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Inside the Admissions Committee

By Margaret Nilsson

What happens once you hit the “submit” button? While each college admissions office has its own unique process, many share similar ways of making decisions.

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Admissions committees work hard to get to know each of their potential students.

Once the applications have been read (typically by at least two admissions officers who are responsible for a particular area), the next step is committee. Committee meetings allow the admissions staff to get together and hear cases from other regions, get a sense of the whole applicant pool and receive feedback from colleagues. Committee means long hours, impassioned discussions and deliberations, and sometimes hard-fought decisions.

Each admissions officer has her own stack of files to present to the rest of the staff. A spreadsheet (often organized by state and within each state by high school) provides basic data on every student who has applied: name, high school, GPA, test scores. While the spreadsheet is useful, it is only when the admissions committee hears some of the details of an application that they start to get a picture of the person behind the file.

Admissions officers want to know as much as they can about each student and his application. His high school, parents’ education and employment, and place in the family can all provide context. We study the school profile and transcript to see if the student has challenged himself during high school and been successful in a rigorous curriculum. What are his senior year courses? How is his standardized testing? His academic credentials give us some assurance that he can handle the demands of a freshman seminar or senior thesis.

What is the applicant’s story? Does he reveal something about himself in his essays? Admissions officers often read parts of the application aloud, perhaps a quote from a teacher or counselor recommendation attesting to a student’s intellectual vitality or central role in the school community. At times, we can’t resist reading an entire essay out loud so that we can share with our colleagues a particularly compelling piece of writing. A good essay can stop us in our tracks.

We ask about the student’s involvement outside the classroom. Is he part of the marching band, fencing team, or service club?

Volunteering is just one way that students can show admissions committees who they are.

Is he spread thin among many activities or focused on a few in a meaningful way? What does he like to do in his spare time? Does he read, write, hike, debate, draw? What kind of roommate would he be? Has he visited the college, taken a tour, had an interview? The reality is that selective colleges have many more qualified applicants than they can admit. Committee is generally where we decide whether a person is the right “fit” for the school, whether he is someone who is likely to benefit from and contribute to the college—in and outside the classroom.

Most colleges are not looking for a particular type of student; rather, they are building a diverse class of bright and passionate young people who will enrich the college community.

Margaret Nilsson has held admissions positions at a small liberal arts college, an Ivy League school, and a mid-sized national university. The above information does not reflect the practices of any particular institution, but is based on years of experience on various admissions committees.

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