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Top Choice

How Santa Clara University goes to great lengths to evaluate—and win over—star applicants.

A dozen teenagers in nametags sit waiting, some nervous, knees bouncing beneath their desks. At 9:30 a.m. that Friday in April, Fr. Robert Scholla takes a seat among them. After introducing himself as a faculty fellow, he picks up the assigned text and asks for their thoughts about it. One young woman, hand raised halfway, speaks right up. Then another chimes in: “I would add to that….” The competition, polite but intense, is on.

Nearly 50 high-school seniors have come to Santa Clara University seeking a prize. Already admitted here but still deciding where to enroll, they are finalists for the Johnson Scholars Program. The university annually selects 10 incoming freshmen it believes will become bold, big-hearted campus leaders. The chosen 10 get a full ride. Study-abroad opportunities. A summer stipend for an internship, research, or service. As scholarships go, it’s a treasure, one that eases financial burdens, confers privileges, and crowns recipients with a sense of purpose.

To claim it—as Santa Clara vies to claim them—the students must prove themselves on many fronts. This year the small Jesuit institution in Silicon Valley invited about 200 of its highest-achieving applicants to apply for the scholarship by submitting an additional essay, on Pope Francis’s moral case for confronting global environmental problems. Choosing the finalists who seemed to possess the right intangibles, the university paid their way to the campus. Then came an all-day, multistage audition, for both sides.

Each year selective colleges and accomplished students perform a recruitment dance. Any merit-based award is an enticement to enroll, but prestigious scholarship programs involve more than the disbursement of dollars. For campus and candidate alike, pride and aspirations are also at stake.

The selection process cuts both ways. Colleges express their highest institutional ideals, trying to win over students who may most help achieve them. Teenagers find out how much promise an institution sees in them, and if they measure up to an even higher standard than mere admission.

Santa Clara engages in an especially elaborate version of this annual rite. Evaluation day begins with an hourlong chat. In the library, Fr. Scholla, a warm man with a gentle manner, guides one group of finalists through a lively discussion. They have been told to read Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads. Fr. Scholla, who promotes engagement through the university’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, asks students to reflect on the book. And reflect they do.

Sitting in a circle under a bank of bright lights, mostly calm and confident, the finalists discuss the importance of inward journeys and going beyond comfort zones. A few relate a ritual in Chapter 4 ("Washing Feet: Authentic Power Is Service") to their own experiences. A young man in a "Boy Scouts Troop 641" T-shirt likens a passage to a line from Hamlet. As in a typical seminar, some students say a lot more than others. Though many speak eloquently, a few just ramble.

Rachael Han, sporting black-and-white Adidas sneakers, is the only one who poses a question of her own: "What did you guys think about Pope Francis writing a personal creed, and how does that influence his spontaneity?"

Ms. Han, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, comes from Burr Ridge, a suburb of Chicago. She has long worried whether she would somehow stand out in the admissions process. Stung by a rejection from an Ivy League college, she is seeking a place somewhere that might appreciate who she is: a hard-core studier who cares about social justice, an aspiring engineer interested in water conservation, a Buddhist who competes on the speech team, a "talker" who also likes to listen.

At Santa Clara that morning, Ms. Han is so absorbed in the discussion that she barely notices the woman seated outside the circle, the one quietly taking notes.

Observing a student for an hour won’t tell you everything. But it can provide meaningful insights, says Amy Shachter.

As the finalists converse, Ms. Shachter, director of the Johnson Scholars Program and senior associate provost for research and faculty affairs, pencils notes. Minute by minute, she keeps an ear out for thoughtful comments. Who connects ideas? Who moves the dialogue forward? Who really listens?

Ms. Shachter fills her page with plus signs for positive contributions. Beneath the name of a student who responds considerately to another’s remark, she writes, "+ in respectful way." One who refers to specific passages gets "++ book references." A student who repeatedly draws out her peers earns a triple plus. Beside the name of a young man who talks about himself—a lot—she jots down a minus sign; "point?" she writes. "ran on a bit."

Santa Clara offers other scholarships that reward applicants for academic achievement. The Johnson program is meant to attract accomplished students who are also proven leaders dedicated to service, reflective types who, as one administrator says, will "stir the water" on this civic-minded campus.

