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The College Application: Behind Closed Doors

By Peter Van Buskirk updated on Thursday, January 31, 2013

It's mid-winter. Your college applications have been submitted and all you can do is wait. After months of mail, interviews, phone conversations, and campus visits, the chatter from the colleges has all but disappeared and the silence is deafening.

What happens to your college application when it reaches the admission office? Who reads it? What will they think? How will they decide? Surprisingly, the answers aren't that simple.

Screening applicants
Colleges and universities use different systems, depending on their applicant volumes, levels of selectivity, and institutional agendas. Universities that process tens of thousands of applications often will presort credentials electronically, using a formula involving standardized tests and GPA. Some of the most selective schools apply an index derived from a more complex set of variables in order to prescreen applicants. In each case, candidates who meet predetermined standards are referred to the admission committee for further review.

College application readers

Once in committee, it is common for multiple people to read an application before any decisions are made. First readers can be assigned in different ways. Sometimes it's by recruiting territory. At larger universities, first readers can be part-time staff, hired specifically for that purpose (usually applications are read in alphabetical groups in this situation). Others are specialists in particular majors or subgroups of students (international students, for example). Sometimes faculty members from academic disciplines are even asked to read college application forms, especially at universities divided into "colleges" or "schools" to which you apply directly.

From the first reader, your application for college will follow any of a number of different routes. It might proceed to a second reader for an independent assessment. If the first two readers agree, a decision might be reached. If they disagree, your application will go to either a third reader or a committee that will make the decision.

Regardless, admission officers continue to probe to find the real student buried in all the application materials. Obviously, the candidates at opposite ends of the competitive spectrum are sorted quickly and easily. Those in the middle get lots of attention.

Credentials on college applications

As readers review your credentials, they start with your transcript, noting both the strength of your academic program and your academic successes relative to other students in your school. Next, they look at scores, essays, and extracurricular activities, noting any "hooks" or points of distinction along the way. In a very short period of time, they develop a bias — a sense of what you have to offer and where you fit in the competition. They have answered the question: "What do we get by admitting this student?"

Assuming the bias is favorable, they quickly scan letters of recommendation to look for validation — evidence that supports the information on your application. Sometimes these letters provide an added dimension of understanding regarding your performance. This insight can be very powerful.

Selection process has many variables
The important thing to remember is that admission officers are people, too. They have their likes and dislikes and they have to meld their priorities with the college or university's priorities. Sometimes they even disagree with other readers and wind up "fighting" for a particular student.

Complicating this process is their responsibility to create a freshman class that will further the university's aims, which is why the process can seem so random. In a nutshell, the more selective the institution, the less likely its selection process is to be "fair" and "logical."

However, one thing that you don't have to worry about is schools favoring their own applications over the college common application. Colleges that accept the common form have pledged to consider it on equal standing with their own forms.

About the Author

Peter Van Buskirk is a former Dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College and a noted author, strategist, and motivational speaker.

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