Listen to “How Are College Admission Applications Reviewed? Episode 3: Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.
Every parent develops their own strategy for how to fend off the inevitable question kids ask on road trips: “When will we get there?”
Early on, I decided the best way to help a toddler understand distance was to use the rear view mirror.
“Okay, if this is our house,” I’d say while pointing to the far-left corner of the mirror, “and this is grandma’s house,” moving my hand to the far-right side of the glass, “then we are here.” Inevitably, “here” was about an inch away from where we had started- and that was being generous.
Last week my kids had Winter Break. On Tuesday, we headed to North Carolina to see my wife’s family. Inevitably, about an hour into the drive, Elizabeth (9) asks, “Where are we, dad?”
I started to explain the county we were in and what it was known for. She was uninterested and interrupted me to ask more clearly, “No, I mean on the mirror.” Wow. What started as an age- appropriate tactic seems to have turned into a barrier to gaining knowledge about geography and state history. Since I had worked all day and did not have it in me to protest, I simply pointed about quarter of the way down the mirror.
“That’s it? What is taking so long?!” About 40 responses went through my head in under three seconds, including trucks, construction, idiotic drivers, Atlanta rush hour traffic, and a number of expletive-laden opinions about population growth, city planning, urban sprawl, and more. Rather than utter these, I simply took a deep breath, shook my head quickly back and forth, and turned up the music. My wife was unimpressed.
I’m not sure what Elizabeth did after that, because I left the music up for the next half hour. But I started to think about her question: “What is taking so long?” Our culture has created an expectation of immediacy. We order a coffee, pay, slide down the counter and pick it up. Drive thru lanes are optimized, pictures can be printed at home or are ready for pick up immediately. We expect same day pick up for car repair, dry cleaning, or prescription refills. Actually, all of that requires actual effort. How about 1-click online Amazon orders that appear at our door often within hours?
A Road Trip Through the Admission Process
When you apply to college, especially one that receives far more applications than they have seats available and uses a holistic and layered admission review, waiting is inevitable. If I were you, I’d definitely be asking, “What is taking so long?!” Don’t worry. I’m not just going to sigh and tune you out. Read on.
The application leaves home:
You hit submit. Now what?
At this point, the college matches supporting documents to your application in their database. Supporting documents includes everything from transcripts to letters of recommendation to test scores. The take home message is they’re ensuring your file is complete so they can begin their review.
If it is incomplete, your admission portal will show exactly what you are missing and you will start getting emails/texts/calls/owls about that. (By the way, if you are a senior reading this blog and not checking your email, stop reading this blog and go check your email!)
At this point, it depends on the system or style of application review a school has decided to use, but generally speaking the person who visits your school or is in charge of recruiting your city or state will be the one initially responsible for reading your application. At many colleges, file review begins once it’s complete, while others wait until all applications for that round have been received. Seeing all applications from a particular high school allows counselors to understand how your grades, rigor, trends compare to your peers in the applicant pool.
For example, one student receives a 91 in AP World History. That school adds 7 points of “weight” to all AP grades. While an admission officer would already know the A range extends from 90-107 based on the school profile and transcript, reading all applicants from a particular high school in the same day allows them to also see applicants who may have 102s or 104s. What does this mean for you?
- Holistic review is both individual and comparative, rather than simply formulaic.
- In a weighted system, two students can both have “4.0s” that look very different (in this example, 17 points).
- This does not mean the student with the 104 is automatically getting in. Again, holistic means holistic. The entire goal of these processes is to gain and keep perspective, rather than to draw hard lines or apply a purely academic formula.
In some cases, initial review is conducted by a single individual. That counselor reads your application in its entirety, makes an admission decision recommendation and passes it along to another team member (often one slightly more experienced/senior on the team). Think about this as checks and balances. Schools want to be sure multiple people read your file and have a chance to offer their opinion on your candidacy for admission.
In other cases, schools employ Committee Based Evaluation or Team Based Review. The concept here is a simultaneous and synchronous review. Two team members read your application at the same time. One will evaluate you from a purely academic standpoint by reviewing transcripts, testing, and teacher and counselor recommendations. They take a deep dive into your course choice, grade trends, and how you have performed within your school’s context. The second reader tries to understand how you’ve used your time outside the classroom, as well as the impact and influence you’ve had on others through working, clubs, sports, or other pursuits. That staffer also reads your essays, short answer responses, and, depending on the college, may also read recommendations. Each staff member makes individual recommendations based on their evaluation. They could both agree to admit or deny, or there could be a split decision.
“Are we there yet?”
No! We are still only mid-mirror.
“But the driver and passenger both agree to head a certain direction.”
