A Step-By-Step Guide on How College Admissions Officers Read Your Application
September 6, 2018
A Step-By-Step Guide on How College Admissions Officers Read Your Application
This winter, after weeks, months, and years (yes, years) of preparation, you are going to submit your college applications. But don’t you want to know what happens next?
As you get ready to apply to colleges, it’s important to understand what actually happens in the admissions office. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be in a better position to craft a successful application.
When your application process ends, the hard work at admissions offices is just beginning. The weeks and months after application deadlines trigger the busiest time of the year for college admissions officers across the country. Having worked in admissions at Johns Hopkins, Bowdoin, Regis College, and George Washington University, I am going to demystify what happens behind the closed doors of admissions offices...
1. Your application is added to the digital “stack” with thousands of other applications.
You click submit, and the waiting game begins. Paper applications used to be placed in a massive stack, but colleges now move thousands of data points through an online process, built for their specific parameters. In many cases, an application and its supporting components may never be printed. But have no fear, the software is very precise. Every school will have their own methods to streamline the wave of application materials coming their way. Computerized systems will flag any missing components and mark completed applications as ready to read.
2. Your application is sorted into a pile (usually by region), which means you are evaluated against students from your geographic area.
At the places that I have worked, we followed a “geographic territory” model. Simply put, each member of the admission office managed a geographic section of the world. Larger states or areas with big application numbers were split among several college admissions officers. Schools use past admissions data to gauge their most popular areas. Southern California, for example, could be broken into multiple territories for some schools based on the number of applications they receive.
3. Your regional admissions officer receives the pile and reviews your school profile.
I have been fortunate enough to read applications from around the world. This experience showed me the importance of context. There are too many high schools for college admission officers to be familiar with each of them. Even in a single territory, there will be too many schools to intimately know every single one. This is why the information from your high school’s report is crucial. It sets the stage for the application review.
“School profiles” and information from your guidance counselors give college admissions officers the averages, course information, and knowledge to understand what your specific academic experience actually means. Without context, what does your 4.2 GPA really indicate? Without understanding the course rigor available to you, what is the significance of 2, 4, or 6 AP classes? Colleges will not make decisions on any application without examining all such information available to them.
4. Your application is read for the first time...in 11 minutes.
After an admissions officer has learned all that they can about your school, it’s time to read your application! All college admissions officers have their style, so I will walk you through mine: typically, I spent about 11 minutes reading an application, and read well over 1,000 student files each year. While 11 minutes was my average, there were memorable students that drew me in, and I spent more time learning their stories. Weaker or more typical applications might take less time to go through. After reading the school profile, I started with the factual information inside of the application, taking notes about the content.
5. College admissions officers take shorthand notes on your application.
Every admissions office has agreed upon shorthand for our rapid notetaking. This includes abbreviations for common activities and honors, as well as commentary shortcuts like DNS (does not stand out) and LMO (like many others), used to quickly describe unremarkable candidates. Every section of the Common Application helped me learn more about the applicants. I became familiar with their families (what did their parents do?), activities outside of school (how did they spend their time?), and their character (what kind of person were they?). After this, I moved onto my school’s supplemental essays, high school transcript, and usually finished with the letters of recommendation.
Throughout the process, I continually asked myself the same questions: Could I picture this student succeeding on campus? What communities would the applicant likely join? Would the student be a good fit for my school? How did the application stand out against others that I had read? What was exciting about the stories being told? The answers to these questions led naturally to my next set of decisions.
6. Your application receives a recommendation and might even get a second read.
Traditionally, college admissions officers can recommend to admit, deny, or waitlist an applicant (options like defer might also be in the mix). In my experience, an application can go on a few different paths after this first read. It may be sent on for a second read, meaning another admissions officer will voice an opinion. Because admissions spaces are so competitive, sending an application directly to the acceptance folder was rare. Senior level admissions staff or the dean of admissions monitored the admit, deny, and waitlist piles to ensure nothing was missed and that institutional priorities were considered. Of course, each institution is unique and will emphasize different values year-to-year—for example, Johns Hopkins might need a bassoon player one admissions cycle, while Northwestern might be looking for more Slavic Studies majors instead. It’s not really as simple as that, but this is part of the reason why you may be accepted at one school and face rejection at another.
Thousands of applicants don’t make the cut in these first few reads. If your application makes it to committee, that’s an accomplishment in itself! But the competition is only going to intensify…
7. If selected, your application is presented at committee and voted on.
Committee is the place where the class is shaped. This is where decisions are made. This is the time when individual admissions officers pitch the most memorable students that they hope to convince the rest of the committee to admit. In my experience, committee is usually a smaller subset of the admissions office, led by senior admissions officers or the dean.
One by one, college admissions officers present the applicants that they feel deserve acceptance. I presented some cases that lasted just a few minutes and some that lasted half an hour. I only brought cases to committee that I was excited about, that stood out, and that I thought would make my institution better. I didn’t always get the decision I wanted for my chosen students, but together we worked towards the greater goal of creating the strongest possible incoming class. Ultimately, decisions were made by vote, consensus, or a feeling in the room. After weeks and weeks of committee, we came to many conclusions, but our work wasn’t done yet.
8. You get in... or you don’t (depending on pull-backs).
One of the hardest parts of working in admissions is a process that I learned as “pull-backs.” Inevitably, each college has only a certain number of admissions slots. College admissions is also a statistics game. Data is analyzed over and over until the incoming class comes together. As this process happens, “pulling-back” potential admits ensures that institutions do not “over admit” their class. Pull-backs can happen in a multitude of ways, but in my experience, I was given the opportunity to look back at my territory and select students for reconsideration by the dean. This did not trigger an automatic rejection or waitlist, but the process did make applicants vulnerable. The dean’s goal of a well-rounded class took into account a myriad of variables, situations, goals, and institutional interests. Once the data returned clean, everything would be frozen until decision day. On that day, we stayed late after work and watched the decisions go out, eagerly thinking about our favorite students receiving their acceptances.
This is a very hard job! I absolutely loved my time in admissions and it was an honor to shape the institutions where I worked. Now that I work with students on the other side of the process at InGenius Prep, here is my advice: you cannot control this process, but you can be smart and deliberate about your path. Find a set of schools that really fit you. Create a solid foundation and a theme that helps the admission officer get to know you well. Make yourself memorable and easy to present in committee. If you can do that, you’ll find success.