Redesign how the Bowdoin admissions department works, in order to help staff meet growing demands
A new method of reading applications that lets staff work more effectively and confidently
With a record number of applicants, stiff competition for top students, and a desire to make classes more diverse, college admissions teams are feeling the strain. Bowdoin College in Maine, one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., received more applications for the class of 2022 than for any other in its 224-year history.
Whitney Soule, Bowdoin’s Dean of Admissions and Student Aid, saw her staff at risk of burning out. On the advice of Bowdoin’s president, Clayton Rose, she invited IDEO to embed at the college and help design a new way of working. The IDEO team studied Bowdoin’s workflow and zeroed in on the application process as an area ripe for redesign.
We selected IDEO because they are deeply skilled at helping us understand and create fundamental change, while preserving and enhancing what’s special about what we do and who we are.
Clayton Rose, President, Bowdoin College
By observing how Bowdoin counselors read applications, IDEO learned what drove their decisions. Mindful of how their choices could impact young people’s lives, counselors prioritized a meticulous reading of each application. But this thorough approach meant they often engaged in redundant work or delayed making final decisions.
The IDEO team created a custom publication to showcase the admissions staff and their core values.
IDEO designers translated their insights into a book for staff, featuring watercolor portraits of the admissions team and a clear articulation of their values—from integrity to inclusion. The book was IDEO’s promise that introducing a new reading process wouldn’t mean sacrificing Bowdoin’s personal touch.
Then, the designers and counselors ran A/B tests using real applications from past years, unwinding long-held beliefs about how they “should” be read. Soule and her team experimented by adjusting timelines and other factors that determine when and how applications move from a first read to a second read to a committee discussion.
Soule gave her team explicit permission to toss their typical playbook. Seeing their own process with fresh eyes, counselors realized they could be more confident in their expertise and tweak their workflow to meet changing demands.
Soule and her team holed up with IDEO in a work room on the Bowdoin campus to run A/B tests using real applications.
A/B testing proved that some variables had little effect on the team’s final admissions decisions. With that in mind, IDEO redesigned the reading process and included a system called “magic sort,” which helps parse groups of applications based on a new set of counselor assessments in order to route each to its next round of reviews more efficiently.
The IDEO-Bowdoin team put the revised technique to work right away, processing 300 new applications from the annual QuestBridge program for low-income students. Counselors found they were able to make equally valid decisions while cutting the amount of overlapping work they faced by 40 percent, compared to years past.
Working with IDEO challenged us to change the way we work together—and we learned a new method of problem solving that we continue to use. We are better equipped to elicit creativity, then channel it into the practical implementation of new solutions. It’s been transformative!
Whitney Soule, Dean of Admissions and Student Aid, Bowdoin College
The new reading method let staff cope with a growing volume of applications, while balancing the need to evaluate individual students with the need to think holistically about the makeup of Bowdoin’s student body. Counselors adapted the technique to the rest of the year’s admissions cycle, including early-decision, regular decision, and transfer applications.
To extend what her team learned to other departments, Soule has led several design thinking workshops across campus. Her success as a leader has mirrored the growth of her team and the college; by empowering staff with new tools and the freedom to experiment, Soule and Bowdoin are leading by example in the evolving world of higher education.