And so the committee looks beyond titles like class president, inquiring instead about the applicants’ actions, Ms. Shachter says, especially those that benefit others. The finalists are rated with a rubric that emphasizes respectful conduct, attentiveness, and collaboration.

Although the program lives out Santa Clara’s Jesuit ideals, it also serves the practical purpose of competing with other colleges for the types of students whom professors love to teach, the kind who might win Fulbright or Rhodes scholarships one day. "There’s a downstream value to this in terms of the exposure we might get," says Michael Sexton, vice president for enrollment management. "It’s the student’s teacher, counselor, or parents talking about the university."

The Johnson program began three years ago, when Rupert H. Johnson Jr., a billionaire who had long served on the university’s board, and his wife, Maryellie, donated $5 million to establish a scholarship. It would attract students who otherwise might not enroll, providing them with an experience, a chance to belong to a tight-knit community of like-minded peers. "In the past," Ms. Schacter says, "we’ve not been able to offer that complete package, which has left us at a disadvantage in attracting that high-caliber student."

Generally, teenagers who hop on planes to vie for lucrative awards are teenagers with plenty of options. Ms. Han sure is. After all her worry, she has been accepted by several well-known colleges, including the University of Southern California, which offered her a half-tuition scholarship in March. She figures she’ll enroll there unless she ends up liking Santa Clara more—and then only if she wins a spot in the Johnson program. Though confident enough as the book discussion ends, she tries to keep her expectations in check.

After a 15-minute break, the finalists all sit down in a computer lab to write an essay of no more than 1,000 words. They must choose one of three prompts on leadership and anchor their responses to the same Pope Francis book. There’s silence but for the furious clicking of keyboards. Some finalists later recall those 75 minutes as the most stressful part of the day.

Ms. Han writes about how leaders must identify their flaws and rise above them. She describes a recent hike in California, how the sight of sky and mountains lightened her mood. Those glimpses of beauty, she writes, reminded her that much is good in the world, and prompted her to consider one of her own flaws: "I get too into my head," she says, "too pessimistic." That hike, she explains in her essay, deepened her commitment to study science, so she might help solve environmental problems. She ties all that back to the reading.

At noon the finalists get some relief: a lunch break. After all the talking and typing, some look dazed. The teenagers wolf down sandwiches and chips, describing their hometowns and swapping stories about the college search. They chat easily and laugh a lot. They’re all in this together.

Like many others here, Billy Fitzpatrick, from Westfield, N.J., attends a Jesuit high school. Although he’s seriously considering the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he finds it hard to imagine life on a campus with no Jesuit tradition.

Mr. Fitzpatrick knows little about Santa Clara, which is more familiar on the West Coast than it is elsewhere. An aspiring business major who speaks thoughtfully, he’s the kind of student people here have in mind when they talk about expanding the university’s geographic reach. But that’s not easy. "I’m kind of waiting for that gut feeling," Mr. Fitzpatrick says. "This is kind of an intriguing option, but I have to decide if I want to go that far away."

Sitting at lunch, Ms. Han still feels pretty good about the discussion, but she isn’t so sure about the essay. A glance or two at the next screen had revealed that the young man beside her wrote an analysis of the text, more formal than her personal narrative. Does it matter? Would the committee prefer one kind of essay to another?

The schedule allows few moments for fretting. Promptly at 1, the finalists are ushered off to the next stage.

There’s no rule book for how to run a scholarship. The Johnson Scholars Program, which will welcome its fourth cohort this fall, remains something of an experiment. Many colleges conduct one-on-one interviews with candidates, but Santa Clara opted against that, hoping to craft a unique selection process. That includes two hours of structured group activities, one of them with toys.

After lunch, some finalists take a campus tour; others attend a class. Then they all gather in a dining hall for a series of team-leadership exercises. Divided into six groups, they sit around tables and ask one another icebreaker questions the university has provided. "Does anyone have any cool scar stories?"

The chattering finalists seem game, but no one knows exactly what’s in store. There are puzzled expressions as each group receives a bagful of Tinkertoys. Their assignment: Build a freestanding tower, as tall as possible, that will support the weight of a paper flower for 15 seconds. Hearing the instructions, a few students laugh; one groans. They have 25 minutes to use every last piece. The Santa Clara evaluators will observe communication and collaboration in the moment.

