Any time Dean of Admission and Financial Aid David Borus is at party or a function, he tends to get the same question. Someone will almost invariably come up to him and ask, “Aren’t you in college admissions?”
The near constant requests for essay advice and interview tips don’t bother him, however. In fact, it seems like just another part of the job.
“It happens on a regular basis for anyone who is in college admissions, but especially for somebody who’s been in it for awhile,” he said.
After nearly 40 years of working in college admissions, including 18 years at Vassar, Borus is retiring at the end of this year. His time at his post is marked by the profound series changes in the college admissions process both at Vassar and in other institutions over the last twenty years.
In 2000, the College received around 4,000 applications. This past admissions cycle, Vassar received roughly 8,000 applications.
The number of students applying to schools like Vassar has increased as colleges have focused on expanding financial aid and attracting student populations that have been historically ignored. Developments in technology, like the online Common Application, that make it easier for students to apply to several schools at once, have also grown the application pool.
Students are more eager to get accepted—the earlier the better. According to Borus, nearly twenty years ago, typically 300 to 400 students would apply early decision. In the past years, the Vassar admissions team received 600 to 700 applications by the Nov. 1 deadline.
Earning an acceptance letter has become more and more competitive. The admissions rate this year was roughly 23%.
Said Borus, “Not only the depth of the pool and size, [but also] the quality of the applicant pool has grown tremendously over the last almost two decades. Students that we would have gladly admitted even ten years ago don’t even make it to the waiting list now because the academic quality is so much greater and the pool is so much deeper.”
He continued, “The length to which students are willing to go to make a favorable impression have certainly increased, and I think there’s a lot more parental anxiety than there used to be.”
Borus described how things were simpler back when he applied to college. His public high school on Chicago’s South Side didn’t have any college guidance counselors, and there was no Internet. He applied to only two schools: the local state university and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where his older brother had earned a scholarship and attended.
The changing landscape is what makes his work all the more interesting, he said. Events in the economy like the 2008 financial crisis or decisions made in the Supreme Court on Affirmative Action send ripples in the college admissions fabric.
Borus described his entrance to the field of college admissions as somewhat of an accident. He was a graduate student obtaining a PhD in higher education administration at Michigan University when one day his wife noticed a sign posted in campus employment office advertising a part time position in college admissions. In need of the money, Borus got the job and found a calling.
He has worked as an admissions officer across the country, spending four years at Earhlam College, seven at Kalamazoo College, and eight at his alma mater Trinity College before finally reaching Vassar the summer of 1996.
Borus’ arrival coincided with another big change for the office of Admissions and Financial Aid: the migration from the office’s space in Main Building to its current location of Kautz Admission House.
Over his many years as a college counselor, Borus said that he has probably personally read at least 25,000 applications. He has developed a process for when he sits down to read a student’s application. Before he looks at any numbers like the student’s grades or test scores, Borus starts with the application written by students themselves.
“I want to form my own opinion of the student and the way they presented themselves,” he said. Only after reading the student’s own words will he move onto the transcript.
He said, “The transcript is really the single most important piece of paper in any application because if you’re an experienced admissions person you can get a lot of information out of a transcript.” Finally, Borus will move onto to look at test scores and other material like a student’s extracurricular.
Out of the thousands of application essays Borus has read, a few exceptional ones still stick in his mind.
“We get one or two of those a year and the ones we get you really do remember,” he said.
One student once wrote about how her father built a scale-model of the Eiffel tower in the front lawn, all the while the family’s house began falling apart.
The admissions office was so confounded, Borus described, both by the essay’s bizarre subject and its stellar writing that they called the applicant’s school to confirm the story before they let her in.
But some of the best essays find moments poignancy in small, everyday situations like another one Borus remembers in which an applicant describes going through a trunk filled with the possessions of her grandfather who had died a long time ago.
In the midst of these small benchmarks came much larger ones. When President Catharine Bond Hill became the College’s tenth president in 2006, she successfully brought need-blind admissions back to the school.
Ten years earlier, the Board of Trustees had decided to pull back on need-blind admissions and become need-aware, factoring in a student’s ability to pay of applicants in the very final stages of the admissions process The switch back has been an important tool in drawing more students from lower-income backgrounds.
“Being need-blind has helped us to diversify our student body over the last six-to-seven years in ways that we had tried very hard to do prior to that,” said Borus. “Being able to say we were need blind I think led to more students in more communities listening to the Vassar message and what else we had to offer them.”
It was also during Borus’ tenure when last year Vassar partnered with the Posse Foundation to admit a group of eleven veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan War. The Class of 2018 group has already been selected, and the model has been picked up by Wesleyan University.
According to Borus, making the tuition more affordable and attractive to a wider swath of students is central to the College’s educational mission.
“I think it is a diverse world out there,” he said. “I think our students are going to live in a diverse world out there, increasingly so.”
Senior Assistant Director of Admission Sarah Schmidt described a few of Borus’ quirks that have become famous in the office: his fervid support for the Chicago Bears and his penchant for sweet and salty snacks. She also mentioned how, thanks to his easy-going demeanor, the staff can sometimes forget his decades of experience.
“We just know him as David and our supportive boss you can go to if you have a question or if you’re confronting some kind of issue,” said Schmidt. “He’s been through it before and he can offer guidance, but you can also lose track of just how prolific he is in our profession.”
Schmidt’s colleague, Associate Director of Admission Paola Gentry, also said she often relied on Borus’ expertise.
“There’s always sticky situations that happens,” Gentry said. “It’s very nice to know that I have always some one whose definitely been through it before and has advice and is very willing to share information with all of us.”
Borus will be keeping busy after his retirement. He hopes to travel with his wife, visiting his grandson in Iowa, but also more far-flung locales like Australia, New Zealand and Israel.
But after nearly 40 years, Borus isn’t done with college admissions just quite yet. He plans to do part time consulting work advising other colleges and universities on their admissions operation. Partnering with his wife, a high school college counselor, Borus intends to volunteer his services to students in Hartford, Conn. in need of resources.
For his colleagues, Vassar admissions won’t be the same next year. Said Schmidt, “It’s hard to imagine life post-David Borus.”