How Does a College Admissions Office Work?
- What Kinds of Backgrounds Do Admissions Officers Usually Have?
- Inside the Admissions Office
- “X Factors” in College Admissions
- How to Successfully Navigate the College Admissions Process
- How to Maximize Your Chances of Acceptance
Every year, millions of students hit “submit” and send their completed college applications off to colleges and universities across the U.S. Despite the ubiquity of this process, the fate of these digital applications when they reach their destinations remains largely a mystery.
While families might not understand exactly how the evaluation process works, most applicants know that admissions committees give each application a limited window of time for review. A Business Insider article reveals that Brown University expected its admissions evaluators to review five applications in a single hour! Keep reading about the admissions office process to learn how you can make the most of the attention your application will receive.
Who Reads Your Application?
The admissions officers who process applications for a given application cycle at a particular school are often referred to as the admissions committee. Collectively, they decide whether to accept, reject, or waitlist students for admission to the school in question, or to accept, reject, or defer students during the early round of admission.
In most cases, admissions officers review the applications of students from a particular region of the country. If you live in Los Angeles, the odds are good that the officer who reads your application will be reviewing materials from other LA residents as well.
This approach allows admissions officers to build up their “fluency” in a particular region, as over time they’ll become familiar with certain high schools, extracurricular opportunities in the area, and so on. If other readers review your application, they may be randomly assigned.
What Kinds of Backgrounds Do Admissions Officers Usually Have?
Admissions officers come from an array of backgrounds. However, many readers are recent graduates of the school who worked for the admissions office as an assistant or tour guide before becoming full-time employees. Other admissions officers are recruited from outside the university, though. Schools often make external recruits based on the prospective admissions officer’s connections to or knowledge of a particular region.
Additionally, colleges recruit admissions officers based on their background, location, and experience. Though universities try to put together a diverse pool of admissions officers, graduates of the arts and humanities are often overrepresented. It’s also important to note that the committee won’t look the same year to year—a typical one consists of a few multi-year veterans and a cast of younger application readers that change from year to year.
Although admissions committees are often very diverse, admissions officers at highly selective colleges are generally more liberal than the average U.S. citizen. However, that doesn’t mean students should tailor their essays and application info to meet their reader’s perceived political preferences.
Firstly, you have no way of knowing whether your particular admissions officer leans left. And secondly, colleges seek to assemble a freshman class with widely ranging backgrounds and interests.
With that in mind, be honest, but also note that you should probably just avoid certain hot-button political issues altogether. If the school has a prompt specifically asking you to write about a political or global issue, try to pick something unlikely to ruffle any feathers, and as you express your opinion, try to do so in a relatively neutral way. Even if your reader agrees with you, reading any sort of rant may get them thinking more about the issue than about your fit at their institution.
It’s critical to keep in mind that the admissions officer reading your application is an unknowable variable when writing your application. This uncertainty encompasses not only their educational and professional backgrounds but also their sense of humor and personal sensibilities. As a result, using care when choosing your words and tone is just as crucial as the content.
A lighthearted comment or joke that makes sense to you and your friends may not have the same impact on a total stranger. Maintaining a universally respectful and professional tone while showcasing your personality can help ensure your application is widely accepted without running the risk of unintentional offense.
Inside the Admissions Office
While the review process varies from college to college, most schools follow a few basic protocols when reading applications. In general, admissions officers start by doing a 1-2 minute scan of a student’s application to assess their academic qualifications. Applications whose grades and test scores do not meet a certain threshold will typically be marked for almost certain rejection.
Using their own university’s unique method, admissions officers combine your GPA and test scores into a singular number called your Academic Index (AI), which is often the criterion used to see if you meet the school’s academic standards. You can increase your AI across the board by raising your GPA or increasing your score on the SAT or ACT.
Once a student meets the school’s academic standards, their admissions officer will review the rest of their application package, including their essays and extracurricular profile. On average, readers spend four to 10 minutes assessing these elements before assigning the application a score.
At least one reader scores each application, but at selective institutions, as many as three or four readers may score an application. Different colleges use different scoring systems, but at this point in the reading process, most admissions committees divide students into four categories:
- Bucket I: Likely to be admitted
- Bucket II: Toss-up
- Bucket III: Likely to be rejected
- Bucket IV: Almost certain to be rejected
In most cases, students who fail to meet the school’s academic standards are immediately assigned to Bucket IV. The committee will set aside Buckets III or IV, and will probably only return to them if they still have space to fill after going through Buckets I and II. Students who receive a unanimously strong score are usually placed in Bucket I and are slated for acceptance.
This leaves Bucket II: the “toss-ups.” These applicants typically receive additional assessments. If toss-up students’ second readers assign their application a dramatically different score from the score it received from its first reader, their application may go to the larger admissions committee (or a large subgroup of the committee) for further review. Based on that review and discussion, some of these candidates will be accepted, while others will be rejected.
