I am wondering exactly who I am competing against with my college applications. I'm an Asian public school student from Illinois applying for electrical engineering. If I apply to, say, Georgia Tech, am I competing against all other Asians across the spectrum? Am I competing against only other kids from Illinois? Only people majoring in EE? Only public school students? How does this work? I don't think my high school inflates grades but I know other high schools do, so I feel like if I am up against someone who is also out of state and Asian, the school could pick someone over me whose high school DOES do grade inflation because that was the only differentiator between us.
Students and their parents often imagine that the college admission process is like a wrestling match — two candidates on a mat, grappling head to head. But in fact, when students enter a college's applicant pool, they are competing with no one — at least not initially — except perhaps with ghosts from the recent past.
Sounds confusing, eh? What does "The Dean" actually mean? Well, for starters, keep in mind that colleges approach the application-evaluation process in different ways. So there's no single universal methodology. But most commonly, each candidate's application is read by the staff member — the "Regional Rep" — who oversees applications from the student's high school. The Regional Rep is usually familiar with this high school (or if not, will do some brief "research" to learn more) and thus has an understanding of the high school's course offerings and rigor. (This can be helpful to students like you where grade-inflation isn't the norm.) This "understanding" is bolstered by the "School Profile" (which all applications include) which provides data on school demographics, academic requirements, median grades and test scores, etc. The Regional Rep may also check out the "history" of applications from this school to see the grades, test scores, class rank, etc. of seniors who have applied in the past and how they've fared. (These are among the aforementioned "ghosts.") But this might come later in the process during the "Fine tuning" stage, which I'll get to in a minute.
Most applications are read by at least one other staff member ... sometimes several. Each reader assigns a "rating" to the application. Often it's a numerical grade, but it could be a straightforward "Admit" or "Deny." When assigning such ratings, admission officials will NOT be comparing you specifically with students from your school, your state, your ethnic background and so on. Thus, on that wrestling mat with you will be the standards of the college rather than a peer opponent. For instance, at Georgia Tech, more than 95 percent of incoming freshmen have a high school GPA of 3.75 or above. So if your GPA is right at 3.75, this may bring your admissions rating down a tad, while a 4.0 will boost it. So again, here are more "ghosts" — all of the successful Georgia Tech aspirants from eons past who have combined to create that GPA benchmark.
Depending on the institution, the officials may be adhering to benchmarks for your major as well (i.e., a certain GPA may be expected for the most challenging majors while a lower one is acceptable for others. STEM fields like yours often spur admission folks to focus on math and science performance — and test scores, when required — with less emphasis on other subjects).
Then, depending on each institution's protocol, the application may be reviewed by additional admission officials in a "committee." Students who fall into special categories (athletes, legacies and VIP connections, underrepresented minorities) may also get a reading from a staff member who is responsible for the extra attention accorded to such groups.
At the end of this review, most applications have been given a final rating. Next comes the "Fine Tuning" mentioned earlier, and that's where factors like your high school, your background, your academic plans, your gender and your home state may come into play. Colleges have varying goals when it comes to creating a class. Most aim for "diversity" in multiple areas, which means that, once admission officials view the class they seem to be about to admit, they will consider all of those factors. If the prospective class is already too large (which, at highly selective colleges, is almost always the case because these schools receive applications from far more well-qualified students than they can accommodate), then difficult cuts will necessary.
In making these cuts, most admission honchos will be keeping a close eye on balance. For instance, if the new class seems top-heavy with Easterners, then being from Illinois could be a plus for you since your chances of staying in the "In" pile should be better than those of the kids from New York and New Jersey. If the numbers of biology majors, Indian males, or private-school students are skyrocketing, it could be some of these applicants who end up with bad news. Thus, at some point, each applicant may be "competing" with others with common ethnic, academic, geographic (etc.) traits. But it's never a head-to-head showdown.
So as you continue navigating the admissions maze, keep in mind that the sought-after colleges will be forced to reject many candidates who are easily as strong as others who were accepted, and that some of those who were denied may have been included on the "Accepted" roster before tough choices had to be made. And when those choices finally are made, it could indeed be some of the factors you've named that influenced them.
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 email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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