By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Mary Lou Bates is vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
She graduated from Niskayuna High School with the class of 1968. Her husband, William, graduated in 1967, and they still live in Niskayuna today. Their three sons, Jeffrey, Ben and Alex, all graduated from Niskayuna High School, as well. All three also attended Skidmore.
Recently, Bates took an hour from her busy schedule reviewing early-decision applications to answer some career and college questions for Your Niskayuna readers. Some of her responses are edited for space.
Q: What career path led you to higher education and, specifically, admissions?
A: I went to Mount Holyoke College, and worked on the admissions staff there for two years. I returned to the area to get married. There was a job opening at Skidmore, and I worked my way up from assistant director of admissions to vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid.
Q: What is it like to work in admissions?
A: We have a full-time staff of thirteen counselors, and we have a group of people who do interviewing for us and help out with reading [applications]. We have about 20 readers for regular decision. Each application is thoroughly read by at least two of the readers, and then I see a lot of them. I read all of the early decisions, which is usually a pool of about 400 between two rounds. Early decision kids have said, ‘If admitted, I will be enrolling.’
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about admissions work is it has a very cyclical nature. We’re all on the road from mid-September to mid-November, traveling all over the country and all over the world, interacting with students and high school counselors. Then November comes and we get down to the business of reading.
Everybody in admissions loves to travel, but by the end of fall we’re ready to totally unpack our suitcases and put them in the closet.
Q: What has changed about working in higher education since you started your career?
A: In my 40-plus years working in admissions, it has become high stakes. Students are looking [at colleges] earlier. After the first of the year, high school juniors will be looking at colleges in earnest. There’s a lot of overlap. Early decisions go out in December and February, and regular decisions at the end of March. At the same time, we’re seeing hundreds of juniors. In April, we’ll have accepted-student events for [high school] seniors, but juniors are out in full force as well. There may be a case to be made that it’s become too anxiety-ridden, too tense. But certainly in large areas of this country, including the Northeast, it’s a big deal for families. They’re anxious about it and eager to get started.
A lot of the national press certainly focuses on the pressure points in the process and talks often about the uber-selective schools with acceptance rates in the single digits. That’s really only a very short list of schools, but that, in many cases, makes parents anxious. At Skidmore, our acceptance rate is about 35 percent of the applicants. Last year 8,700 students applied, and we admitted about 35 percent to enroll a freshman class of about 725.
Q: What has changed about Skidmore since you began working there?
A: When I came to Skidmore in 1974 we were still a very young college. Skidmore was only founded as four-year institution in 1922, and we were in process of building a campus. Our endowment at that time was about $3 million. Now, it’s about $340 million.
In the late ’70s, we left the old campus and moved to the new one. It really is an amazing story and an exciting story. There’s a really strong, almost palpable feeling of momentum.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about your job?
A: The downside is having to disappoint students who do want to come to your college. I think the applicant pools have grown, and we do have to turn away a lot of students who would be terrific at Skidmore. Most of the students who apply are qualified. They’ve looked at our profile. They’ve talked to their counselors. But we can’t accept all of those who would be successful and would like to come.
Another challenge is that private colleges are not inexpensive. When it comes to financial aid, we never have enough. Skidmore is very committed to providing financial aid; it’s the second-largest component in our institutional budget. We still don’t have as much as we would like to have.
Q: When reading applications, what connects you to the students who submitted them?
A: We love the essays, and we love reading the recommendations. We ask for two teachers and counselors, and they really help paint a very three-dimensional picture of a young person. There’s plenty of objective information, but the essay, the recommendations and the activities they’re involved in really flesh out that skeleton of a transcript.
Q: What are your memories of going to school in Niskayuna?
A: Niskayuna High School was, and is, a great place. I am still very close with probably 10 or 12 high school classmates that I see regularly. One lives in Alaska, one in Boston, one in Florida. There are about five or six of us who, every summer since about 1979, have gotten together. I think the friendships, bonds and sense of community that we had in the mid- to late ’60s was really special. We got an amazing education at Niskayuna.
Q: What advice would you offer to young people who are interested in higher education careers?
A: I would say that when you get to your undergraduate college, seek out opportunities to engage in admissions. Colleges have campus tour guides who are really important. There are students who have opportunities to do hosting and work as ambassadors. I think that will both give a young person an idea of whether they like the work, and also will help them build some credentials that will qualify them to be a realistic applicant to entry-level admissions jobs.
A lot of students seek me out to ask about careers in admissions. Two of my three sons’ first entry-level jobs were in admissions.