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From a Former Reed College Admissions Officer: Advice to High School Students

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During my time as a student at Reed College, I was far too focused on the everyday demands of the rigorous curriculum to take a beat and think about the specialness of the place. That’s why I felt so fortunate to be able to work for the Reed admission office after my graduation, meeting prospective students, reviewing applications, and trying to find the best way to describe this small college that occupies such an important niche in the landscape of higher education. My role allowed me to reflect on what Reed had meant to me and what it might mean to its future students, and my ongoing interactions with Reedies in the classroom, in the admission office, and even on the Frisbee field helped me mull over the characteristics that best define the Reed community.

To an outsider, Reed College presents as a colorful and expressive institution, a place for counter-cultural thinkers with pink hair and birkenstocks. We seemed like a place for a very particular kind of odd duck.

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For those of us in the admission office, however, these characteristics were merely incidental features of the kinds of students we sought. 

The college is driven by research. It is a place that requires both a freshman humanities course and a senior research thesis with many paths for inquiry in between. It is at the top of the list for PhD production per capita for most disciplines, alongside schools like MIT and Caltech. Reed doesn’t report grades to students and has an amorphous and fluid Honor Principle that informs ethical behavior both inside and outside of the classroom. It has long focused on process over product. So what makes a Reedie? Effortless curiosity.

In my long experience of engaging with Reedies, from Ye Olde Alumni to prospective students who were a sure match to the college, I’ve never met one who had to summon any kind of effort to be interested. 

If this seems like something that would be hard to identify in a college application, you’re right! As admission officers, we did it by looking especially closely at the qualitative components of the application. What might a teacher have to say in their letter of recommendation about a student’s willingness to take risks in the classroom? How does the student’s writing convey a sense of openness to learning and a willingness to explore? And what examples are there from a student’s extracurricular experience–both formal and informal–that might shed light on what they care about?

If you’re a curious high school student, chances are good that you’ve heard about the importance of doing research. As a concept, I’m fully in favor of students doing research, but I can tell you that “doing research” wasn’t ever impressive on its own. I often shudder when I hear students talk about academic inquiry as a box to be checked instead of an experience to be savored. As you take on new opportunities for enrichment, always begin with an understanding of why you’re doing research to begin with. What are you getting from the experience and how is it helping you to better understand a disciplinary framework for exploring ideas more deeply? How might you build upon that experience in the future? What is missing from the current experience and how can you find opportunities to backfill those holes? Who can you look to for greater understanding when you’re feeling lost? Students who are intentional and reflective at every turn will soon find that this practice becomes a habit. And suddenly your curiosity is effortless.

Now, I don’t want you to conflate effortless curiosity with laziness. The Reedies I have known all work hard, but they’re not trying to prove something. And while an application can feel like an opportunity to prove your case for admission, admissions officers are looking for students whose curiosity and academic and personal potential speaks for itself. Portfolios of impressive scientific achievement are much more resonant when the student’s interests show up elsewhere in the application. While complex research abstracts may furrow brows, layman’s explanations can raise them. If your curiosity shows up everywhere, it’s impossible for an admission officer to ignore.

At Reed, we didn’t want or need students to be a finished product. We hoped they would want to read new ideas and take exciting and unusual classes. We imagined they would be ready to bring a research question before a new faculty member and use time in the lab or the library to answer it. They didn’t want to know it all; instead, they wanted to learn all the things they didn’t know. Figuring all that out would be work, but being excited to do it would be effortless.

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