A Heartwarming and Humbling Day

Thirty years ago, I stepped onto the Princeton campus a first-generation college student from a small town, intent on pursuing a degree in politics and applying to law school. I had a plan—one that was tangible and would land me in an occupation that everyone knew about.

Well, I followed through on the degree in politics. But somewhere along the road to constitutional law and torts, I realized that education and, more specifically, access to education was what truly interested me. I traded the LSAT for the GRE and enrolled in a graduate program that was a much better fit.

Most people who work in college admissions will tell you that it wasn’t their childhood dream. I’ve already noted it wasn’t mine. However, those of us who commit to the work usually come to realize that it is, in fact, our dream job. For me, being an admission professional allows me to do the work that I love—talk with people, introduce opportunities, dispel myths about how decisions are made and help build an intentional community for a college campus. The fact that I get to do this work at the place that formed me into a young adult and helped shape my ideas makes it that much sweeter.

Tonight, we will release the early action decisions for the Class of 2024—my first group of applicant decisions as Princeton’s dean of admission. During the past few weeks, my team and I have read and discussed the attributes that various students would bring to campus. I am humbled by the talent that exists in this applicant pool. There is no dearth of merit—that is, the ability to take what one learns here at Princeton and apply it to make a difference in the world. In fact, there is an abundance of merit of all types in the pool, which is what makes the decision-making difficult for our team and the process stressful for students, their families and their counselors. And recent developments involving admission to college takes the stress to an entirely new level.

I hope that no matter what your reason for being on the Princeton admission site (or reading this blog) you will note one important take away: Our job is to learn about our applicants. We do this not just through their transcripts and test scores, but also through their essays, recommendation letters and how they spend their time outside of class. Though academic performance is important, many intangible pieces of “merit” contribute to the academic and social fabric of the University. We look for creativity, a willingness to hear differing opinions, the ability to take risks, and evidence of a desire to work with others, among many other things.

My goal is to continue to use this space as an opportunity to provide some insight into the work that we do. Perhaps you will find that Princeton is a place that you want to learn more about. (In which case, I recommend you start here on the student blog.) Even if that is not the case, I hope that we can help make the admission process a little more transparent and just a little less scary.

Editor’s Note: A story about the newly admitted Class of 2024 will be available tonight at 7 p.m. EST on Princeton’s homepage.  To read future posts by Dean Richardson, Class of 1993, select “From the Dean” category on our blog homepage.




From One Senior to Another

Dear Prospective Students:


Take a deep breath. I know that college application season can be a stressful time.  I’m actually going through the same process⁠—law school⁠—so I feel your pain. 

You’ll end up where you’re meant to be. You’ll be happy. You’ll be successful. Everything’s going to be okay. These are phrases we hear all the time during the application season. We hear them so often that we don’t end up paying enough attention to them. Looking back on my undergraduate applications, I’m realizing that everyone was right. You shouldn’t take it personally; your application is a very small representation of who you are, and the admission decision is not a reflection of you.

Princeton University's Nassau Hall

That being said, it’s difficult to actually internalize such an ideology. There’s no trick to surviving the application season. There’s no trick to being the perfect applicant. All you can do is your best, and after that, it’s a waiting game. What I can tell you is that you should enjoy your senior year as much as possible. Next year, your slate will be wiped clean and you’ll be left to find your own path, most likely without the help of the people you’ve grown up so close to. College is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, and that’s both scary and exciting!

Take the time to appreciate the little things. The homecooked meals, the familiar hallways of your high school or the ability to go home after a long day. Appreciate the same faces you see, day after day. Take time to be thankful for the neighborhood you grew up in, your siblings who may annoy you at times, your pet that you love more than anything in this world. The distance that comes with most college experiences tends to complicate these things.

But at the same time, look forward to meeting new people, getting to know a new place or making new friends. Look forward to becoming more independent, discovering new interests and exploring a side of academia you’ve never experienced before. Application season is so, so stressful, but it’s also momentous; the decision you make will affect you for the rest of your life! So no pressure…

Take a deep breath, and good luck.

A Survival Guide to College Applications

As the deadline for early action applications to Princeton looms closer and closer, I’m constantly reminded of my own path to Princeton and the process it took for me to get here. I remember how stressful the college application process was, with everyone asking, “Where are you applying?” and, “What’s your first choice?” It’s easy to get overwhelmed by these questions, especially if you’re not quite sure of how to respond.

The process of making your list of schools to apply to is tough. I remember I didn’t understand why it was so hard when I was young; why couldn’t students just apply to every single school in the country? That way they’d surely get in somewhere. I didn’t realize that each application came with an application fee, not to mention the fact that the Common Application limits the number of schools you can apply to through their platform. (If the application fee is a hardship for your family – you can check with the school to see if fee waivers are available.) Upon learning this, I started to understand why so many students have a hard time crafting their list.

Princeton Lawnparties

So, how do you go about making “The List”? What should you keep in mind when looking at schools? Below is a survival guide to college applications.

