There is no one universal way that admission staff approach the complex application-evaluation process. So any book or article that suggests otherwise should be eyed with skepticism. However, at most institutions, each application (which means all associated materials, of course, and not just the application itself) will be read by a “regional rep" (this is the staff member assigned to oversee applications from a specific geographic area) plus at least one other staff member who reads randomly (meaning that this person is seeing applications from throughout the pool).
Most commonly, each reader makes brief comments on a candidate's strengths and weaknesses (“exceptional essay," “fluffy senior classes"), and each reader assigns some sort of rating ... usually numerical but not always. When I read applications at Smith College nearly two decades ago, our rating scale ranged from one at the top to 10 at the bottom. But I had friends at other colleges whose scale was the exact opposite ... one was the bad number. At some schools, admission readers vote to “Admit" or “Deny." At Smith, each reader gave only one overall rating, but at many colleges there will be an academic rating and a separate personal one.
In my bygone Smith days (and thus perhaps not now), each application came to me with the GPA and standardized test scores (no longer required there) already assigned a numerical value by a computer. So this is where the “holistic" part of the evaluation that we all hear so much about kicked in. I would consider the GPA in context (“Took AP Chem and AP Physics online, not offered at high school;" “GPA unweighted") and the test scores, too (“First-generation;" “underserved school"). Thus, my personal appraisal of these statistics as well as of the writing, extracurricular activities, recommendations, etc. might raise or lower the computer's opening gambit.
You've probably also heard a lot about the admission “committee" and thus you imagine that each student's fate is ultimately determined by a somber group of seasoned admission veterans sharing passionate pleas or acerbic critiques behind impregnable ironwood doors. And, indeed, this can be true. But for many students at many colleges, a decision is made before an application ever reaches a committee. For instance, when I was at Smith, a committee was only convened if the initial two readers couldn't reach a consensus on their own. However, when a candidate was coded with a “hook" — such as athlete, legacy or underrepresented minority — the staff member in charge of this constituency weighed in as well. In most admission offices, the regional rep is in charge of reviewing materials that arrive post-verdict and deciding if these warrant a revision of the initial vote.
When a student is deferred in the Early Decision or Early Action round, the application is reevaluated as part of the Regular Decision pool. Again, the process is not identical at every college, but usually a new reader, who wasn't involved the first time, will be assigned to this second assessment, along with the regional rep. New information is always carefully considered.
Finally, before the infamous fat and thin letters (or the 21st-Century virtual versions) are compiled, there is some sort of “reconciliation" period when admission officials view the prospective first-year class as a whole to see where it meets — or falls short of — institutional needs. These needs will vary from year to year and can be impossible to predict from beyond those closed committee doors. But it can be at this point that students who were once part of the “In" pile get shunted to the “Out." An Ivy League admission official once described to me how she cried when dozens of wonderful but unhooked students were removed from an already too-large class at the eleventh hour.
While I said at the start that there is not a single, definitive approach to the application-evaluation process, there are, nonetheless, a couple of truths that I believe are indeed universal:
For example, there was a young man in my orbit who connected so well with his interviewer at an elite liberal arts college that they talked long past his scheduled time slot. But ultimately the college — his first choice — rejected him. His confidence was shot. “I thought she'd really liked me," he lamented. “Maybe I just couldn't judge that." Well, I happened to also know his interviewer. So I called her and asked if she remembered this candidate. “Of course I do!" she effused. She went on to tell me how delightful, intelligent and well-read he was, how thoroughly she'd enjoyed his visit, and how much she'd wanted to admit him. Yet she was outvoted by colleagues who pointed to a course load that favored this student's eclectic academic tastes but fell short on rigor.
“Holistic" also means “subjective." Many times in my application-reading days, I'd love an essay that a colleague hated ... or vice versa. And although admission officials are supposed to check their biases at the door, there will inevitably be those who favor ballroom dancers over ballerinas or ceramicists over soccer players. So the applicant-reader match can play a key a role in outcomes beyond any teenager's control, despite the best grades and glowing recommendations.
About the Ask the Dean column: Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please send it along here.
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