An insider’s look into the Office of Admissions

Graphic by Emma Martin ’20

Graphic by Emma Martin ’20


Every year, the month of March is marked with anxiety for students awaiting admissions decisions from their top colleges. For many students, this time of year is a culmination of standardized tests, all-nighters spent finishing college essays and hours devoted to extracurricular activities. The experience, however, doesn’t just wear down students; it can also be stressful for admissions officers who must read hundreds of applications in a month and make decisions that will affect students for the next four years of their lives.

Gail Berson, dean of Admissions, sits in her office littered with stress toys for hours at a time as she reads through hundreds of applications in the busy months leading up to March. Admitting to the subjective nature of her job, Berson said, “It is important to understand that I make human decisions. I am forced to choose between great candidates and I have to make excruciating decisions as a result. There are always students I want to take but can’t.” Berson and her fellow admissions officers are often faced with reading two or three applications in an hour due to time constraints and they can only accept a small pool of students from the applications they receive. The result is admittedly painful. “There is always heartache when a student who is a great fit can’t be accepted. It is simply the nature of the business,” Berson explained. 

There are positive sides to the process for Berson as well, one of which is forging relationships with students. “There are always students who you get emotionally invested in, and our office is often in contact with some students throughout the admissions period,” Berson said. “It is always exciting to welcome them and to be a witness to their accomplishments.” Ale Cabezas ’21 recalls receiving her acceptance letter inside a thick manila envelope. “There was a personal message in my acceptance letter about my college essay,” she said. “That was the most memorable moment for me because it showed they connected with what I wrote.”

A noteworthy aspect of admissions at Mount Holyoke is the high number of international applicants. According to Berson, international students  comprise about 27 percent of the student body and make up about one-third of the applicants each year. 

International diversity, however, has also posed challenges in the past for admissions as a result of the changing political landscape in the United States. “The process has become unpredictable to an extent because sometimes we can’t be sure if students who have been accepted will be able to obtain visas,” said Berson. 

Last year’s travel ban, however, posed no significant challenges as none of the international students accepted were from the listed countries. To prevent any visa complications, the admissions office admits that students from countries where such problems may arise are not actively recruited. Berson said, “It is an unfortunate state, but if a student can’t obtain a visa to get here, then it is more likely that they won’t be accepted.” 

Another challenging aspect of the admissions process in the past has been the College’s need-sensitive financial policy. After renouncing need-blind admissions more than a decade ago due to climbing costs, Mount Holyoke has maintained its need-sensitive policy and Berson finds it difficult to image a policy change during her tenure. “I hope my successor has a much easier job, but the reality is that we are working within a budget every year and it is impossible for us to admit students who express extremely high financial need. We simply cannot afford it,” Berson said. 

Although a need-blind admissions policy may remain elusive for the next decade or so, the admissions office is hopeful that alums may be able to bring change. Repeated efforts are being made to encourage alums to make financial contributions which Berson believes is “the single most important way to bring about change in admissions policy.”