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College Admissions

How Colleges Make Admissions Decisions (Part 2)

What happens behind closed doors in admissions offices? At most colleges, applications are read by at least two people. Often, one reader is the admissions officer assigned to that student’s region, someone who knows the high school and can put the student’s academic record in context. If two readers agree that a student should be admitted or denied, that is likely to be the decision. If there’s a difference of opinion, the application will go to a third reader or to committee. At some smaller schools, all applications are reviewed by committee.

Many highly selective colleges give students numerical ratings in categories like academic promise, extracurricular activities and character/personal qualities. If the scale is 1 to 9 and a student gets 9’s in all categories from two readers, that student is going to be admitted. Students on the bubble, with 6s or 7s might go to committee, and ratings below 6 are not likely to be admitted.

Because the competition has become so intense and admission decisions can seem arbitrary and unpredictable, I advise my highly qualified students who are determined to attend an elite college that they need to apply to quite a few of them. A student might get into Yale but not Princeton, Harvard but not Stanford. And since they might not get into any of them, it is important to include some less competitive but still excellent schools.

With so many well-qualified students competing for space at the most selective schools, the essay can help a student stand out from the other 4.3GPA applicants with scores over 750 on every SAT section. Even schools that are not highly selective are increasingly using essays. According to a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 25 percent of colleges considered the writing sample an important factor in the admissions process in 2004, up from 14 percent in 1993.

A brilliant essay will never compensate for mediocre grades or test scores. However, if a student is borderline, a great essay could make the difference. Similarly, activities and community service become a factor only when the academic record is strong enough for the student to be a serious candidate for admission.

Teacher recommendations can be helpful if it is clear that the teacher knows the student well, and can assess writing ability, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, depth of understanding, work ethic, contribution to class discussions, and character. Recommendations that are generic and don’t offer real insight into a student’s qualities won’t be seriously considered.

Interviews are used mostly to confirm the impression created by the application. Unless a student is so obnoxious that the interviewer can’t imagine inflicting him on a roommate, an interview is unlikely to ruin the prospects for admission. And even a terrific interview won’t overcome low grades or test scores.

Another factor that has grown in importance is demonstrated interest. Private colleges are especially likely to use campus visits, contact with admissions office, essay content and early applications to gauge a student’s commitment to attending the school if accepted.

Admissions officers also have institutional needs to consider in putting together a freshman class. Diversity includes not only ethnic and racial groups, but geographic diversity. A strong student from North Dakota will be courted by many colleges, but that same student from California is just one of thousands of similar applicants. There are schools, however, that want to increase their enrollment of California students, so it possible to make geographical diversity work in your favor. Other institutional considerations that can influence admission decisions include the needs of the band or athletic teams.

College administrators also want to keep alumni happy so they’ll make donations to the school, and that’s why their children sometimes have an edge. But being a legacy applicant will not overcome a poor academic record, unless perhaps the family has donated a library.

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