How Does the Admission Review Timeline Work?

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Have you ever wondered how the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade works? Or how sneezing works? What about the Manhattan Grid? One of my favorite podcasts (besides ours, cough cough) has got you covered. Stuff You Should Know indulges your curiosities about the stuff you didn’t know that you didn’t know. But, in over 1600 episodes, it seems there’s one question they still haven’t answered:

How does the college admission review timeline really work?

To be fair, that’s probably far too specific of a question for Josh and Chuck to answer. Luckily, I know a guy who knows a guy who met someone once that can answer it instead. (It’s me. I’m that someone.)

You may be curious “what’s actually going to happen with my application?” and then later wonder “what’s taking so dang long?!” Sure, submitting a college application can feel like shouting into a void, or putting something into a black box and waiting to see what comes out the other side. The truth is that “black box” of admission review is a highly coordinated and active effort among admission reviewers. So, while I can throw some advice at you to “keep perspective and live in the now!” or “control what you can control!” or any other number of bumper sticker slogans, I also get that some may find comfort peeking into that black box.

Disclaimer: While there is a fair amount of similarity in holistic admission practices between schools, there are also many logistical differences. Different schedules, admission team sizes, application pools, and different priorities… you get the idea. For that reason, we’ll primarily speak for ourselves here and use Georgia Tech as an example.

Initial Review

After your application and required documents have been received and matched in admission databases, your file is complete and ready to review. You’ll see plenty of variability here. Most colleges group their application reviews either by geographic area or by academic colleges, some have team based initial reviews, while others have individual counselors perform a full initial review. Regardless, this all takes time.

In our office, the majority of time (roughly two-thirds) between an application deadline and decision notification is spent on this initial, in-depth reviews of files. However, there’s not an absolute goal for files per day, or minutes per file. Last year, our team fluctuated anywhere between 500-1,300 combined files reviewed in a day. (The varying schedules of our part-time readers also contribute to that fluctuation.)

Our admission office utilizes the team-based approach mentioned above. Prior to Covid we used something called Committee Based Evaluation, but given our readers’ variations in schedules due to the pandemic, we moved to a Linear Application Review Process.

Yes, we call it LARP. No, not that kind of LARP.

This is the same collaborative approach, shifted to a sequential instead of synchronous process. Some of the team members are reviewers who are familiar with the applicant’s geographic region and can contribute knowledge of the territory and the school to the review. (This is where it becomes especially helpful to review all complete applicants from the same school at once!) In addition, the applicant will receive a review from another reader who specializes in reviewing the content of the application: honors, activities, essays, and so on. The combination of those reviews will give a sense of the student, their environment, and their fit to the Institution.

Committee

In some admission review processes, it’s clear within first review whether applicants are a fit or not, and applicants will come out of those first reviews with a preliminary admission decision. For other offices, they’ll review some students again, or all students again, in committee once they’ve completed a critical mass of first reviews and have a better understanding of the pool.

My understanding of admission committee growing up was based entirely on a scene out of Legally Blonde: a dozen men in blazers in a dark room with furrowed brows and rejection stamps in their hands. Rest assured this is not reality, especially in virtual environments last year where committee review took place at home on a video call and with a blanket, my cat, and (ideally) Cheez-its.

In committee, admission counselors have conversations about the initial reviews on the files, discussions around shaping the class, and exchanges on how applicants may fit with the institution and its priorities. Admission counselors may also receive feedback from their school’s administration, deans, and stakeholders about priorities and enrollment targets/goals for that year.

In our case, the territory manager will remain in these conversations, along with other staff members who can provide new and additional perspectives to the review of the application. Last year we spent about two weeks in committee per application round, give or take a few days depending on the volume of applicants. Our team utilizes a lot of smaller committees, while you’ll find that other schools may use one or two larger committees. For our process, this means that every member of our small committees (2-3 people each) has a voice and a role in the conversation. It also means that while we’ll come pretty close to our final decisions, there are a lot of decisions happening in several committees at once, and we won’t hit the exact number of students we intend to give admission offers. Therefore, the last week or two prior to decisions being released is spent making final adjustments.

So now you know!

That’s the black box. Why does it take so long?

  • It takes several months to have thorough, purposeful conversations thousands of times over. There’s no Excel formula, magic eight ball, roll of the dice, or throwing darts at applications to see who we land on, which is for the best. My dart throwing skills are abysmal.
  • We’re shaping a class: At selective institutions using holistic review, we can’t make one student’s decision and then immediately spit it back out. It takes months of adjustments while reviewing the whole pool to come to our collective final decisions. That means that no single applicant’s decision is ready until they’re all ready.

Again, admission review is similar in many aspects from school to school, but it can also vary in many ways. As you read colleges’ websites and attend information sessions or talk to their admission counselors, you can likely get some insight into those differences. And as always, ask questions!

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on the SACAC Governing Board, the ACT Council, and the College Board Search Advisory Board. He is a current member of a NACAC’s Committee on Leadership in College Admission, and Past Chair of both the national Government Relations Committee and Georgia Tech’s Staff Council. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college