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How College Admissions Decisions Are Made and What to Do Next

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IvyWise counselors Victoria and Christine break down the college admissions rubric and discuss examples of different hard and soft factors that admissions officers evaluate on the Just Admit It! college admissions podcast, giving listeners expert insight from former admissions officers.

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When making admissions decisions, colleges and universities in the US don’t just look at grades and test scores. There is a myriad of factors that admissions officers consider when evaluating college applications, and it’s important to understand what colleges are looking for in order to have the best chance of admission to your top-choice colleges.

Colleges want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists who can contribute to the campus community in ways other than great academic performance. Taking only the applicants with the top grades and test scores may not make for a diverse or well-rounded student body. This is why in addition to the “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) of a student’s application, colleges also place great weight on the “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) in order to gain a full picture of applicants. How these components are evaluated, however, can be confusing to families and make the college admissions process somewhat mysterious.

What Are the People Called Who Look at College Applications?

An admissions committee is a group of people who review your application and decide whether you’ll be a good match for their school.

Gone are the days of paper applications, when admissions offices had stacks of files in cabinets and had to go through them all by hand. In today’s environment, your application is completed, uploaded, and read online.

An important, and often mysterious, component of the application review process is the admissions committee. In the current admissions process, a vast amount of applications are decided without ever being brought to a committee for review thanks to advancements in technology that make it easier for admissions officers to sort and read through applications. For those fortunate enough to make it through the initial review, some will go into an admissions committee setting where admissions officers will discuss and review those applicants. Here’s an example of what might transpire in the committee review process.

“Next we have Alex’s profile to consider. She rates a 3 on our academic scale and a 5 on the personal qualities/activities scale. Alex’s testing falls within our averages and she makes straight A’s. She has not taken the most rigorous courses offered at her high school, with only three APs when the school offers nine. Her guidance counselor said, ‘Alex is the quintessential leader in our community.’”

“What is compelling about Alex is that she was a paralympic athlete in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games as a competitive downhill skier. Her essay writing style was effortless, yet erudite. She focused on being legally blind in her right eye and will eventually lose her vision completely due to birth complications. She feels charged with helping her visually impaired community. She organized a drive in her hometown for underprivileged kids to have eye exams. Alex did her homework about our university and understands the complexities of our unique curriculum offerings and wants to continue her interest in helping those with disabilities…. I recommend we….”

There may be some questions from the committee, and then a vote. Based on the majority opinion, Alex’s file will be flagged in the admissions portal as accepted, holding for review, or denied.”

So how does an application make it to this point in the review process? Or more specifically, how does the admissions committee review work?

It begins with the software of the admissions office. There will be a portal for counselors to utilize where your general information is organized and where your actual application can be viewed. Every university reads a little differently. Given the growth in application numbers, you’ll find, on average, that larger universities are more likely to have the first review of the application done through a computer program. Many of these are done within the context of a specific college; College of Engineering, College of Management, etc. This helps to weed out those that really fall far below their academic averages.

It’s important to note that there are also universities that have strayed from using admissions committees altogether and rely more on computer-generated sorting and/or just one to two readers for each application. However, in most elite universities and private liberal arts schools, admissions committees still have a role in the decision-making process.

Typically, the regional representative on the admissions staff does the first read of an application before it arrives in a committee setting. GPA and test scores can be the sole reason you are denied, but at the top universities in the U.S., they will never be the sole reason you are accepted.

One constant among every college and university in the U.S. is that each applicant is given a score on an academic scale. It may factor in a weighted or unweighted GPA and will be taken into consideration within the context of the high school, rigor of courses, and test scores. Some universities have two scales while others have even more.

There is also a place in the admissions portal for anecdotes where one might find a guidance counselor quote or a teacher’s quote. This is a place for the first reader to make notes, especially for those factors that the scales do not address.

