How Does a College Admissions Office Work?

Every year, millions of students hit “submit” and send their completed college applications off to colleges and universities across the U.S. Despite the ubiquity of this process, the fate of these digital applications when they reach their destinations remains largely a mystery. While families might not understand exactly how the evaluation process works, most applicants know that admissions committees give each application a limited window of time for review. In fact, a Business Insider article reveals that Brown University expected its admissions evaluators to review five applications in a single hour! Keep reading about the admissions office process to learn how you can make the most of the attention your application will receive.


Who Reads Your Application?

The admissions officers that process applications for a given applications cycle are often referred to as the admissions committee (adcom). Collectively, they decide whether to accept, reject, or waitlist students for admission to the school in question.


In most cases, admissions counselors review the applications of students from a particular region of the country; if you live in Los Angeles, the odds are good that the officer who reads your application will be reviewing materials from other LA residents as well. If other readers review your application, they may be randomly assigned.


  • What kind of background do admissions officers usually have?


Admissions counselors come from an array of backgrounds. However, many readers are recent graduates of the school who worked for the admissions office as an assistant or tour guide before becoming a counselor. Others are recruited from outside the university. Schools often make external recruits based on the prospective admissions officer’s connections to or knowledge of a particular region.


Additionally, colleges recruit admissions officers based on their background, location, and experience. Though universities try to cultivate a diverse pool of admissions officers, graduates of the arts and humanities are often overrepresented. The typical adcom consists of a few multi-year veterans and a cast of younger applications readers that changes from year to year.


Any qualified candidate can land a job in admissions; admissions committees are often very diverse. Typically, admissions officers at highly selective colleges are generally more liberal than the average U.S. citizen or college student. However, that doesn’t mean students should tailor their essays and application info to meet the reader’s perceived political preferences. Colleges seek to assemble a freshman class with widely ranging backgrounds and interests. In general, students should feel comfortable showcasing their beliefs in their essays and other application materials. However, applicants might want to refrain from writing about hot-button political issues or expressing viewpoints that might be perceived as narrow-minded or bigoted.

Inside the Admissions Office

While the review process varies from one college to the next, most schools do follow a few basic protocols when reading applications. In general, admissions officers start by doing a 1-2 minute scan of a student’s application to assess their academic qualifications. Applications whose grades and test scores do not meet a certain threshold will typically be marked for almost certain rejection.


Once a student meets the school’s academic standards, their admissions officer will review the rest of their application package, including their essays and extracurricular profile. On average, readers spend four to 10 minutes assessing these elements before assigning the application a score. At least one reader scores each application, but at selective institutions as many as three or four readers may score an application. Different colleges use different scoring systems, but at this point in the reading process, most adcoms divide students into four categories:


Bucket I: Likely to be admitted

Bucket II: Toss up

Bucket III: Likely to be rejected

Bucket IV: Almost certain to be rejected


In most cases, students who fail to meet the school’s academic standards are immediately assigned to Bucket IV.  The adcom will set aside students in Buckets III or IV for likely rejection. Students who receive a unanimously strong score are usually placed in Bucket I and slated for acceptance.


This leaves Bucket II; students sorted into Bucket II are considered “toss ups.” These applicants typically receive additional assessment. If toss-up students’ second readers assign their application a dramatically different score from the score it received from its first reader, their application may go to the larger admissions committee (or a large subgroup of the committee) for further review. Based on that review and discussion, some of these candidates will be accepted, while others will be rejected.


  • “X” Factors in College Admissions


Finally, the adcoms will examine the set of accepted students and try to gauge the overall alignment of the class with the school’s goals. This includes considering the “projected yield” of the accepted students pool, which refers to the number of accepted students who are likely to enroll. At this stage in the process, the admissions committee might ask questions like: “Do we have enough female applicants who are interested in computer science?” or “Do we have enough clarinet players?”


This analysis enables the school to determine whether their potential freshman class class will be well-balanced in terms of academic interests, backgrounds, and other factors. For example, if the admissions committee realizes that a class is light on music majors, they might accept a talented piano player whose GPA falls slightly outside the desired range. Students from Bucket III who don’t receive acceptance letters may be placed on the waitlist.


If the adcom fails to find candidates who meet their needs in Bucket III, they might dip into Bucket IV to fill out the pool of accepted students. However, this is extremely rare; a school typically only accepts four or five Bucket IV students for a class of 1500+. At the end of this process, the strongest students who don’t make it out of Bucket III will be placed on the waitlist.


How This Process Varies by School

The admissions process varies based on two main variables: a school’s size and its selectivity. By researching the acceptance rate, student body size, and applicant pool size for the schools on your list, you can discern which admissions model (described below) your schools of interest are likely to follow.


Larger schools that receive tens of thousands of applicants each year tend to spend less time reviewing each application. In fact, some bigger colleges employ algorithms and computer programs to screen applicants’ academic profiles. At these schools, admissions officers will only review the extracurricular profiles and essays of students who make it through this algorithmic academic screening. Colleges with higher admissions rates often assign a large number of applicants (up to 80%) to either Bucket I (likely to be accepted) and Bucket IV (likely to be rejected) up front based only on their academic and extracurricular profiles. This will leave only 20% of the applicant pool to receive a full, holistic application review.


On the other hand, more selective colleges do not accept students based on academics alone. Though applicant’s test scores and grades can help them get past the initial academic screening, they won’t be enough to earn the applicant an acceptance letter to an institution with a low acceptance rate. At highly selective institutions, all applicants who meet a basic standard are likely to receive holistic application reviews.


What Does This Mean For Me?

Meeting or exceeding a college’s baseline academic standards is essential to get your foot in the door at a school. In particular, Ivy League schools may assess a student’s Admissions Index (AI), a numerical score amalgamated from various aspects of a student’s academic achievements. The AI both allows readers to compare students at a glance and helps to expedite the decision-making process. To optimize your AI, high school underclassmen should focus on maintaining a strong GPA and scoring well on the SAT or ACT. As an upperclassman, your GPA will likely be more or less established, so the best strategy to raise your AI before submitting your applications is to earn strong SAT or ACT scores.


While there are multiple steps students can take to increase their odds of receiving an acceptance letter from their top-choice school, families should recognize that admissions process is subjective. Holistic admissions processes are not objective or “fair.” Various factors can impact whether a student receives a “yes” or “no,” including admissions officers’ personal preferences and biases–and even whether or not a counselor is having a good day! The best way to ensure you get into a great college is to apply to a wide range of institutions, including target, safety, and reach schools. Having a well-balanced list populated by schools that really excite is the best way to insulate yourself from the unpredictability of the admissions process.



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