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The Troubled Sleep of Admissions Deans

Sometimes, Ken Anselment dreams that he’s standing at a podium in an auditorium full of prospective students. And he’s sweating—a lot. Mr. Anselment, director of admissions at Lawrence University, in Wisconsin, is a few minutes into his presentation when he forgets what he’s supposed to say. “They all expect some wisdom,” he says, “and nothing comes out.”

In an article this week, I describe the infamous “exam dream,” which haunts college presidents and professors, as well as many Americans who just happen to have attended college. While working on this story, I wondered: What kind of nightmares plague people who work in admissions?

The profession, which involves high-stakes expectations and annual cycles of uncertainty, seems particularly ripe for anxiety dreams. Each day admissions officers wake up in a competitive world, and they go to bed thinking about the latest enrollment projections, which apply complex mathematical formulas to the whims of those capricious creatures known as teenagers.

No wonder some admissions deans say they often don’t sleep well. Mr. Anselment has woken up fretting about what would happen if Lawrence were to see a 0-percent “yield” on admissions offers, and also about what would happen if it were to see a 100-percent yield. Both outcomes are terrifying.

And then there’s that unsettling image of meddling students setting fire to the university’s servers, wiping out everyone’s applications. “These are not logical thoughts,” Mr. Anselment says, “but still …”

Among admissions officers, work-related nightmares pick up during application-reading season. Jeannine C. Lalonde, senior assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia, writes a popular admissions blog that attracts nasty comments from denied applicants each April. About this time last year, she dreamed that someone had asked to see her at the front desk. When she walked out, the visitor shot her in the stomach. “I think I was worried about fielding angry comments online once decisions came out,” she says.

In late February, when there’s much pressure to evaluate zillions of admissions files, Angel B. Pérez tends to dream about an endless stack of SAT-score reports piling up and up and up. Mr. Pérez, director of admission at Pitzer College, in California, sleeps poorly in the weeks leading up to the May 1 deposit deadline. Once he dreamed that, on the first day of classes, no students showed up.

“Deep down inside,” he says, “you know it’s going to work out … but there is always that stress in the back of your mind that if too many or too little students enroll, there are grave implications for the college.”

Each April, Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president for admission and financial aid at Willamette University, in Oregon, calculates and recalculates her benchmarks each day. And she sometimes dreams that she can’t get packed and to the airport in time to make her flight. The theme is a loss of control, which, she says, “is my subconscious trying to work out the uncertainty of the job.”

Martha (Marty) O’Connell worked in admissions for almost 30 years. Back in the day, she gave a zillion campus tours—first as a student, then as assistant dean of admissions—at Rutgers University. She would dream about walking (backward, of course) into “Passion Puddle,” a pond on the New Brunswick campus. Splash!

Later on, Ms. O’Connell often had nightmares about losing a canvas L.L. Bean bag stuffed with application files. In the dream, she would be walking off an airplane when she realized that she had left the bag in the overheard bin. Or she would be driving along a highway when she remembered that she had left the bag on the roof of her car. Or she would have just put the keys to the rental car in the drop box when she realized the bag was still inside the vehicle.

“I would be walking around begging people to help me get the bag back,” says Ms. O’Connell, who is now executive director of Colleges That Change Lives. “Real panic!”

Ms. O’Connell still has those dreams, only these days she succeeds in finding the bag. It’s always empty. “I guess that is the loss I feel about not reading files anymore,” she says.

In other words, you can leave an admissions job, but the job might not ever leave you. Sleep tight!

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