are the most heavily weighted portion of the application, the best way for a student to get into Penn State is by having high marks?

Deike: Part of the reason that we weigh grades so heavily is it's an indicator of motivation and work ethic. There are lots of talented students who might not have done so well in high school or don't do so well on the SATs. But when you're looking at the academic credentials and characteristics of students applying to Penn State, if you don't have good grades and you're really interested in University Park because it's the most popular campus, it's going to be very difficult to get here because we have so many candidates who have excellent credentials.

But that doesn't mean that a Penn State education isn't an option for students. We're a land-grant university. We're about access, especially to Pennsylvania students but access in general. And students who have not performed quite as well in high school or on the SATs still have an opportunity to show us they are able to be good students and succeed at Penn State. They just might not get their first choice of campus.

How does having rolling admissions affect admissions operations?

Deike: It's a more difficult process to manage. We have 20 campuses at which freshmen can begin, and we will start making offers to all 20 of them in mid- to late October. And it causes a situation in which we're trying to make decisions so early in the process that we don't really know what our applicant pool looks like. But we base those decisions on history, and there are pretty good models for where we think we might be.

Is it best to apply as early as possible?

Deike: It is absolutely critical for students to apply prior to Nov. 30. We make it clear in all of our publications and in any conversations that we have with prospective students that post-Nov. 30 it becomes more difficult to be placed—at University Park especially. Some of our other campuses as well, but primarily University Park. As we make our class, the criteria for admission become much tighter.

If a student gets an undergraduate degree at Smeal, is there any advantage if applying to the MBA program? (See, 8/17/06, "B-Schools: You Don't Have to Wait.")

Thomas: No, not at all. Just like in-state, out-of-state, alum. Everyone's on the same playing field.

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