Intense discussions ensue as the students devise plans. Some take charge, others hang back. Soon plastic sticks start clicking into wooden wheels. Multicolored towers rise from tables as students assess and reassess their strategies. "It feels a little wobbly, I’m not gonna lie," says one young woman, barely touching her group’s two-foot creation, which is swaying precariously. "Do you guys wanna try to distribute the weight a little?" Defying gravity requires teamwork.

The dynamics vary from table to table. Ms. Han and other members of Group 5 are loud and spirited, dubbing themselves "the cinco sombreros." The vibe is more low-key over at Mr. Fitzpatrick’s table, where he wears a look of concentration, listening and nodding, chiming in and then leaning back again. Being observed, he says, is "intense."

After the Tinkertoys, finalists are on to another exercise. The same groups assume the role of a selection committee for an orientation-leader position. Which three of the many fictional students described on a handout would they choose, and why?

For two hours, through a third activity involving memorization and playing cards, the real selection committee’s eight members circulate, watching, listening, taking notes. Later they will rate students in five categories, including leadership and problem-solving, on a 1-to-5 scale.

Aldo Billingslea, a professor of acting and performance studies, is one of those roving around with a clipboard. He notices "the alphas," who dominate discussion, but he also looks for other expressions of leadership. After noting that the lone male in one group has hardly said a word, Mr. Billingslea waits to see which, if any, of the women will bring him into the discussion (he waits in vain before finally moving on). At another table, one young man bulldozes through the second exercise, giving loud orders and interrupting his peers. Later, when it’s his turn to speak to everyone in the room, most of the students in his group won’t even look at him. But the professor is impressed by the two who, as he puts it, "give him the courtesy of their eyes and won’t just look away."

Such moments give an idea of how students might interact with their peers at Santa Clara. "You don’t have to be an extrovert to be a leader," says Mr. Billingslea. "It’s also the ability to listen, the ability to be thoughtful."

Most any room will reveal a mix of personalities. Yet on other counts, this group of students is not especially diverse. Most of the finalists are white, a handful are Hispanic, and none is black.

That concerns Mr. Billingslea, who is also associate provost for diversity and inclusion. The scholarship program, he says, has delivered students who benefit the campus by asking tough questions and stoking meaningful activism. Although each year’s cohort has been more diverse than the last, he says, "it’s not happening fast enough so that we get the numbers of Native American, Pacific Islander, Latino, and African-American students we need."

Mr. Billingslea, who is black, suspects that grades and test scores are part of the story. The students invited to apply for the scholarship have sterling numbers on their transcripts. Also, the rigorous selection process, which requires a considerable commitment of time and effort, may appeal to some applicants but deter others, especially underrepresented students with generous offers from other colleges in hand. "There’s a competition aspect to this award that a lot of other places don’t have," he says, "and that’s one of the things we’ll need to consider."

Although he wants to see Santa Clara become more diverse, Mr. Billingslea’s fondness for the place is evident. At a dinner that evening to honor the finalists, he explains why he has stayed here for 18 years, describing the Jesuit concern for those on the margins. "I found my people," he says. "This not so much a university as a superhero training school."

In a room adorned with gold tablecloths and vases of flowers, the finalists—and their parents, who’ve had their own set of activities — get a warm greeting and a firm pitch. Although Santa Clara will offer the award to only some, campus officials hope that many others here tonight will come, too.

"We would welcome you with open arms," says Fr. Paul Crowley, a professor of religious studies. Alaina Boyle, a junior in the scholarship program, describes using her summer stipend to take a life-changing trip to Gambia, where she helped prepare young women to become teachers. An a cappella group sings "Just My Imagination," by the Temptations, whom a few millennials at one table confess they have never heard of.

After dinner, students in Santa Clara’s honors program take the finalists to the science building to watch Guardians of the Galaxy. Everyone sings "Happy Birthday" to one of them. As the teenagers finally get to relax, the selection committee braces for the days ahead.

April is the nervous month when many colleges woo admitted students and wait for deposits. As the finalists leave Santa Clara, they have just a few more weeks before the May 1 deadline to decide where they’re going. So the university must extend scholarship offers as soon as possible. Now it’s the committee’s turn to sweat a little.