Once applications are run through the initial vetting process and rated based on the admission office’s scales, the committee review can begin. However, the committee does not view the entire application. It includes those important scale ratings, but also other key information so the committee can vote without having to read the whole application in its entirety. It’s now in the hands of the graduate school admissions counselor who read the application initially to present the student to their colleagues and to act as the student’s advocate.

What to discuss first or how to showcase why the student would be a good fit for that particular university is considered. For example, if someone has a low verbal score, the presenter may start by addressing how the student’s second language is English, whether he or she wrote solid essays, and how the student scored a 4 on the AP English exam. Everyone has a story, and it is the responsibility of the admissions officer to share it to entice the committee to vote yes. They are not always successful, and if the vote comes to hold a student for consideration later, the presenter needs to make notes so the committee remembers the student when he or she is reconsidered. This is the beauty of the committee experience. Admissions officers remember the student because of their previously discussed highlights.

“Remember, he’s the one who did research on the effects of nighttime light exposure on skin cancer.”

“Oh, she’s the one who started a global initiative to promote understanding of Muslim women,” or “Let’s talk again about the Intel Science third-place medal winner who crafted a machine-learning algorithm.”

When building a well-balanced class, the committee review process can be a great tool to help admissions officers learn what makes a particular student tick and why he or she might be a good fit for the class. Especially in highly-selective admissions, where many applicants can begin to look the same on paper, students can stand out in the committee review process, helping their chances to gain admission. It’s important to remember that, while some initial vetting is completed by computers or software, building a well-rounded class is a very human process, so it’s important to be genuine and thoughtful when applying to your top-choice colleges.

How Long Does It Take for the Committee to Review an Application?

An applicant who applies after the deadline will likely receive an acceptance letter before the end of the semester. Colleges often make decisions within six to eight weeks. The application process is competitive, so students should apply early.

How College Applications Are Evaluated?

Most U.S. universities use the “holistic review” process when evaluating college applications. This means admissions officers place emphasis on the applicant as a whole person, not just his or her academic achievements, so soft factors may be given just as much consideration as the empirical data present in hard factors.

In order to evaluate these factors, admissions officers use a “rubric” as a guide. Rubrics are not one-size-fits-all and differ from school to school, but most evaluate these core components of an applicant’s profile (in no particular order):

  • GPA
  • Course Rigor
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Strength of School
  • Essays
  • Demonstrated Interest

In most rubrics, each factor is evaluated against the admissions standards for the school, and whether it is above, equal to, or below the standard outlined in the rubric.

For example, if the average SAT score of previously admitted students is 2100, that then serves as the benchmark for evaluating new applicants. If an applicant has an SAT score above 2100, he or she can be given the highest score for that particular category. If the applicant has an SAT score right at the average, or 2100, he or she is given a middle score, and a low score is given for an SAT score below the average. Again, different schools use different rubrics and scoring systems can vary. Here’s a visual representation of this “scoring.”

Many schools publicize the median GPA and test scores of admitted applicants in order for prospective students to get an idea of the scores they will need in order to be considered for admission. The goal for applicants is to submit an application with components equal to or above the admissions standards set by the admissions office.

Things like extracurricular activities and essays can seem harder to judge, but an admissions rubric does make the process seem a little more straightforward.

For example, a school can choose to rate essays based on what they learn about the applicant and whether the essays are well-written. A stand-out essay in which the reader learns a lot about the applicant can earn top marks, while a well-written essay that reveals little about the applicant can earn middle-of-the-road marks, and a poorly written essay where the reader learns nothing new about the applicant can get a low mark.

Evaluating the strength of your extracurricular activities, course load, essays, and other soft factors against the admissions standards of the college or university, however, isn’t as simple as checking the information on the school’s website. Help from your college counselor is most valuable for these components.

Gaining admissions isn’t as simple as getting the highest marks in all rubric categories. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Analysis of yield from last year, budgets, departmental needs, and more are all considered when determining the threshold students have to meet to be qualified for admission to the university.

