Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
“What are you going to do with the education that you get here?”

Editor’s note: PAW spoke with Dean of Admission Karen Richardson ’93 on May 18, a month before the University announced its decision to pause its standardized testing requirement for undergraduate applicants and move to one application deadline for the 2020-21 academic year.

Dean of Admission Karen Richardson ’93’s office, like most at the University, has been doing its work in a largely digital environment, engaging with admitted students and potential applicants through videoconferences and virtual information sessions. Current students are fielding questions from applicants as well, and videos are available for those who can’t participate in the live sessions. “We’re doing our best to provide as much as we would here, if people could actually come to campus,” says Richardson, who returned to Princeton last July after serving as admissions dean at Tufts University. She spoke with PAW about the current admission landscape and what she looks for when assembling a class.

“I’m thankful that we had this spring to have everyone get really comfortable with this virtual experience, because I think we’re going to see a lot of that in the fall.” — Karen Richardson ’93, dean of admission 

In what ways did the admission office have to adapt, in the wake of COVID-19, to complete the admission cycle for the Class of 2024?

Luckily we had finished our committee meetings by the time we needed to leave Morrison Hall, so the class had been selected at that point. The biggest change was that without being able to have visitors to campus, we needed to figure out how we could bring Princeton to this group of admitted students and have a virtual experience. Princeton Preview is what we would normally do: two different days where students can come and spend 24 to 36 hours learning about our faculty, student groups, and what it’s like to live on campus. We needed to shift very quickly and do all of that online. So that was the biggest shift, and honestly I’m quite proud of the team because they did an amazing job with it — not just our staff but the current students they worked with to bring Princeton to life through a computer screen.

As we look forward, we need to be thinking about how we recruit the Class of 2025, if it’s still going to be difficult to get into high schools or if it’s going to be difficult to be on planes and trains and everything else. I’m thankful that we had this spring to have everyone get really comfortable with this virtual experience, because I think we’re going to see a lot of that in the fall. 

Standardized testing may be a challenge in the coming year. How are you adjusting the way that you’ll include standardized tests in your evaluations?

Editor’s note: Richardson’s response reflects Princeton’s policy at the time of the interview in mid-May. A month later, the University decided to pause its standardized testing requirement for undergraduate applicants in 2020-21.

We’re keeping a very close eye on everything that’s happening with the College Board and the ACT. Both of the testing agencies are increasing the number of opportunities for students to take the tests. It’s still a bit up in the air about what form the tests will take in the fall. We still believe that testing is an important part of the evaluation that we do. The challenge is that sometimes people think that testing is about weeding people out of the process. It’s just one part of the holistic process that we look at for an individual student. 

Our goal is always to ensure that the students whom we admit can feel like they can thrive here academically. Because we have students who come from thousands of different high schools that have different grading policies, the standardized testing, in context — looking at a student’s background, looking at the high school averages, looking at whether or not they might have had access to test prep — is an indicator, for us, of whether the student will be able to come here and really feel like they can succeed. 

High unemployment seems likely to increase the demand for financial aid. What message are you sending to incoming students and to applicants about the availability of aid?

We’re obviously very lucky to be in a place where we have, I think, the best aid program in the country. We’re going to meet the need that students have. It’s been especially important to work with our incoming students because a lot of their families unfortunately are seeing changes in their finances. But we’re trying to remind students that if you’re admitted here and you decide that you would like to attend Princeton, we want to ensure that you have the finances to be able to do that. 

For the incoming class, have you seen an increase in deferral requests?

[As of mid-May] I can honestly say that we haven’t seen a huge uptick. I think that some of that will depend on what plans are for the fall. We have changed our deadline: In normal years, students would let us know by about May 10 whether or not they would request a gap year; our deadline for that is now July 15. I suspect as things continue to move along we will see more requests for deferral, but at this point we’re not beyond where we would be in a normal year. 

How do you approach assembling a class? What are you hoping to accomplish?

We’re looking to bring together a class that’s going to be interesting and dynamic and diverse in a lot of different ways; that’s going to come together and really contribute to what we hope are respectful conversations — tough conversations sometimes. But they’re also going to learn from other people and take what they learn here and then turn it around and really do some good in the world. 

One of the many reasons I was excited to come back here is because of the University’s definition of merit: this idea that it’s about, “What are you going to do with the education that you get here?” So we’re looking not just at the grades and the test scores and the rigor of the curriculum, but we’re also looking to see who is the student, what’s important to them, and what will they contribute to the dynamic community that is Princeton? 

“We’re looking to bring together a class that’s going to be interesting and dynamic and diverse in a lot of different ways.” — Karen Richardson ’93

A frequent critique from PAW readers has been that the news about an admitted class does not include the sort of academic statistics that one might have once read — the number of valedictorians, the number of students with perfect SAT scores. What academic data do you think best illustrates the quality of a Princeton class?

Trying to list the number of valedictorians and perfect SAT scores doesn’t tell you as much about a class and about how this group of students is coming together. The flip side of reporting all of that is that you’ve got a lot of valedictorians, and you could fill the class with only valedictorians and only students with perfect test scores, but I don’t think that tells you everything about who a student will be when they come to this campus. I think it’s not just about those quantitative pieces. It’s the reason that we ask for more than just grades and test scores. It’s the reason that we ask our students to fill out a supplement and write essays and provide us with teacher recommendations and offer them the opportunity to have an interview. We’re trying to dig a little bit deeper.

Princeton has now had three years of transfer admissions. Is that program meeting its goal of attracting students from diverse backgrounds and experiences? 

I believe it is, yes. We’re thrilled this year, for the first time, to have two students from Mercer County Community College who were admitted and who plan to attend. So the fact that we were able to attract and admit students from right here in this county is a huge boon for the University. The admits from the transfer program this year are mostly community-college students. We’re seeing a number of veterans who have been admitted through the transfer process. We have been very pleased with the outcomes.

You’ve been back at Princeton for nearly a year. What stands out when you compare Princeton today to the Princeton that you knew as a student?

Well, the physical landscape has changed. The building I lived in as a first-year and a sophomore doesn’t even exist anymore. I lived in Butler College. But I think the thing that is the same is the focus on undergraduates and this intense support that exists for students who come here — everything from advising in your first year to independent work starting in junior year to the senior thesis. It’s a unique experience, I think, for there to be so much attention paid to undergraduates and knowing that the faculty and staff that are here are here because they want to work with you as an undergraduate. 

I think there are a lot more supports for students. The residential colleges continue to do a great job in supporting students academically and socially. And I think that there is a lot more collaboration across different departments here on campus that allows for the support for all students who are coming from different high schools and different backgrounds and for whom Princeton can be a shock to the system.

Interview conducted and condensed by B.T.