Illustration by Isabel Rios

Assessing NYUAD’s Admissions Policies Ten Years On

From deconstructing the notion of diversity to the evolution of Candidate Weekend, this is the story of NYU Abu Dhabi’s admissions policies and its ambivalent future.

12 years ago, an advance team of five women travelled to Abu Dhabi to create a revolutionary academic institution: a liberal American university in the heart of the UAE, premised on the notions of unparalleled diversity, academic excellence and pioneering leadership. The vision was no doubt lofty and the stakes were sky-high.
How do you select and attract students of this calibre to a university with no campus and no legacy? Where do you begin? This is the story of NYU Abu Dhabi’s admissions policies and their role in shaping the university from an entrepreneurial endeavor to an established institution.
Deconstructing the Complex Notion of Diversity
Of the several elements that distinguish NYUAD from other institutions, diversity is the cornerstone. But translating such an abstract concept into concrete admissions policies is an obvious challenge. At NYUAD, this has been largely reduced to national diversity.
“We’re really looking at the country of origin,” said MJ Knoll-Finn, Senior Vice President for Enrollment Management.
“Once we had students from different places around the world, we started looking at diversity within those regions,” added Anna Dechert, former Director of Admissions at NYUAD. “But [we] never had specific quotas.”
Beyond national diversity, however, is the even trickier question of socioeconomic diversity.
“We’re need blind, which means we don’t ask you [for] your financial information until it’s time to give you financial aid,” explained Knoll-Finn, highlighting how difficult it is to recruit explicitly for socioeconomic diversity. “[But] when we look at it, it’s actually a very socioeconomically diverse campus ... we [just] can’t recruit that way.”
When asked why students may have the perception that there is little socioeconomic diversity on campus, Amy Kice, Director of Admissions at NYUAD, emphasized that how one conceptualizes socioeconomic class varies from country to country.
"What level [you are] within your culture in your country, is very different than how [you are] against the rest of the campus."
Nonetheless, this perception persists among students.
“I strongly believe we talk about diversity in a very superficial level. This continues to be a hub of elitism,” asserted Pamela Martinez, Class of 2023. “We truly want to be leaders of the world, [but] we are neglecting the existence of the majority of the population, which is middle class or low income.”
A study published in the NYUAD Journal of Social Sciences by Andrés Rodríguez-Cáceres, Class of 2016 and a former Editor-in-Chief of The Gazelle, found that the student body is comprised primarily of “global elites, economically privileged within their local contexts.” The paper, based on a survey completed by close to half of the student population in 2016, found that while NYUAD students varied greatly by nationality, religion and cultural consumption, the majority were middle and upper class in their national contexts. A large portion of the student population also came from highly educated households and had an international high school education.
While Knoll-Finn acknowledged the correlation between privilege and academic strength, she argued that it is a gross overstatement.
“It’s not academic promise or ability, but it’s just your ability to take on high level courses [and] your access to academic institutions that might be able to offer that,” she said, explaining that while they were initially not in a position to focus on diversity within national contexts, that is exactly their aim now.
Several of those interviewed highlighted the importance of partnerships with national and regional scholarship organizations, such as Education USA, in identifying strong candidates, irrespective of their financial background.
“News of scholarships spreads really quickly. So, we actually built up a really amazing reputation amongst organizations that worked with really talented but high-need students,” said Dechert.
A large part of NYUAD’s appeal, however, is its generous financial aid. In response to growing concerns of whether financial aid is becoming less generous as the student body expands, Knoll-Finn reassured that this was not the case.
“Financial aid is not becoming less generous … It’s more understanding who will yield if they are not getting a full ride. Because the word on the street was, ‘It’s free’,” said Knoll Finn, emphasizing that quite a few students are actually paying to be here. “We’ve heard this over and over again: students will say there’s so many rich kids here getting money. And I don’t think that that’s true.”
The Evolution of Candidate Weekend
“Imagine you’re sitting at home, and someone tells you, I’m going to give you a place at a university in Abu Dhabi, but the university doesn’t exist yet, and there are no alumni that you can speak with, no current students that you can speak with, and we haven’t hired all the staff yet, but I promise it will be real,” said Dechert. “As a student, that is a really big leap of faith to take, especially in the first few years.”
