Joseph “JT” Duck Named Dean of Admissions

An admissions professional with wide experience, he comes to Tufts from Swarthmore
Head shot of JT Duck, the new incoming dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University.
“The goal is to build a diverse cohort of students each year that will push each other to great heights while contributing to the university in different ways,” said JT Duck. Photo: Laurence Kesterson
August 13, 2019

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Joseph “JT” Duck has been named the new dean of admissions for the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering. The director of admissions for Swarthmore College since 2014, he joins Tufts on September 12.

“I am honored to lead the admissions office at Tufts,” Duck said. “Over the years, I have been particularly impressed by the innovation and creativity coming out of Tufts admissions that have helped applicants from all backgrounds share their stories and built diverse classes of intellectually engaged scholars and citizens interested in the liberal arts, engineering, and fine arts.”

The first in his family to graduate from college, Duck has worked in higher education admissions and college counseling since he graduated from Haverford College in 1999. He rose to become associate director of admissions at his alma mater and came to the Boston area to become associate director of admissions at Brandeis University.

Deciding to work the college admissions process from the other side, he was director of college counseling at Boston University Academy, an independent high school based at BU. “I learned a lot about how students and families make tough choices” in the admissions process, he said.

He then served as associate director of admissions at MIT before leading admissions at Swarthmore. In addition to his degree from Haverford, Duck earned a master’s degree in higher education administration from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2007.

Duck spoke recently with Tufts Now about the college admissions process, how his experiences will inform his work at Tufts, and how to make sure prospective students are a good fit for the university.

Tufts Now: What drew you to a career in college admissions?

JT Duck: I started as a tour guide during my first year of college. I loved figuring out ways to tell my institution’s story, and I loved learning about the journeys that prospective students were on to find their undergraduate homes. I interned in the Haverford admissions office as a senior, which included interviewing prospective students and being a fly on the wall during selection committee. I saw firsthand how invested each admissions officer was in building an intellectually engaged and diverse community. When I graduated, I knew that I wanted to devote at least a few years to the admissions profession. 

There’s a saying in the profession: “three or thirty.” You’re either in the field for three years before you head off to graduate school or another professional space—or you suddenly find yourself in a thirty-year—or more—admissions career. I fell into the latter group. My career has brought me to a small group of distinct, highly-selective institutions, each of which has shaped my understanding of this work and given me opportunities to influence the profession in big and small ways that I never could have imagined as a first-year tour guide.

How has your background as a first-generation college student influenced your work in admissions programs?

I’m proud of being a first-generation student—neither of my parents earned a college degree. It was not a given that I would go to college, much less a highly selective one. My parents supported my educational journey, but did not have all of the tools that other parents might have had at their disposal. I did not go on a big college tour. I took the SATs just once—and, after working a late shift at my part-time job the night before, fell asleep during them. I created my small college list by judging the covers of the glossiest brochures I received in the mail, not the information contained in those brochures.  

I carry that college search process with me to this day: I know that the least-resourced students navigate this process differently than others. We cannot assume that parents or older siblings are knowledgeable about the college admissions process, that families have the resources to visit campuses, or that they are familiar with the admissions and financial aid terminology we use.

Does that change the way you do your work?

In admissions, we have to be intentionally inclusive when we communicate with first-generation and low-income students. We have to meet them where they are. We have to listen to their stories and tell them how our institutions will support them. We have to emphasize that we are a better community because of their voices and contributions. We have to build recruitment initiatives that introduce first-generation and low-income students to our institutions and develop application evaluation practices that recognize their unique contexts. We need to play an active role in building institutional support across our campuses so that all of our students will graduate after thriving on our campus for four years.

How do you go about figuring out if an applicant is a good fit for a college, in this case Tufts—and that the college is a good fit for them?

Tufts is fortunate to receive an exceptionally large and deep pool of compelling applicants each year. Through a careful holistic, contextual, and committee-driven evaluation of applications, the admissions office identifies a subset of applicants to admit that are the most likely to contribute to—and benefit from—Tufts. The goal is to build a diverse cohort of students each year that will push each other to great heights while contributing to the university in different ways. 

Broadly, I understand Tufts students to be collaborative, innovative, intellectually curious, globally conscious, and highly engaged in the world around them. Some are deeply devoted to the fine arts, others to engineering, and others to economics—and some to all three. Those same students might be passionate thespians, competitive athletes, or renowned musicians—and some might be all three. Collectively, the admitted students will reflect Tufts’ values, even as they bring with them different interests, experiences, and backgrounds.

You also worked on the other side of the fence, so to speak, as director of college counseling at Boston University Academy. How does that experience help you in your role as dean of admissions? 

My tenure at BU Academy, an independent high school on Boston University’s campus, has played a significant role in my understanding of college admissions. At BU Academy, I spent five years working directly with students and families as they researched colleges, built college lists, wrote college essays, deciphered financial aid awards, and ultimately made their college choices.

I learned a lot about how students and families make tough choices about which colleges stay on the list, how they interpret college marketing emails and brochures, and how they think about paying for college. I also developed a greater and more nuanced appreciation for the good work of our college counseling friends on the other side of the desk. While there are other admissions professionals with college counseling experience, there aren’t, in fact, many of us. As dean of admissions, I have a relatively unique window into that world. 

Because of my time as a college counselor, I have a special appreciation for the value of developing a distinct institutional voice that will make a positive impression on counselors and students. I know that humane and compassionate admission practices support counselors and students, and that clear communication of our work goes a long way in helping counselors guide their families appropriately. Most importantly, my time as a college counselor working so closely with students reminds me of the wholeness of the young person on the other side of each application, and the responsibility of the admissions office to give thoughtful consideration to each and every applicant.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.