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The Boston Globe

Metro

Olin College’s application process stresses teamwork

Engineering school tests applicants’ ability to collaborate under pressure

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Diego Guerrero helped design his team’s entry to a candidates weekend challenge.

NEEDHAM - You may think you have what it takes to get into a selective college - high SAT scores, a beautifully written essay, and a 4.0 GPA.

But can you work with total strangers to build a 2-foot tower with little besides paper and foam board, while college students in capes wheel by on skateboards and bikes, then serenade you?

Dozens of high school seniors gathered yesterday at the Olin College of Engineering for an innovative admissions process designed to determine something tests and essays cannot - the ability to work with others and fit in at a campus that prizes social skills and collaboration.

The method is unusual - candidates are divided into teams of four or five that receive direction from Olin students, who woke up at 8 o’clock that morning to prepare for the all-day event.

Olin students donned neon sunglasses and matching blue T-shirts as they walked - or rollerbladed - around the candidates working furiously to finish their towers, which had to be strong enough to hold a 2-pound weight for 20 seconds, but weak enough to fall over when placed in front of a blowing fan.

One Olin student decided to rattle a group by singing them songs from “The Little Mermaid’’ and goading them into doing the chicken dance.

That kind of interaction can bring a group closer together, said Allie Duncan, an 18-year-old freshman.

“They bonded. They dealt with the singing, and they have moved on as a team,’’ she said. “Either that or they’re just scarred for life [and] will go home and say ‘Olin is so weird.’ ’’

More than 780 high school students have applied to the 2012 freshman class, but only about 130 will be accepted at the tiny college off Route 135, which has become a respected engineering school since opening in 2002. The college, named after Franklin W. Olin, who died in 1951 after making his mark as an entrepreneur in ammunition in both world wars, says its main goal has always been to experiment and emphasize group projects over lectures.

Only 245 of the initial applicants were invited to come to the college for three “candidates weekends’’ that began in February. This weekend marked the last event, after which admissions officials will select the remaining students based largely on how they interacted with their teammates.

The candidates invited to visit the colleges “are really gifted students on paper,’’ said Charles Nolan, dean of admission. “We’re looking for evidence of leadership and collaboration. We pay attention to . . . communication skills.’’

Such skills became especially handy when the candidates learned there would be a “twist’’ in their team challenge. More than halfway through the exercise, the teams were told to abandon their towers and switch to another team’s creation.

The change was rattling, said Mariko Thorbecke, a 19-year-old high school senior from Hawaii.

“We had a great game plan, had all our materials ready,’’ she said. Then they were forced to move to another table, where the previous team had left them shredded pieces of foam board and a note that said, “Have fun, suckas.’’

Thorbecke’s team scrambled to finish their new tower, wedging sheets of paper between the foam to keep the structure stable.

“We just need to get it to stand,’’ Thorbecke said to her teammates.

Suddenly time was up. The candidates had to present their towers.

Thorbecke and her teammates held their breaths as the 2-pound weight was placed on their tower. It stayed steady.

When the fan was turned on, the tower dutifully fell over. The teammates beamed and high-fived each other. “Very pleased,’’ Thorbecke said.

The real challenge would come later in the day, when the team members would go before a panel to discuss how they worked together.

The team would also have to show how it could deal with conflict by answering a series of potentially polarizing questions, such as whether standards of decency in entertainment media are too low, or whether lab testing on animals is justifiable. Later, each applicant had individual interviews.

“We’re all academically qualified,’’ said Mitchell Cieminski, a 17-year-old senior from Colorado. “So it’s really just a matter of are you a decent person? I think a lot of people here are just awesome and they want to make sure that in their freshman class they’re getting a lot of awesome people, too.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.
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