How the Admissions Office Makes the All Important Decision

By Patricia Gorden Neill - March 19th, 2013

An earlier article discussed the various elements that go into your college application, such as the courses you take in high school, your grades, class rank, SAT/ACT scores, letters of recommendation, your essay and supplemental essays, extracurricular activities and interviews with college personnel. Since nearly all colleges ask for all of those components, how does the admissions office go about making the decision of who gets accepted?

The main thing to understand is that a college will be looking at your academic record, which will be mostly objective information such as the courses you took in high school, your grades and your standardized test scores. However, they also want to look at you as a person, who you are and what makes you tick. This information comes in the more subjective elements of your application, such as essays, letters of recommendation and notes from interviews. Both objective and subjective materials matter in admissions decisions. Confusion arises, however, because a student can’t tell which components of his application carry more weight in the decision. All colleges, however, want students who are academically prepared for college level work, who are likely to succeed academically at the college, who will contribute to the college community as a whole and who will likely be successful in life and continue to contribute to the school as an alumnus.

Do colleges want D students who generally hated school and never did their homework? It should come as no surprise that colleges wouldn’t be interested in accepting such students. If a D student went to community college, gets great grades, participates in class and does outstanding work, then a college would probably accept that student as a transfer student. What colleges know, and what everyone else should know, is that college is not for everyone.

That said, what is the procedure college admissions staff use to make their decisions? While all colleges will be slightly different, and give different weight to various components of a college application, all generally use a similar process for making these important decisions.

From your first point of contact with a college expressing your interest in the school, admission staff creates a folder with your name on it. Into that folder goes everything you, your guidance counselor, teachers and standardized test organizations send to the school. All your application materials will be there, as will thank you notes you’ve sent, notes from interviewers, letters of recommendation and phone messages. This folder contains all the information the college will use in deciding whether to accept you as a student.

Some admission decisions are easier than others. Academically gifted students with great grades, scores, well-written essays and who seem a good fit are easy admits. Students with poor grades, low test scores and poorly-written essays are easy non-admits. It’s the great middle ground of students where the decisions are far more difficult to make. Not that any of these decisions are all that easy; admission personnel are fully aware that their decision will cause joy or pain to applicants.

College application folders are usually read by more than one person. In many schools, all the admission staff may read your folder and make notes about it to great length. At the majority of colleges, an admission committee made up of admission people, faculty and administration get together to make decisions. Chances are, your folder will be read more than once by more than one person, usually two to four individuals. All will make comments on your application materials. The committee as a whole decides to accept or deny. That decision is then reviewed by the director of admissions who carefully goes over all the notes and comments and either agrees or disagrees with the committee’s decision.

The admissions office’s job is to create the best freshman class it can out of the available applicant pool. The college wants bright, interesting, creative people who will add something to the college community whether in an academic, athletic or social context. The college wants a certain diversity of student backgrounds, in demographics or region or ethnic. Each student is evaluated as part of the applicant pool and as an individual. The best fit works both ways; students need to find a school that can be both comfortable and challenging, and the school needs students who will contribute overall to the college.

What parts of the college application matter more to the college? Experts say that a student’s grades in advanced placement or honors classes carry the most weight. Class rank doesn’t have the significance it did in the past. Test scores remain important, but check with each school as to which test is required. A well-written essay in the student’s voice with details of personal development counts highly. Letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors giving details of a student’s academic or personal development matter as well. Highly specific recommendation letters are better, with examples of student behavior in or out of the classroom. In depth personal involvement in an extracurricular activity is attractive. Notes from people who interviewed the student can be influential in the decision. All components of an application are carefully reviewed, but colleges vary in how they evaluate each component.

In general, colleges that belong to the Common Application organization use a holistic methodology in evaluating student applications. This means they look at the more subjective elements of an application, the essay, personal statements, letters of recommendation and interviews. Others, usually large universities that accept 75 percent of their applicants, use formulas of grades, class rank and test scores. Expect variation among the colleges and universities in how admission decisions are made.

Put together the best application you can for all the colleges you apply to. If one component of your application, your grades for example, weren’t the best, make the rest of the application shine with good, detailed letters of recommendation and the best personable essay you can write. Either take a test preparation course or do the trial SAT and ACT tests online to ensure a good score on the tests. If you’re a junior in high school, make sure you take honors classes next year and get the best grades you can. While not every student is going to be accepted by their first choice of college, remember that the college experience is determined more by what you put into it than by the school itself.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.