Getting in: What will an admissions committee look for in me?

Posted September 28, 2007 by

Student anxiety is an inevitable by-product of the college admissions process–a kind of emotional smokestack emission that hangs over admissions-related activities. This anxiety is largely unavoidable, as students send themselves off in the mail to be evaluated by admissions officers. The results are inescapably public–back from the admissions office come fat envelopes or skinny envelopes. Is this system fair? Are the decisions more whimsical than reflective of a student’s talents?

To be sure, college admissions is far from a science. Decisions aren’t predictable, but they aren’t whimsical either. What college admissions officers do in reading applications is more rational and careful than many families suspect. How can you submit the strongest possible application?
Four optimistic facts

  • Colleges and universities are not turning away thousands of highly qualified applicants. Of the approximately 3,300 colleges and universities in America, only a few dozen admit fewer than 40% of their applicants. While these highly competitive (and mostly private) institutions get many applications for each place in their class, only a tiny fraction of America’s students attend them.
  • You will not be competing against hundreds of valedictorians who are also all-state goalies, composers, or published authors. Applicants “self-select” and apply to institutions that make sense academically and in other ways. There is, however, a “compression of range,” meaning that the college(s) to which you will apply receive many applications from students whose credentials will be similar to yours. You need to pay careful attention to the quality of what you submit on your applications.
  • While admission to college is not a science, the admissions decision is more in your hands than you may realize. Where students choose to apply, how they present themselves on an application, and the quality of their overall academic record are far more influential in the final admissions decision than the evaluation techniques of the admissions officers.
  • The process of completing the application forms can itself clarify what you want from a college education. It is an exercise in self-examination and reflection. Writing an essay on “What do you want from our college?” may help you at other levels besides just getting in.

What do admissions officers look for?
While a student’s academic record is by far the most important credential, most private colleges and universities value and evaluate many skills and interests. At almost no private colleges or universities are decisions made on a statistical grid of class rank, GPAs, and standardized testing.
A metaphor for the admissions process at most private colleges and universities might be “theatrical lighting.” You want to give careful thought to what you tell admissions officers about yourself. If important facets of your work or personality are reflected or “lit up” in your application, you can really help yourself.
Three tiers of credentials

  • Your high school record is by far the most important document. While your class rank or GPA is an important summary statistic, colleges will also look carefully at your courses, grading standards and overall competition in your high school, and their history with your school.
  • The next level of credentials includes standardized tests (some colleges don’t require them); your essay and other writing samples; depth and breadth of extracurricular activities; letters of recommendation from your counselor, teachers, and others; diversity of your background or culture; and at some institutions, the personal interview.
    Your writing will be read carefully, and you can significantly help or hurt yourself. Admissions officers note the clarity with which you fill out the form itself. Many colleges request an extra writing sample, particularly to illustrate a special interest or strength you may have, such as creative writing, science research, or social concerns.
    If you’re a good writer, be sure to include a writing sample that reflects your skills. If you’re an athlete, contact coaches to supply the information requested. If you’re a musician, send a musical resumé and an audio- or videotape. Any major activity–academic, extracurricular, or personal–that you hope to continue at college ought to be highlighted in your application.
    Also, explain unique circumstances. One student apologetically told us that she had few extracurricular activities. The reason? She was working two jobs after school and caring for her younger sister while her mother recovered from cancer. We said to her, “What you have done is your college essay topic.” Colleges will pay careful attention to a student who has demonstrated such self-discipline and loyalty to her family.
  • The third evaluation level consists of what colleges call “tippers”–items that rarely determine decisions, but can tip them in close cases. Common third-level factors are geographic diversity, legacy status (where a family member has attended the college), or a commitment to attending a particular college (usually through an early-decision application). Some colleges may also consider factors that are part of their commitment or history: religious heritage, a particular geographic area, or service to particular populations of students.

Inside an admissions committee
Admissions officers often joke that they have split personalities. For two-thirds of the year, they are like tent evangelists, out recruiting their classes. For the other third, they become medieval monks in what we call the “reading season,” evaluating applications in marathon sessions.
Admissions committees have multiple evaluations; the eventual decision will come from five to 15 distinct evaluations. First, applications are read as they come in. Then applications from the same high school are compared, so that the committee will understand the context of each high school.
After another series of readings to factor in special circumstances–athletics or other activities, transfer or international students, students with disabilities, etc.–there will be some form of committee. The staff reviews both the overall patterns of decisions–the number of students put into various decision categories compared to previous years, the class academic profile, balance of extracurricular talents, diversity, and other goals–and the individual decisions, so that staff members or faculty readers have one last chance to argue for a particular applicant before a final vote is taken. Most applications will have had at least three separate reviews, and often from five to eight different readings, before the dean of admissions signs the decision letters.
The system varies somewhat from college to college. It is not perfect, but at most colleges and universities, it is as complex, subtle, and demanding as the admissions staff can make it.

A List Of Helpful Hints
• Visit each college to which you’re applying (if possible). Trust your own reactions to campuses. And in your applications, explain why you like a particular college and why you’re applying. Remember that admissions staff are not paid to admit students, but to enroll a class of desirable people. They will pay attention to your reasons for applying.
• If you can’t visit a college and the college recommends an interview, request an alumni interview in your home area.
• Start early. Like a puzzle, applying to college is complicated, with lots of pieces that require time to assemble.
• If possible, get applications in well before deadlines. Submitting a complete application early speaks well of your interest and organizational skills and gives the (appreciative) admissions officers a little extra time to read your application carefully.
• Talk to counselors, teachers, parents, and friends about your choices. Multiple sources of advice will help you sort through issues that nag you.
• Make sure that specific skills or activities that you hope to continue in college are reflected in the application.
• Don’t assume that college applications must be all upbeat and positive. Sometimes a difficult or frustrating experience is very important for admissions officers to know about and will explain other facets of your application.
• Write in your own voice, rather than trying to create a persona. If you are by nature an imaginative or funny person, let that show in your application. But if not, don’t force it.
• Give your teachers and counselors plenty of lead time to write your recommendations—and have one teacher (someone who has taught you within the last two years in a subject where you are strong) write it for you, not six. That person can write one detailed recommendation and photocopy it for each of your applications, which is much more preferable to having your sixth-choice teacher from your sophomore year write it for you. Avoid personal recommendations from big shots who don’t know you personally.
• If one college is a clear first choice, discuss an early-decision application with your counselor. There are advantages for the college, but also for you, if you’re admitted.
• Read all the fine print carefully in the college’s materials or in the Common Application cover sheet. Keep a grid sheet of deadlines, materials delivered to others for completion, etc., to make sure everything gets done.
• Prepare all application materials yourself: there is a clear line between having others simply proofread what you’ve written and having others actually write the essays for you.
• Have others proofread your applications before they are mailed, and always keep a copy of everything you send.

Article by William C. Hiss and courtesy of

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