  1. Location. Location is key. Many high school students can’t wait to graduate and go to a university far away from home, but here’s a pro tip: everyone gets homesick at some point or another. Maybe you miss your parents, siblings or pet. Maybe you miss sleeping in your own familiar bed. Maybe you miss that small-town feel. Whatever the reason, it’s very hard to go home for the weekend if you live far away. When I was looking at schools, my parents insisted on a “no-fly zone,” meaning the schools I chose had to be within driving distance from home. At first, I thought this was a huge limitation; then I realized that, since I lived in New York, I had so many colleges within driving distance from me!
  2. Campus feel. When I was looking at colleges, I remember that the way a campus was structured was really important to me. I wanted a campus that felt like a campus. For that reason, a lot of city schools didn’t make it to my list. One aspect of Princeton that I love is that it has a physical gate that clearly signifies where the campus is. This solid campus structure makes the school feel homier to me, which was important. If you’re a person who loves cities and being immersed in them, try adding more city schools to your list!
  3. Money. Money can be a sore subject that not a lot of people like to talk about. Nevertheless, the reality is that money is a huge factor when students apply to college. There are many different ways to go about this. In-state tuition versus out-of-state tuition can make a huge difference at some schools. At others, the financial aid program is what attracts students. When I made my list of schools to apply to, I made sure to keep all of this in mind before choosing universities. Princeton's generous financial aid program made college possible for me, as the program is need-based and is committed to meeting 100% of a family’s demonstrated need. Princeton also reevaluates your family's financial situation every year in order to account for any changes, making it extremely flexible!
  4. Academics. Of course! We can’t forget the actual reason why you go to college! The academic opportunities at a university will likely be a deciding factor during your application process. Part of what attracted me to Princeton was its academic rigor which, in turn, opens doors to countless internship and career opportunities.
  5. Alumni network. When you apply to a school, you have to also keep in mind your plans for after college. A strong alumni network goes a long way when it comes time to look for work, internships, fellowships, graduate programs, etc.  In fact, over 26,000 alumni volunteers work with the University in various capacities including providing opportunities and advice to students and young alumni interested in internships and careers.

I hope that these tips will be helpful to you during your college application process. However, you should also keep in mind that you’re going to end up where you’re supposed to be. The admission process doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to, and the stress of the “What-ifs” is exhausting and simply awful. Try not to feed into the frenzy of college applications; if you focus on keeping your own process under control, you’ll be much happier in the end!

The Waiting Game

Three years ago, I was in the same shoes as many of you right now. I had my heart set on going to Princeton. I had been thinking about it and preparing to apply for months. I had taken my standardized tests, fulfilled my academic requirements and consulted with the relevant people. Eventually, midway through October, I finally submitted my application to Princeton for Early Action.  

Then, the hardest part began: the waiting. After all the months of build-up, once you submit your Princeton application, the unfortunate reality is that you will not hear back for a while. For me, this was hard to reconcile. I wanted an answer right away! While I was certainly still busy with other college applications and my senior year course work, I remember how difficult it was to not obsess over the status of my application every second of every day. 

Eventually, I realized that obsessing was not going to get me anywhere. After you submit your application, there is absolutely nothing else you can do. You have worked incredibly hard to get to this point, so regardless of the admission result, you should be proud of yourself and your accomplishments. I know that this is easier said than done. Still, at the end of the day, it is so important to remember that Princeton is a highly selective institution. The number of incredibly qualified students that do not end up here is high. As such, whichever way the admission decision goes should not be taken as an indication that your hard work is in some way less valid. So try not to obsess about what the decision will be! Take a moment to breathe. Focus on the things you care about. Take part in activities that take your mind off of the waiting. While this is easy for me to say in retrospect, it was only once I stopped obsessing over the waiting that I was able to make the most of my senior year. 

I started studying Arabic, took up rock-climbing and ran on my high school cross-country team. Outside of adopting these new activities, I tried to make more time for things I had been too busy for most of high school. I ate more meals together with my family. I finally watched the show, "Grey’s Anatomy," to understand what all the hype was about. I went to a yoga class with my friend (and promptly determined that there was a reason I had not done yoga during all of high school). I still thought about college and applications, but I also made space for new explorations and existing passions. Ultimately, when it finally came time to hear the admission result, I was nervous (that is totally normal), but ready!

You May Say I'm A Dreamer

For the past three years, I’ve kept the same slip of paper pinned to the bulletin board in my dorm room. It reads:

“I think guitar groups are becoming passé.” – Record Company Executive in his 1962 rejection letter, one of many sent to the unsigned Liverpool-based band known as The Beatles.

In 1963, The Beatles became the biggest musical group in England.

In 1964, The Beatles became the biggest band in the world.

Each day, I carry these words with me.

At a university like Princeton, rejection is inevitable. Here, I am surrounded by some of the smartest, most talented people I have ever met. And I wouldn’t change that for anything. This is the path I chose, and it is the path I would choose time and again if I had to do it all over. The path is not easy, but I never wanted it to be. I came to Princeton wanting to grow. To push myself, to be inspired—to learn just how much I do not know.

And so, whenever I open an email and see the familiar words: “Thank you for your application. Unfortunately, we are unable to accept you at this time," my mind returns to The Beatles. The words on that little slip of paper have taught me not to fear rejection, but rather to embrace it as a reminder that I am brave. I am resilient. I am here.

Just years before founding Disney World, Walt Disney was fired by a news editor for “lack of imagination.” Growing up, Albert Einstein was oftentimes called “mentally handicapped” by teachers who said that he would amount to nothing. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” was rejected by publishers 12 times. One rejection letter advised Rowling to “get a day job” because she had “no future in writing children’s novels.” The net worth of these individuals? Sky-high. The look on their critics’ faces as they realized how foolish they'd been? Priceless. As J.K. Rowling states: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default."

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default. 

Naysayers are nothing. Live the life you’ve imagined. Audition for your favorite a cappella group. Interview for a position you’re passionate about, even when you know you’re not the most qualified candidate. Apply for that ultra-competitive summer internship in Paris. Whether you wind up munching on a baguette in front of the Eiffel Tower or adding another tier to the tower of rejection letters in your dorm room, you’ll know that you put yourself out there. You lived.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…” Listen to the boy from Liverpool. You’re in good company, after all.

Image: dreamer_0.jpg