For example, if 3 is the max score that an applicant can get for the eight categories listed above, then 24 is the top score an applicant can get on the rubric. After analyzing all institutional needs and goals, the admissions office might decide that a student with a rubric score of 20 or above is qualified to attend and if admitted will be able to do the work and graduate within four years.

So, if a student whose test scores fall slightly below the average of previously admitted students, giving them a 1 in that category, but scores a 3 everywhere else, that student still meets that 20-point threshold. Such students are qualified to attend.

On the flip side, a student with above-average grades and test scores might get top marks in those categories, but if he or she has a poor essay, little extracurricular involvement, an easy course load, and poor recommendation letters, he or she will most likely score below that 20 point threshold — not qualifying for admission.

The bottom line is that there’s not one factor — grades, test scores, essays, etc. — that will make you a shoo-in for your top-choice colleges. Everything is taken into consideration — including factors that are outside of your control like budgetary restrictions, departmental needs, and more. The goal for every applicant should be to understand what colleges are looking for and what they can do, whether it’s improving their GPA, raising their test scores, or building stronger teacher and counselor relationships, in order to put together the strongest application possible.

Colleges look at everything from all four years of high school, so it’s never too early to prepare for college admissions. Students should meet with their counselors as early as freshmen year to begin mapping out action plans. These plans should include classes they’re taking now, what courses to take next and in the following years, SAT and ACT test-prep timelines, and how to begin building balanced college lists.

IvyWise counselors Victoria and Christine break down the college admissions rubric and discuss examples of different hard and soft factors that admissions officers evaluate, giving listeners expert insights from former admissions officers. Listen Now!

How to Stay Calm While Waiting for Admissions Decisions

Although applicants have already done the “hard” part by compiling their submissions, sometimes waiting can feel like the most challenging component of the process.

While staying in limbo isn’t easy for anyone, there are a couple of steps students can take to ease their nerves and stay calm while awaiting results. Keep reading to learn how you can maintain a level head while looking out for admissions outcomes from your top choice schools.

Trust the Process

Students who have done their due diligence and applied to a balanced list of best-fit schools don’t have anything to worry about. While it’s natural to have your sights set on your top choice option, don’t forget that each school on your list has its own array of exciting opportunities. Instead of fixating on the most selective school on your list, get excited about the potential to attend any of the schools you have applied to. Remember that each institution has something to offer and trust that admissions officers will recognize and reward what you’re bringing to the table.

Focus on the Positives

It can be easy to dwell on the negatives surrounding the admissions process, but try to look at everything with a positive spin. Yes, it can feel scary to be unsure about your next steps, but it’s also exciting knowing that a major transition awaits. Wherever you ultimately choose to attend college will be an exciting opportunity for you to expand your horizons, deepen your knowledge of your current passions, and discover new interests and pursuits. Cherish these last few days before admissions outcomes are announced and strive to live in the moment as much as possible.

Reconnect With Your Passions

To avoid fixating entirely on college admissions results, reconnect with whatever brings you the most joy. Stop checking your email frantically and pick up a paintbrush, practice your soccer skills, or take an hour to reread part of your favorite book. Yes, the college admissions process is time-consuming and important, but it’s also essential to make time for activities that are entirely unrelated to it. Come back to your passions and give yourself a chance to unwind by doing what you love.

Reach Out to Friends

You’re not the only one awaiting admissions results; it’s likely that your friends are too. Share your feelings with your peers and offer to support each other during this challenging time. Connecting with peers, even if it’s just a group video call, can help take your mind off of upcoming admissions decisions and serve as an outlet when you need someone to talk to.

Give Yourself Time to Cope

Regardless of what kind of college admissions news you receive, anticipate that you will need time to take it all in. Acceptances, waitlists, and rejections all come with their own host of emotional responses and next steps to take. Understand that coping with these admissions outcomes is part of the growth process and trust that with time and support, you will be able to handle whatever admissions news comes your way.

