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College Admission Secrets Pt. 1: How Colleges Read Applications

Wed, Dec 16, 2015 @ 10:00 AM

College Admission Secrets Pt. 1There's More to Evaluating Applications Than Grades and Test Scores

With high school seniors in the thick of the college application process, speculation abounds about how college admissions committees make decisions, what it takes to get in, and whether or not student A is more qualified than student B. “Chancing” is a big part of this frenzy, with students turning to message boards to post their stats in an effort to gain insight as to whether or not they have a shot at their top-choice college. But really goes on behind closed doors?

In November, one of our expert counselors provided some insight into how the admissions committee works and how students make it to the final round of decisions. There are a lot of misconceptions that families have about how the admissions process works and how decisions are made. At IvyWise, our counselors have close to 150 years of combined admissions and counseling experience, so they know what really goes on after students hit ‘submit’ on their college applications.

How colleges read and evaluate applications is about more than looking for students with the best test scores and grades. In this three-part series, we’re going to bring you some important college admissions secrets that will help to demystify the college application process and better prepare you to gain admission to your top-choice college.

Here are some college admissions secrets about how admissions offices read college applications.

Many colleges follow a rubric when evaluating applications.

There’s so much that goes into college applications: essays, grades, recommendations, extracurricular resumes, and more. How do colleges weigh it all? The holistic review process includes weighing factors that sometimes aren’t quantifiable, so colleges use a reading rubric to help evaluate the strength of an application and whether or not it meets the school’s admission standards. When evaluating individual application elements, like grades, test scores, and essays, the readers establish a base benchmark, usually based on the previous year’s standards. Applicants are then given a score for each category based on that benchmark. For example, a student can get a score of “1” if his or her test scores are below the established benchmark, a “2” if scores meet the benchmark, or a “3” if scores are higher than the benchmark. Different schools use different rubrics and evaluation strategies, but this is the general approach many colleges take. Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of how the reading rubric works.

Colleges have institutional needs, and special applicants are sometimes given priority to fill those needs.

The college admissions process isn’t as simple as “the smartest students always get in.” There’s a lot that goes into building a class, including taking into account a school’s goals and institutional needs. Often those needs lead admissions offices to give priority to special groups of applicants, like legacies, development cases, athletes, and more. This doesn’t mean those types of students are automatically admitted without consideration as to whether they’re qualified to attend, but rather their status can add extra weight to their application in some instances. This can sometimes seem unfair, as other applicants can’t help that they aren’t a legacy or a recruited athlete. It’s important to remember that every school has needs for their incoming class, and it’s necessary to meet those needs in order to better serve all the students on campus.

Just because you don’t get in doesn’t mean you weren’t qualified.

Last year over 42,000 students applied to Stanford University, which had a 5.05% admission rate for the class of 2019. It’s hard to imagine that all of the other 95% of the applicants were not qualified for admission. In fact, most top-tier institutions can fill second and third classes with just as qualified, diverse, and well-rounded classes. However, that’s just not possible. Colleges can only take a certain number of freshmen each year, and, while it’s tough to turn away thousands of qualified applicants, it’s necessary. There’s just not enough room for everyone who is qualified to be there.

Sometimes admissions decisions are arbitrary.

In selective admissions, there comes a point when many of the highly qualified applicants all start to look the same, and admissions officers will look at every little detail in an effort to distinguish among them and determine who is the best fit for the class. At this point in the process, anything can come into play as to whether a student gets in or doesn’t. Again, not every qualified student can be admitted, especially at top-tier institutions that receive tens of thousands of applications each year. Sometimes when making these tough selections, an admissions decision can hinge on something as arbitrary as an officer having a personal preference for one applicant over another. Maybe one applicant’s reader argued more for his or her admission than another applicant’s reader did. These decisions are tough, and sometimes there’s no clear reason as to why someone did or didn’t get in compared to someone else. What’s important to remember is that everyone who is admitted is qualified to be there – it’s just impossible to admit everyone who’s qualified.

In the end, the college admissions process is a complex machine, with many moving parts that are sometimes out of the control of those vying for a spot at a top college. It’s important for students to remember that, as long as they do diligent research and apply to a balanced list of great-fit colleges, they will get into a school where they will be successful and happy.

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