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How the Admissions Committee Review Process Works

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By Amy, IvyWise Principal Admissions Counselor

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. So when all of the required components are submitted, how does your application navigate through the admissions process in the digital age? What materials are filtered by computers, and where does the difficult decision-making happen?

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 AP’s 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 loose 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, the 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 of the 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 each applicant being 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 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 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, 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.

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