What to Do if You Were Not Accepted to College?

Rejection in the college admissions process is a hard reality that many students must face. In some cases, students can be left with few college options, but there are actually a number of routes that students can take to ultimately fulfill their college dreams.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the average acceptance rate across all four-year institutions in the U.S. is around 67%. Even though this average has been steadily declining over the past few years, it has recently stabilized. But for students seeking admission to highly selective colleges and universities, the statistics are often not in their favor.

With more students applying to more colleges than ever, the chances of receiving a rejection increase, especially if students fail to create a balanced list of colleges that include a likely, target, and a reach school. So what should students do if they are denied from their top-choice colleges and left with few, or no, college options for the fall? Here are some tips.

Look For Colleges That Are Still Accepting Applications

If you’re set on attending college in the fall, but did not receive many or any offers of admission to the colleges to which you already applied, consider finding colleges that are still accepting applications. Every year the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) releases a list of colleges still accepting applications for admission to the fall class. This list is usually released at the beginning of May after enrollment decisions are in.

However, don’t apply just to apply. Do your research and make sure the colleges you are considering submitting some last-minute applications to are good fit schools for your social, academic, and financial goals.

Take a Gap Year

For many students who had a difficult or unsuccessful admissions process, a gap year can be a great option post-graduation. There are a number of things that students can do during a gap year, including working, interning, volunteering, traveling, or even taking a few classes, before preparing for the admissions process again. If you’re unhappy with your college options, consider meeting with your counselor to discuss the benefits of a gap year, and what you can do during your time off to enhance your chances of admission during the next application cycle.

Attend a Local or Community College

Don’t let college rejections keep you from pursuing higher education. Taking classes at a local or community college while you figure out your next steps is a smart move, as it can help you fulfill some general credits and can keep you from falling behind your peers. If you plan to apply to your top-choice colleges again next year as a transfer student, take classes that align with your interests, and that will transfer to the institutions you’re interested in.

Make a Plan to Apply Again Next Year

Whether you take a gap year, attend a local or community college, or just take some time to work and gain real-world experience, you’ll need a plan of action should you choose to apply to college again in the fall. It’s important to start thinking about that now, as your choices now will affect how you apply to college in the fall.

For example, if you choose to attend another college and transfer, you’ll need to apply as a transfer student. If you take a gap year, you’ll be applying again as a freshman, but you might have to disclose that you previously applied to that college. Take some time to consider your options, and once you have a plan for the next year, begin planning for the college admissions process again. Just because you’ve been through it once before doesn’t mean you don’t need to take time to prepare.

Rejection is never easy, and for many students, it can alter plans that they’ve had for years, and leave them lost about what to do next. It’s important to stay positive and remember that there are plenty of options for students to consider outside of the traditional college path.

What to Do if You Are Accepted Into Your Top-Choice School?

Congratulations! All of your hard work has paid off and you’ve gained admission to your best-fit college! It’s an exciting time and you should take the opportunity to celebrate and enjoy the experience, but don’t forget there’s still more to do. Check out this LinkedIn post to learn what to do next if you have been accepted into your dream school.

After receiving an acceptance, you should sit down with your parents and evaluate the admission offer. Did you receive financial aid? If so, how much? Now is the time to have a final discussion about finances. If everything is in order and meets your needs and goals, get ready to send in your deposit! Most schools require admitted students to secure a spot by May 1, so take your time to consider the offer, but be mindful of deadlines. Next, look into freshmen housing, and orientation dates, and arrange for your final transcript to be sent to your new college.

What to Do if You Have More Than One Offer of Admission?

Many students end up weighing more than one offer of admission. Even if a student is accepted to his or her top-choice college out of their college list, other offers can come in that are just as enticing. Remember, you should be happy to attend any of the colleges you apply to, so it’s okay to feel a little conflicted when presented with more than one offer of admission.

