College Admission Secrets: How Colleges Read Applications

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

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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 student A is more qualified than student B. But what really goes on behind closed doors at college admissions offices? 

Families have a lot of misconceptions about how the admissions process works and how decisions are made. Fortunately, we have insight into how the admissions committee review process works. How colleges read and evaluate applications is about more than looking for students with the best academic performance 

The College Admissions Rubric 

So much goes into college applications: essays, grades, recommendations, activities lists, and more. How do colleges weigh it all? The holistic review process includes weighing factors that sometimes aren’t quantifiable, so colleges use an admissions rubric to help evaluate the strength of an application and whether 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 their 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.  

Institutional 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 considering 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 to better serve all the students on campus. 

Available Spaces in the Incoming Class 

Out of the almost 57,000 students who applied to Harvard’s class of 2027, only 3.45% were admitted. But certainly, more than 3.45% of the students who applied were qualified for admission? In truth, yes. There were likely many more students who fit the admission criteria 

Most top-tier institutions can fill multiple classes with students who are just as qualified — however, that’s just not possible. Colleges can only take a certain number of first-year students each year. 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 the highly qualified applicants start to look the same, and admissions officers will look at every little detail 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 their 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. So, what does this mean for you? If you do diligent research and apply to a balanced list of best-fit colleges, you will get into a school where you will be successful and happy.  

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 can be helpful to seek out an expert who can demystify the process and give you the best chance for admission. IvyWise counselors have worked as Directors and Deans of admissions at some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S., so they understand the process and know what it takes to stand out. Schedule an Initial Consultation to learn how we can help you achieve your academic goals.  




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