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When the admission committee at a college is meeting, what do you think you might hear during the process of making an admission decision?

College acceptance: Rating your application

The first thing you might hear is the rating each committee member gives your application. If there’s not a consensus, the next thing you might hear is admission officers arguing for the merits of the candidates they think are a good fit.

At colleges that accept just about anyone, there might not be a committee. However, at the most competitive colleges, your application won’t even be discussed in committee unless you’re firing on all cylinders, meaning excellent grades and scores are a given. What then?

Patricia Wei, of Yale University, explains this step of the admissions decision: “In committee, we say, ‘This is a good student. Now what is special?’ A lot of times we call an applicant ‘solid.’ It translates into ‘fine, but nothing distinctive.’ At other colleges where I’ve worked, ‘solid’ meant admissible, but here it’s the kiss of death.”

College acceptance: A peek at the process

The goal of the admission committee is to assign an overall rating that every member can live with. Committees often give numerical or letter grades rather than voting ”In” or “Out”, “Accept” or “Reject.” For example, if an A to F scale is used to make the admission decision, committee members realize that A and B applicants are likely to be admitted and that C applicants stand a good chance. However, the final cut can’t be made until all the files have been rated and compared. Competition and space availability change from year to year, so cut-off points vary. It’s a serious and sensitive undertaking, but hardly an exact science.

Decisions are more clear-cut at the top and bottom of the pool. The toughest admissions decisions to make are those about students who fall in the middle. This is where the strength of your application, as well as each college’s particular needs and priorities, really come into play. Colleges don’t always go by the book. There is room to make adjustments for “wild cards,” those candidates who, on the basis of statistics or in the light of tight competition, might be far from the top of the pile, yet have that special something that really knocked the socks off the committee members.

College acceptance: Things you may not have considered

The committee is also tasked with other issues, such as fine-tuning the overall composition of the incoming class. Dean Lee Stetson of the University of Pennsylvania states the following about the admissions decision, “Eighty-five percent of those who apply would thrive here, but we have to choose among them. We’re not looking for only the best numbers, but also for those who will make each freshman class the most interesting…the most representative of the broad-based society we live in… and there is some element of crap shoot in the whole process.”

Each institution has to determine how many positive college admission letters will net the desired number of entering students. While one college must accept 1,000 candidates so that 500 will enroll, another may need to make only 750 offers to net the same total. In any case, colleges always admit more students than they expect to actually enroll, and it’s impossible to always be right on the mark. Thus, you may be accepted, denied, or waitlisted. You might also get a more unusual type of college admission letter:

  • Admission to the institution but not to your program of choice (programs, majors, and departments also use waitlists)
  • Admission without housing and/or financial aid
  • Conditional college acceptance, such as “contingent on receipt of SAT Subject Test scores” or “on completion of summer physics course”
  • Admission to a later term (e.g., acceptance for second semester)

College acceptance: A difficult decision

Admission officers have a tough job. Lest you think that they’re hardened and cold-hearted, consider the words of William H. Peck, a former college admission dean and current director of college counseling at Santa Catalina School in California, “Remember that however disappointed you may be about an adverse admission decision, the admission staff has experienced even more disappointments — those legions of wonderful students who looked at the college and never applied; who applied but were regretfully denied; who were admitted but chose to go elsewhere. We call them ‘admissions’ offices instead of ‘rejections’ offices for a reason; admitting students is, after all, the real goal and is a pleasure; denying them is a necessary element of the process, but an unpleasant task.”