“X Factors” in College Admissions
Finally, admissions committees will examine the group of students they have decided to accept and try to gauge the overall alignment of the class with the school’s goals. This includes considering the “projected yield” of the accepted student pool, which refers to the number of accepted students who are likely to enroll.
The committee might also ask targeted questions like: “Do we have enough female applicants who are interested in computer science?” or “Do we have enough clarinet players?” This analysis enables the school to determine whether their potential freshman class will be well-balanced in terms of academic interests, backgrounds, and other factors.
For example, if the admissions committee realizes that a class is a light on music majors, they might accept a talented piano player who was originally placed in Bucket III due to a subpar GPA. Students from Bucket III who could fill a need, but aren’t quite compelling enough to accept, may be placed on the waitlist.
If the committee fails to find candidates who meet their needs in Bucket III, they might dip into Bucket IV to fill out the pool of accepted students. However, this is extremely rare; a school typically only accepts four or five Bucket IV students for a class of 1500+.
How the Admissions Process Varies by School
The admissions process varies based on two main variables: a school’s size and its selectivity. By researching the acceptance rate, student body size, and applicant pool size for the schools on your list, you can discern which admissions model (described below) your schools of interest are likely to follow.
Larger schools that receive tens of thousands of applicants each year tend to spend less time reviewing each application. Some bigger colleges employ algorithms and computer programs to screen applicants’ academic profiles. At these schools, admissions officers will only review the extracurricular profiles and essays of students who make it through this algorithmic academic screening.
Regardless of size, colleges with higher admissions rates often assign a large number of applicants (up to 80%) to either Bucket I (likely to be accepted) or Bucket IV (likely to be rejected) upfront based only on their academic and extracurricular profiles. This will leave only 20% of the applicant pool to receive a full, holistic application review.
On the other hand, more selective colleges do not accept students based on academics alone. Though applicant’s test scores and grades can help them get past the initial academic screening, they won’t be enough to earn the applicant an acceptance letter to an institution with a low acceptance rate.
At highly selective institutions, all applicants who meet a basic standard are likely to receive holistic application reviews, as these schools place a high priority on putting together just the right freshman class.
How to Successfully Navigate the College Admissions Process
Put Together a Balanced Profile
Creating a well-rounded application is crucial for the college admission process. This means demonstrating leadership roles, extracurricular activities, and personal interests in addition to academic brilliance. A well-rounded biography shows admissions officers you can contribute in many ways to their university.
Showcasing your unique skills and passions, whether they’re in sports, the arts, community service, or other areas, is the goal. By demonstrating your potential as a well-rounded student who can contribute to the campus community, the diversity of your application can help you stand out from the large field of academically talented students.
Apply to a Mix of Target, Safety, and Reach Schools
Spreading out your college possibilities will provide you with more options when it comes time to make decisions. You have a better chance of getting into a safe school if your academic record is better than the average of pupils admitted.
Beyond safety schools, apply to schools where your profile is similar to the average admitted student and where your chances of being accepted are high, as these will be your target schools.
Even if your credentials are below average, you may still be admitted to aspirational (reach) schools. Your chances of being accepted will increase if you apply to as many of these colleges as you can. You could even be able to gain admission to schools that would not have been possible otherwise.
Recognize the Subjectivity of Holistic Admissions
It’s imperative to acknowledge the subjectivity of the comprehensive admissions process. Using this approach, applicants are judged based on their essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities in addition to their grades and test scores.
It’s important to realize that biases and preferences of admissions officials, as well as occasionally their circumstances or mental state, can affect admissions judgments. This may seem daunting, but it highlights how important it is to present a true and full picture of yourself, as various reviewers may find different aspects of your application intriguing.
Showcase Authenticity and Passion
Your greatest strengths in a tough admissions environment may be your authenticity and enthusiasm. In addition to being academically capable, students who are enthused about their interests and ambitions are sought after by colleges.
Your application should be an authentic representation of who you are, including your goals, struggles, and passions. For example, being genuine in your writing can have a big influence and can help admissions authorities get to know you better. With your sincere approach, you can stand out from other applicants who could just be checking boxes.
Prepare for Standardized Tests, But Keep Them in Perspective
The results of your standardized tests are usually quite relevant to the admissions committee, even though they are only one component of your application. It’s important to study hard for exams such as the ACT and SAT. But when taking these exams, it’s also important to keep things in perspective.
Test results can overshadow other significant components of your application, but a growing number of universities are implementing test-optional policies. In addition to focusing on achieving a balanced score that fairly portrays your ability, set aside some time to excel in other areas of your application.
How to Maximize Your Chances of Acceptance
While there’s a lot that’s outside your control in the college process—such as who reads your application and who else is applying—there is also a lot that you can control, so ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward.
CollegeVine’s free chancing engine takes into account your grades, extracurriculars, course rigor, test scores (if you have them), and more, to give you your personalized odds of being accepted at your top choice schools. You can also tweak different parts of your application to see whether, for example, an additional AP class or an extracurricular award would boost your chances.