Over the weekend, teams of two read the essays blind, rating each one on a yes-no-maybe-scale. The following Monday, the administrators and faculty members, notes in hand, meet to discuss the finalists, essays now matched with names. Committee members write down their highest-rated candidates in each of the three activities. Those names go on sticky notes (yellow for the essay, blue for the book discussion, pink for the leadership exercises). Then those sticky notes go up on the wall.

Some names appear again and again, others just once or twice. Soon the tricolor display reveals the top 12 or so contenders, maybe half of whom, everyone agrees, are locks for the award.

Photos of all the finalists, smiling, are also on the wall. For an hour and a half, the committee discusses many of them, deciding who’s in and who’s an alternate. One student got high marks in the first two activities but not in the leadership exercises. Is that OK? Yes, the committee decides, because the dynamics in some groups were more challenging than in others. A couple of weaker essays prompt the committee to look back at the ones those students submitted as semifinalists.

Finally, after checking the balance of gender and intended majors, the group reaches its verdicts. Last year the committee had to go to its wait list, offering the scholarship to 16 students before filling the 10 spots. This year the decision is to extend 12 offers.

Then comes the fun part. Ms. Shachter and one of her colleagues start making telephone calls. Upon hearing the good news, one young woman cries. She cannot speak. By April 19, seven of the 12 have accepted the offer.

As the month wears on, those selected as alternates must wait to learn how many recipients turn down the award. Olivia Glaser, a finalist from Portland, Ore., is one of those alternates. Halfway through evaluation day, she had been ambivalent about the prospect of a scholarship offer: "I’d be honored to receive it, but it would complicate my decision." After all, she had been leaning toward Boston College, or maybe the University of Notre Dame. But the visit—and last-minute grants from Santa Clara—sway her, and she chooses to go even though the scholarship offer didn't come her way.

Billy Fitzpatrick, who does get the scholarship, thinks long and hard. He left Santa Clara wishing he’d learned more about its business program, but the visit impressed him. He wouldn’t have seriously considered the university if not for the Johnson Scholars Program: "The opportunity to be in a community like that, I wouldn’t be getting it anywhere else. I would just be another student." He urges his college counselor to tell more students about Santa Clara, one example of the downstream effect the university anticipates.

For Mr. Fitzpatrick, money isn’t an issue, but proximity is. A few days before May 1, he decides to stay closer to home, at a place he can watch big-time basketball: Chapel Hill.

Rachael Han left liking Santa Clara a lot. The day she visited, roses everywhere flared in reds and pinks. The campus, with skateboarders coasting along walkways, felt intimate to her, cozier than USC. She had a long, encouraging chat with a professor about science. When Fr. Scholla, who led the book discussion, learned she was a Buddhist, he told her all about local Buddhist temples. Very cool of him, she thought.

But Southern California had already offered her a scholarship that would halve its $51,000 tuition. She had, she says, a $6,000 merit award from Santa Clara going into the competition, but without the full scholarship, she couldn’t imagine asking her parents to shoulder the rest of the more than $60,000 cost of attendance. She just didn’t see how she could do that.

Then Ms. Shachter calls. Ms. Han is at the gym with her mother when she learns that she has won a spot in the Johnson Scholars Program. "Oh, my God!" she exclaims. There among the treadmills, she and her mother hug.

Ms. Han sees the offer as proof that the university believes in her. "They recognize my passion," she says, "and will help me use it." She soon calls back to happily accept.

The admissions process is deeply psychological. Competing for scholarships can amplify the big question sounding in applicants’ heads: Do I have what it takes? An acceptance to college means the people there think so, but offers like the Johnson scholarship say they want you more than they want just about everyone else. Win or lose, it’s personal.

There’s a similar feeling at Santa Clara. This year the university won all of the chosen finalists except Mr. Fitzpatrick, leaving it with one more student than planned. The news encourages campus officials, who believe the program is flourishing.

Still, it’s fair to ask: Is going to such great lengths to assemble a small group of promising young leaders worth all the time and expense? Absolutely, says Mr. Billingslea, the professor who calls the university his home: "It seems to me that our future as an institution is at stake, as well as the future of these individuals and our future as a society." That might not be true, but there’s a powerful appeal in believing it.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. This article was written for and first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Santa Clara University annually selects 10 incoming freshmen it believes will become bold, big-hearted campus leaders for the Johnson Scholars Program. Photo by Joanne Lee