True. However, there are other cars on the highway, so now most files sit for a while.
“What does a while mean?”
You know how your Waze App has varying levels of red for traffic? Yea. Kind of like that. Sometimes it’s a dark pink, and often the time just keeps adding up.
Because admission decisions at selective institutions (those invariably using holistic review) are both individual and collective. Students are evaluated based not only on their performance in their school setting, and the other students in their high school (see example above), but also in comparison to the entire applicant pool.
Now counselors move on to that work. They begin reading other applications from schools, cities, or states they are responsible for, and they also help the rest of the team complete their first round of review.
As an example, if a college receives 20,000 applications in their Regular Decision round and has on average 10 pairs of people reading 50 applications a day, five days a week, it would take eight weeks to complete the first round of review. But you know life (and road trips) are never going to be that simple. There are holidays, sick days (for staff or their own children), as well as other recruitment responsibilities. Throw in some technology challenges, a fire alarm triggered by someone microwaving fish in tinfoil, and a good old snow day or two and you’re easily pushing 10 weeks.
“Why don’t you just hire more staff?”
Please call me on a secure line.
Next, schools move into “committee review,” or “cohort review,” or “class shaping.” Deans, directors, and VPs provide additional direction about institutional priorities and empower larger groups of staff to review applications on both an individual and comparative basis. Typically, in this phase discussions are informed by specific targets. Do we have enough admits from certain counties, states, or nations? How are particular majors doing in terms of their specific enrollment targets? Geography, academic major, ROTC, special talents, first generation, financial need, demonstrated interest may all come into play. Some or all of these student attributes, and potentially many more, are discussed as applications move through the committee review stage. If faculty engage in the admission process, this is a logical time frame in which they’ll be consulted or asked to weigh in on student fit to their programs or the institution overall.
At some colleges, all files are reviewed again in committee, while at others only those who had a split decision in the first round enter this phase of review. Many colleges make admission offers to applicants about starting their academic career on a different campus, abroad, or in an earlier or later semester than the one for which they initially applied, which means committees are also attempting to hit targets for those institutional needs.
How long does this take? Well, that depends on the number of applications, the number of staff, and how bad flu is that year, but it usually takes several weeks. These are often tough and complex decisions that involve more people in the room weighing a series of macro factors and goals.
We are almost to the far-right side of the mirror. Decision release day is approaching. Your calendar is marked and so is ours. Everyone is nervous. At this point, deans and directors are consulting with their data analysts to gauge their mathematical models for “yield” (the number of admitted students who actually choose to enroll).
Let’s say a college has a yield rate of 34% (this is actually quite common nationally). The dean knows her president, board, and faculty are counting on a class of 1,400. The current number of admits after committee is 5,000, which would result in a class of 1,700 students. The dean knows about 100 of the students who deposit do not ultimately enroll (this is known as “melt”). With residence halls and dining halls built for 1,400 new students, she is over by 200.
Accounting for yield and melt, a small group of senior-level admission folks take on the unenviable task of further reducing the number of admits (in our example by about 600+ students). This pushes previously slated admits to the waitlist, and as a result has a cascading effect on both the number and percentage of students who end up with that particular decision.
Every road trip and car system varies. I’ve tried to provide a general overview of how colleges review applications. If you want the full details of the operating system from a school you’re considering, check their website or consult one of their admission counselors. As an example, Georgia Tech made a video to illustrate our process.
I’m sorry this process takes so long (I’m also sorry this blog is so long). I don’t like to wait either. In fact, I don’t think I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know what I really love… waiting.”
If you are a junior just entering the college admission experience, I hope this gives you some insight and questions to ask as you consider specific colleges. When you visit or talk to one of their representatives, listen for their explanation of the process. Speak up and ask questions if it is not clear. You are going to put a lot of time and effort into applying. It is your right and responsibility to understand how they make decisions, as well as a clear timeline in which they do that.
If you are an applicant still waiting for the car to pull into the driveway, I hope you will take a holistic approach to waiting. Like admission officers, your goal is to keep perspective. You only have one senior year. Enjoy it. Go to games, hang out with friends, take trips, and have fun! Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish I stressed out more and wished away the spring of my senior year in high school.” (Kind of like nobody says, “I want to marry someone mean,” or “I prefer to overpay for my meals.”)
Look around you this week in school. I am asking you to fight the temptation to look to far ahead. Slow down. Remember this– most of the folks you see every day now will not be around (in person) at this time next year. Give them a hug. Grab a meal together. Go see a concert. Just enjoy being together.
Ultimately, it is the things we have to wait for in life are the ones that shape us the most. You will come to the end of the mirror soon enough. Take in the sights. Share the road. Enjoy the ride!
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