At Empowerly, we get many students who ask us how the admissions office views different types of applicants. Due to a leak in FERPA requests, a privacy law, we were able to see exactly how universities vet and rate students. In this article, we will reveal a few of their strategies, how they rank students, and how you can update your profile to fit into one of the buckets they look for.
Colleges receive thousands of applications every year, and this number is exponentially higher at the Top 100 colleges – the UCs, Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Emory, USC, and many more. How can they possibly read through so many applications?
At some schools, especially state-funded or smaller schools, the answer is that the university admissions office does not read through the full set of applications. They will employ a grading system that automatically removes students with a threshold GPA or SAT/ACT that does not meet their requirement. This is also true for graduate schools, and several graduate schools actually list their requirements. One unique area for undergraduates is the TOEFL – where some schools actually have a minimum score students need to apply. Other than that, it is relatively rare for a university to release specific threshold academic metrics for undergraduate applicants.
So once you have reached the application reading stage, how do admissions offices decide which students to accept and reject? This is obviously a nuanced and detailed question, but we will answer it in broad strokes to help you understand the process here.
First, many schools use some sort of numeric rating system across attributes that they want to see in a candidate. For example, Stanford may be looking for intellectual vitality, based on their famous intellectual vitality essay, and may grade students on a 1-5 scale.
Some schools will aggregate these subscores into a total applicant score. These scores are often assigned in the 22-25 minutes that admissions officers spend reading students applications. 10 minutes is spent understanding the applicant’s background, their family, their scores, and their grades. 10-15 minutes is spent reading the applicant’s essays and understanding their personal stories.
At the end of this period, the admissions officer will rank the student across the key variables, sum it up, and determine if the student should be put into an Admit, Waitlist/Defer, or Reject pile. Often schools will have 2 readers per student and they will look at the piles. If both accept, then the student is accepted. If there is disagreement amongst readers, then they will come to a weekly Committee meeting where the applicants in the disagree pile are evaluated in a few minutes and decided upon. If they are both reject, the student is rejected.
Some schools have different systematic strategies around the disagree pile. Some like Harvard like to maintain a large defer and waitlist pool so that they can pull from that applicant pool in case their yield goes down. Others like Stanford prefer to keep it smaller to give applicant’s a true sense of where they are (accept or reject), not give them false hope, and to give themselves clarity on their class size.
Some schools will consider the timing of your application while many do not. Once all applications are in, many schools will hire part-time reading staff who help with reading the applications each year. Usually departments are relatively slim, with regional admissions officers understanding the local or regional high schools for different domains.
What you can do
Now that you understand a little more about the college admissions review process, the rate cards they often use, and the strategies they use to hire seasonal staff, here are some practical tips you can use in the admissions process:
- Many deans are open about their strategy in admissions. You can find their work online or on the school’s website, especially if that school is open about how they review applicants.
- Write the most honest and genuine application you can. In the end, these readers are trained and know what types of students do well at their school. By writing amazing, simple, and genuine applications, you will do yourself a favor by having a strong application that colleges can both understand and more accurately assess. Of course, build your story over time with extracurricular activities.
- Apply to more colleges rather than less. With the rise of applications across all Top 100 colleges, many schools are employing the waitlist/defer pool as a safeguard against lower yields. As an applicant, that means we should consider applying to more colleges.
- Consider the early action/early decision process seriously. This can be used to demonstrate interest to a college, hedge our bets, and perhaps even cut down the number of colleges we have to apply to if we can get in during the early round to a school of our choice.
Keep in mind that much of these processes may change in the coming years, as environmental and public health factors change the shape of US education. For more information on how this can impact you, review our website and consider working with an expert counselor throughout the process. We’re here to help.