As the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions, Jonathan Williams spends a lot of time thinking about NYU—and about you. Here, he shares some of his knowledge about what it means to be an NYU student and offers some expert advice on your college application process.
You spend a lot of time thinking about who NYU is as a community. So who, in your eyes, is NYU?
In New York City, there are so many options. But NYU as a community embraces what it means to be global in a way that I don’t see happening anywhere else. Having 15 different sites that are very much NYU while still being fully immersed in the cities and the countries where they exist is nothing short of brilliant. And historically, NYU was a place where you could be on the come up if you got in, and I think that’s still true. We attract people from more than 100 countries with every kind of background. It’s this incredible blend that, if you really think about it, also defines New York City. So above all else, these things, in my estimation, make us peerless.
What kind of student is a good fit for NYU?
Students ask me all the time, “What is NYU looking for?” We need poets, we need athletes, and we need physicists. We need all types of people because we have more than 230 different areas of study. This question will drive any candidate crazy. The admissions office is committed to providing a holistic evaluation for our applicants. That means our admissions process takes into account everything you present to us. So tell us who you are and what you want. We look at your application in context—in the context of your high school experiences, your community, and the program you’re applying to. We also look at your application in the context of our institutional priorities. And we have a lot of those, which means we need lots of different kinds of students.
So the best question to ask during the college application process is, “What do I want?”
That’s what this process is all about. It’s hard to stay focused on that, because there’s all this hype about which schools folks feel like they have to get into. The struggle is real. But the questions you need to ask yourself, for the most part, are pretty basic. What do you like academically? Do you like to be challenged? Do you like the idea of being in a large urban private research institution or does the small liberal arts college appeal more to you? And keep in mind, from junior year of high school to the time you enroll as a college student, you’re developing. While some of these things are at the core of who you are, other things might change, so you have to continue to check in with yourself. And that’s how you start to sort through the noise—make it about you.
Where are you trying to help NYU go in the future?
For the last three application cycles, our academic strength and diversity has increased. We have the most diverse classes in the history of NYU. And for the last three years, there’s been no ethnic majority among the incoming classes. I’m so proud that NYU proves the naysayers—people who say that you can’t have both diversity and academic strength—wrong.
The idea of “the Office of Admissions” can seem like an abstract, scary thing from the outside. Who are you all and why do you do this job?
I think the level of personal investment that we have in this job would surprise students. Many of our admissions counselors are mission-driven people who are committed wholeheartedly to educational opportunity. They’re on the road from September to the end of October, weekends and all, to visit high schools and communities. It’s intense. And as soon as it’s over, they come back here and start reading our nearly 85,000 applications with care and attention. All that is to say that we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t love it. We’re very much invested in who our prospective students are and their opportunity to come to NYU and leverage it for their future.
What is your greatest hope for the next incoming class?
To me, college is about stretching beyond your comfort zone almost to the point of confusion. With my team, I often talk about going beyond your comfort zone and pushing up against the panic zone. Because in the middle is the learning zone. That’s where you start to figure out who you are and what you’re going to be in the world.
I was a first-generation college student—just like 20 percent of the current NYU student body. And I remember what an awakening it was to be exposed to all of these different things. In some respects, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. But that’s what college is all about. You’ll have thoughts that go so much deeper than they’ve ever gone before. And everyone around you is going through the same process. So I hope our incoming students have these experiences not only individually but also together. When you’re in a classroom with so many different kinds of folks, you can either shut down because it’s so foreign or fully embrace being in a place with so much diversity. It doesn’t happen at any other time in our lives.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love meeting admitted students and their families. I mean, in many respects, that’s why I do this. But close on the heels of that is getting to read through our admissions applications. When you read what these students are talking about and what they see themselves doing in the future, you get really excited seeing so many young people who have a vision for themselves and a vision for this country, their nation, or the world. It gives me a lot of hope.