Lee A. Coffin, Tufts University

This month 5 Questions for the Dean is delighted to host Lee A. Coffin, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Join Dean Coffin to hear more about Tufts' creative "optional" essays and the school's future direction. And did you know that the Tufts all-male a cappella group The Beelzebubs are the voice behind Glee's Warblers?!?

1. Tufts is known for its “optional” essays on the application—for example, creating a video, or the direction to do something with a piece of paper.  What is the value of giving applicants an alternate means of expressing themselves?


There are a couple of important questions bunched together in this one, so let me split up my answer.

First, you used quotations to frame the word optional, which suggests it’s not really optional.  This is a common assumption: many students and parents presume that “optional” means “required,” whether the optional element is an essay, an interview or even standardized testing (at those colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT). “Optional” is not a trick word: if a college says something is optional, it really is an option that you can elect to submit or omit.  I promise.  College admission officers are not being sneaky.

As that slippery word relates to the Tufts Supplement, the optional essays are an invitation to spotlight your creativity and individuality.  Here are the instructions for that section of our application:  “Think outside the box when you answer the following questions.  Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected.  Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.” Playfulness is such an important quality, and it’s certainly one of the characteristics that define the Tufts “vibe.”  The degree of whimsy reflected in our supplement is our way of giving you permission to be you, to embrace your authentic identity as a 17 year old.

Our optional section usually includes one or two questions that are not writing- based, like a video that “says something about you” or the invitation to “do something with an 8x11 piece of paper.”  What’s the value?  Written expression is not the only way that people communicate or express themselves; we wanted to offer you a formal opportunity to showcase other talents.  If your story is best told via video, or if you have a keen facility with that medium, use it to offer us a peek at your spoken word poetry, your prowess at stop-action animation, or your harmonies as an a cappella singer (did you know the Tufts Beelzebubs are the voices behind The Warblerson Glee?).  Maybe you’re an aspiring engineer who designs various gadgets or a budding architect; do you draw political cartoons for the school newspaper, write computer code in your free time or sketch costumes for the spring musical?  Use the blank sheet of paper to show us what you can produce.  The only downside of this question: we’ve received a lot of origami elephants (our mascot) over the years…

2. Why is college so expensive?


Affordability is a huge topic on every college campus and in every applicant’s home.

The former president of Tufts, an economist, often answered this question by saying that the things “elite” colleges do very well and that most applicants desire—cutting-edge scholarly research, close student-faculty contact and contemporary facilities—are expensive.  And that poses a Catch-22 for colleges like Tufts: how can we deliver the kind of high-quality, high-impact undergraduate education that defines this type of experience while simultaneously controlling costs?

Let me give one example to illustrate the financial conundrum we face: science education is very, very expensive.  Faculty salaries, state-of-the-art research laboratories and the related technology all demand increased resources from a college.  To do 21st century science well—to retain outstanding science faculty who could earn substantial salaries if they switched from academia to industry—requires a continual investment in human and facilities infrastructure.  A chemistry lab built in the 1970s can’t support those objectives, and that adds up.

To offset the rising costs as much as we can, need-based financial aid continues to be a top priority for many colleges and universities.  Applicants should ask a couple of key questions about an institution’s need-based aid policy: does the college meet 100 percent of demonstrated need and does it guarantee to meet that need for all four years (assuming your family’s circumstances do not change)?  Each is a critical question.

3. What is the future direction of Tufts?


Tufts is poised at an exciting moment.  We completed a $1.2 billion capital campaign in June and a new president—a world-class geneticist from Oxford who Tweets like a chorus of birds—was just inaugurated in October.  President Monaco has not yet framed his vision for Tufts but, considering his exceptional background in genetics, I think some exciting initiatives in the sciences are likely.

The School of Engineering has developed an intriguing interdisciplinary curriculum in sustainability, with strong faculty clusters in areas like wind energy and water, and the environmental studies major in Arts & Sciences is undergoing a comprehensive curriculum enhancement this year that will add new concentrations in interdisciplinary areas like environmental justice and environmental communications, to name a couple.  There’s an exciting new major in cognitive studies, which merges some of our traditional strengths in philosophy and child development with neuroscience, and the faculty is having a lively conversation about the future of the humanities in the digital age.  Our international focus is one of our longstanding strengths, and we’ve been looking for opportunities to enhance our depth in this area by adding a study abroad program in the Middle East.

4. What would you most want an applicant to Tufts to know?


At Tufts, it’s cool to be smart.  That’s not necessarily the case in high school, where “cool” doesn’t always align with academic achievement and intellectual engagement, but it’s true at Tufts.  Our application invites creativity because we’re looking for students who have excelled in the classroom and are ready to roll up their sleeves and play with that intelligence.  Being “smart” doesn’t just mean earning A's and scoring big on a standardized test.  It’s cool to be smart at Tufts because we give undergraduates an opportunity to engage their academic chops in a community of like-minded peers with a faculty that excels at teaching as well as research.  It’s our philosophy that those who are highly educated should use their knowledge to make a difference in the world -- to examine complex problems like climate change, the volatility of global markets, infectious disease and the fragilities of new democracies, to name a few topics President Monaco highlighted in his inaugural address last month.  Tufts faculty and students are exploring all of those topics and their ideas are really fascinating.

5. What is your favorite thing about Tufts?


Maybe this is such an obvious answer from the dean of admissions but I love Tufts' students.  They’re thoughtful and quirky and down-to-earth and earnest.  It is so interesting to have conversations with them because they don’t always follow conventional wisdom or stereotypes, and that’s definitely an intentional outcome of our admission process.  We want to shape an undergraduate community that mixes people from eclectic backgrounds and perspectives and see what happens when they interact.  For example, one of my favorite pre-major advisees (I advise 10-12 students in each entering class) is an African-American from a DC charter school who’s a conservative Republican who plans to major in history and religion before he joins the Air Force.  Every time he appears in my doorway, I know something interesting is going to come out of his mouth, especially when we discuss the upcoming presidential election.  He keeps me on my toes!  That kind of interaction is not uncommon at Tufts.  We attract activists (in other words, students who aren't passive) and thinkers, people who don’t simply accept the status quo.  Jumbos like to mix it up. They have depth.  And they are uncommonly likable people.

Each month we turn the tables on a Dean of Admission and pose five questions. If you've enjoyed hearing Dean Coffin's thoughts, perhaps you'd like to pose your own question for a Dean of Admission or nominate a Dean for us to feature. We may ask their best advice for applicants, their thoughts on the current state of college admission, how their office reads applications, or the most surprising fact about their college or university. Please send us your ideas and questions at authors@collegeadmissionbook.com. 

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