The original architects of the NYUAD Candidate Weekend knew that they would be competing for students against prestigious universities with long legacies, and therefore needed to show students what an NYUAD education could provide. But given the unconventional nature of NYUAD, Candidate Weekend was also crucial in determining whether students were a good fit.
“We were building something very special and unique and we wanted to be sure that the match was going both ways,” said Linda Mills, Vice Chancellor and Senior Vice Provost for Global Programs and University Life at NYU. “And that became a dialogue with the students around their interests and what they hope to get out of college.”
“It was originally, I think, to make sure we were vetting students for fit to this culture and making sure they would be respectful of this culture,” added Knoll-Finn. “A lot of students have never been to the Middle East. I think there [are] a lot of misconceptions about what it means to come here and what it’s like to be here.”
The prevalence of women in the higher ranks of the university played a symbolic role in countering these misconceptions, especially during earlier Candidate Weekends.
“It was really kind of helpful … when [us women] stood up … in front of the students, if any female student had had a worry about whether they could thrive here,” said Mariët Westermann, Vice Chancellor of NYUAD. “So, I think it was very helpful that the team, almost by accident, developed in this way.”
Beyond its obvious practical purposes, Candidate Weekend gradually developed into a more meaningful experience, a rite of passage.
“It was clear to me from the very beginning of the very first Candidate Weekend … that the biggest asset was the students getting together with each other,” said Westermann. “Seeing each other, hearing each other and beginning to talk across the many differences [between] them, [then] seeing how [the differences] fall away in that kind of environment.”
Once these various objectives had been achieved, the purpose of Candidate Weekend evolved. Dechert, for instance, shared that by her last year at NYUAD in 2018, most of the students who came to Candidate Weekend had already bought into the mission of NYUAD.
“It wasn’t so much a question about whether it was a real university and a legitimate university, but I think it still was a very helpful tool to let students know exactly what that would look like for four years for them,” she shared.
This year, as NYUAD selects its 11th class, substantial changes have been made to Candidate Weekend. Faculty and admissions interviews have been removed, and Peer Ambassadors are no longer expected to produce evaluations of each candidate in their group.
Toby Le, Class of 2022 and five-time Peer Ambassador, argued that these changes undermine a unique element of NYUAD’s admission process: student involvement in constructing their community.
“Peer ambassadors are [now] glorified tour guides. We don’t do anything,” he lamented.
One of the reasons for these changes is the pressure that the hectic and high-stakes scheduling placed on students.
“We have some students who are so tired. Your performance could be completely based on when you landed on a plane,” explained Knoll-Finn. “How fair is this?”
Knoll-Finn maintains that Candidate Weekend is not devoid of assessment.
“You still need to be a good citizen while you are here,” said Knoll-Finn. “I think that is important, because you are coming into a diverse community, and your ability to respect that and be respectful is something that we will be watching out for.”
In practice, Candidate Weekend no longer serves the same purpose it once did.
According to Dechert, in the very first Candidate Weekends, the college was admitting around 50 to 60 percent of the students that came, while in her last years, this number has increased to 85 to 90 percent.
“Part of that was also about being a good steward of the college’s resources, in that it’s not cheap to bring students to Candidate Weekend,” she explained. “While we were trying to have a larger class, it didn’t really make sense to grow the Candidate Weekends in the same way. It made sense to just admit more of the students who were coming to the Candidate Weekends.”
Such discussions raise pertinent questions about the long-term viability and value of Candidate Weekend. For Dechert, it was never a permanent thing.
“I can’t speak to what people are thinking now on the Admissions team, but I think that it wouldn’t make sense for Candidate Weekend to go on forever because the purpose of why [it] was started is not really relevant now,” she said.
As NYUAD begins to build the Class of 2024, a reassessment of its admissions policies is underway. One thing is clear: NYUAD is no longer in its experimental stage. It has matured.
“Sometimes there is a perception that what is done should never change. But I think that evolution and change is really important and the university is changing, it’s growing, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing,” said Dechert. “NYUAD is not a startup anymore.”
Paula Estrada is Editor-in-Chief and Kaashif Hajee is Managing Editor. Email them at
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