How much wood does a woodchuck chuck?

I know, I know. This title is completely wrong. The phrase properly is, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck. I know this. But still, it is the wrong phrase that keeps running through my head.

Today is my first day of reading applications for the 2012-13 admissions season; up until now, the pace of fall recruiting travel has made cuddling up with application files impossible. (Our system is old-school; we still use tough-to-transport paper. Just think of the potential checked-bag fees!) It is an indicator of my suitability for my job, or perhaps of mental illness, that I was so excited to spend the day reading that I was wide awake and out of bed at 5 a.m., coffee in one hand, file in another. This early start meant, I am sorry to say, that several members of the admissions staff started their days with pesky emails from me, inquiring about this or that apparent small processing anomaly; generally, I think it is kind to let people have 15 or so minutes of adjustment to the work day before haranguing them, but alas, I just couldn’t wait. I was excited!!

Often, I am asked how long it takes me to read an application. My answer is necessarily vague, for a variety of reasons—the principal reason being that the length of time varies a great deal depending on the particular application. Is everything straightforward and consistent? Does it all make sense? Does a once-through read leave a clear impression of the candidate? If so, whether the outcome is positive or negative, it’s pretty quick. (In the first year or two of reading files, there are a lot of start-up costs; you have to figure out where on each page to look for certain information, and how information is typically presented. After 12 years and roughly 70,000 files, this much I have mastered.)

But when a file raises questions—What exactly does this employer do? Why does this person even want to go to law school? What should I make of this inconsistent record—is this person capable of doing the work here or not? What on earth was going on for this 18-month blank spot? Why does my read of this personal statement lead me to the opposite conclusion of the first person who read it?—one has to devote more time: to figuring out whether to chase down answers and/or actually doing the chasing down, and then, to figuring out what one thinks once one has the answers in hand.

Reading application files for the first time each season feels a bit like cranking up some old piece of crusted-up machinery. Or perhaps, because I love my running analogies, the first mile after a long hiatus. You have to get things going, get into gear. How do we do this, again? This morning, the ratio of questions to answers is . . . suboptimal. I have stared at individual files, trying to make up my mind, for far too long; I have gone back to re-read individual files far too many times. The pile of files I have set aside to revisit is tall; the pile of files where I have made decisions is dishearteningly short.

And thus the phrase running through my head: How much wood does a woodchuck chuck? Not much, and very slowly.

* * *

Happy news. I wrote the above during my first break from reading. Now I am on my second break, and I can feel the cobwebs coming off. This task is becoming comprehensible to me again; I’m on metaphorical mile two or three, and the number of files where my reaction is, “I love this person!” has multiplied astronomically. Time to go back and re-read that first round with clear eyes.

-Dean Z. Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Planning