First, evaluate all your options. Look at the financial aid offers, refer back to your research and notes on the school, and talk with your parents. If one or two schools really stand out but you’re still not sure which to choose, see if you can make one last visit during an admitted students’ weekend.

Again, take your time deciding, but be mindful of enrollment deadlines. If all else fails, go with your gut – you’ve done your research so you know what’s going to be the best option for your goals.

5 Tips on What to Do if You Get Put on the Waitlist

#1 Decide if the Waitlist School Is Still Your Top-Choice College

Being placed on the waitlist can be a gut-check for many students. After the initial excitement of other acceptances, a waitlist decision could put a top-choice college out of the running for some students, and that’s okay! Feelings about schools can change throughout the course of the college admissions process, especially as decisions come in. If you receive a waitlist decision, take time to consider if that college is still a top choice.

Remember that many waitlist acceptances don’t come until the end of the spring or even in the early summer, so students will have to decide if they’re comfortable with waiting that long to receive a final decision.

Weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision before enrollment deadlines. Once you’ve made your decision, make sure to take the appropriate steps to inform the college whether or not you intend to remain waitlisted. This may require a written response, a call to the admissions office, or accepting a spot online in an applicant portal.

#2 Secure Your Spot at Another School

As mentioned before, many waitlist decisions don’t come until much later in the spring or summer, well after the May 1 enrollment deadline for many colleges. Taking into account the low percentage of students accepted off the waitlist, it’s smart to go ahead and accept a spot at one of the best-fit colleges that did accept you. Don’t worry — accepting an admission offer at another college will not hurt your chances of being admitted off the waitlist.

Colleges realize that students need a place to go in the fall and will not penalize someone for accepting a spot somewhere else while waiting to hear back on a waitlist decision. Weigh your acceptances without factoring in the waitlist college. If you applied to a balanced list of colleges you should be excited to attend any of the colleges where you were accepted. Get excited! Make an informed decision and send in your enrollment deposit before the deadline.

#3 Update the Admissions Office on What You’ve Done This Past Semester

Many times after accepting a place on the waitlist, colleges will encourage students to give the admissions office a little more information about what they’ve been doing since they submitted their applications. This can include anything from final grades and AP test scores to updates on extracurriculars, community service, academic interests, and more. This is also your opportunity to reiterate your commitment to the college and articulate that you intend to enroll if accepted. This factors into demonstrated interest, as the college, will want to admit students that want to enroll. Explain why that college is still your top choice and how you intend to contribute to the campus community if admitted.

#4 Proceed Like You’re Not Waiting for a Waitlist Acceptance

After accepting your spot and informing the college of your continued interest, there isn’t much more you can do other than wait to hear if you’ve been accepted. This is where it’s important to have realistic expectations and focus your energy on the college in which you’ve enrolled. Spend your summer operating as if you’re not waiting to hear back from another school. Attend orientation and freshmen events at your new college. Network with other students and get excited about the future! Neglecting the college where you did accept a spot will only set you up for disappointment should you not get into your waitlist college.

#5 If You Are Accepted, Reevaluate Your Options

If you do get word later this spring or summer that you’ve been accepted off the waitlist, congratulations! Your diligence and patience have paid off. Again, take some time to consider the offer and whether or not your feelings have changed. After some time and preparing to attend another college, you may not want to attend the waitlist college after all — and that’s okay, too!

Sit down with your family and discuss your options. There is some cost involved, as you may have to forfeit any enrollment and housing deposits you’ve already put down at another school, but it may be worth it in the end if you get to attend the college of your dreams after all. If you decide to accept the spot off the waitlist, inform the college and send in your deposit.

Then let your alternative college know you will not be attending in the fall after all. If you decide not to accept the spot off the waitlist, let the college know so they can offer the spot to someone else ASAP.

Not enough? Learn more tips on how to get off the waitlist.

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