You’ve hit all the submit buttons, gotten the confirmation emails, and finished the application process. Or maybe you’re not quite done yet, but you will be soon (remember, it’s better not to wait until the very end to submit all your applications!). Your application seemingly disappears into a black hole for several months, gets evaluated via a secretive process unique to each school, and pops out in March with a decision. The decisions result in joy and excitement in some cases, but unfortunately—especially for top tier schools—this isn’t usually the case. Rejections from schools often result in anger and frustration, with applicants and their parents wondering what went wrong. Why was a rejection letter handed to them? Why wasn’t their application seen more favorably? What process was used to make the decision?

Unfortunately, unless you’re one of the admissions officers who made the decision, it can seem impossible to figure out what the specific reasons for a decision are. However, there does exist a general process that colleges use for reading applications. Here at Admissions Hero, we want to provide you with some insight on what goes into a college decision.

Note: Every college has its own application review process. There’s no one process that’s universally used—every school has its own priorities, and as a result, schools all have slightly varying processes used for evaluating applications. What follows is not intended to be an authoritative guide that details what every review process is like; rather, it is simply intended to shed some light on what the process is generally like. What’s stated here won’t necessarily be exactly how things work at the schools you applied to, but overall it will help you better understand what goes on behind closed doors after you submit your application.

After all applications are submitted, the first step for admissions committees is to sort through all the applications. Due to the volume of applications typically received, it usually takes colleges a week or two to get all of the applications sorted. You might think that applications are read as soon as they get sorted, but this is not typically the case. Because many schools use a holistic review process, schools usually wait until all application materials are received before reviewing your application. Many of the application materials are not things that you submit (school report, midyear grades, etc.), and some will not reach the admissions office until later. As a result, application reading generally does not begin until February. If, however, a school uses a screening process, applications may be filtered here for applications that don’t meet the minimum GPA or test score requirements, though the actual reading of applications won’t take place until later. Schools that screen applications are usually very large colleges that need a way to control the number of applications they have to read.

When it’s time for applications to be read, they are typically categorized by location—this gives readers for each region better context when evaluating the applications. Each application goes to a first reader who reads it from front to back and provides a rating. In some cases, the rating is a simple yes or no; in other cases, it’s based on the rating system of the school (some schools have rating systems where each component of an application is given a numerical rating from an arbitrary range, like 1-10).

After the first reader completes the evaluation, the application is then read by a second reader. In some cases, the second reader is a regional specialist, who is very knowledgeable about a specific region and its high schools. If a school uses a simple yes or no evaluation system, if the second reader agrees with the first reader, oftentimes there is no further evaluation—the agreed-upon decision becomes the final decision. If the second reader disagrees, the admissions committee may have a third reader evaluate the application and make a decision, or the application may be brought to a committee that will take a vote and make the decision. In the case where a rating system is used, a second reader will provide an additional rating, and applications with the highest ratings will get reviewed by a committee which will then make a decision.

This process might seem very mechanistic and unemotional, with admissions officers not feeling the slightest bit of emotion as they make decisions that shape applicants’ lives, but this is hardly the case. If an application reaches a point where it is being evaluated by a committee, there are often heated debates, with admissions officers doing their best to defend their favorite applications. The vote for acceptance or denial is seldom unanimous—it’s rare that every member of the committee comes out of a vote satisfied with the decision.

With all this talk about readers simply coming up with a yes or no, or a rating for each application, you might be wondering what exactly goes into a yes, no, or a rating. The answer is something you’ve probably heard many times before—readers look at your transcript, test scores, extracurriculars, essays, and recommendations, as well as supplementary materials if you submitted them. Readers have a general idea of the profile of a typical student at their school, and they use this knowledge to determine whether an applicant is a fit or not.

Ultimately, once you hit the submit button, there’s not much you can do to affect your admissions chances. You can send update letters in some cases (if you were deferred EA/ED), but usually the best thing to do is to focus on keeping your grades up, staying involved in your extracurriculars, and enjoying your senior year. While it might seem like there must be something you can do to influence the reading process, there really is not. The best way to maximize your admissions chances is still to have the best transcript you can, be passionate about your extracurriculars, and have high test scores, glowing recommendations, and engaging essays. If you’ve done all of these things, you’re well on your way to putting together an application that will garner serious consideration in front of the admissions committee.

Andrew Liu

Andrew Liu

Andrew is a Mathematical Data Science and Economics double major at Dartmouth College. In his spare time, if he’s not in the kitchen perfecting French macarons or butter-poaching halibut, he can likely be found near a piano, practicing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Ravel. He enjoys spending time with his cat.
Andrew Liu