The Secret of College Admissions: How College Applications Are Evaluated

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays, university application information on March 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Who should read this post:  Anyone who will use the Common Application; anyone who wants to apply to an Ivy League school or to any other elite school;  anyone who wants to understand how college applications are evaluated; anyone who needs to write a college application essay; in fact, anyone applying to any college in the United States should read this post.

Objective Evaluations

This post will be focused on undergraduate evaluations.  For graduate evaluations, look at specific posts, such as my Brief on the Law School Application.

First things first:  there are two basic ways to evaluate college applications, holistically or objectively.  Without digressing into discussions of the relative fairness of standardized tests or the objectivity of grades, the objective method focuses on grades and test scores “only.”  This seems like a simple and fair way to evaluate, but it’s not actually as simple as it seems.

An example of a system that uses this method is the California State Universities, including  specific schools, such as the two Cal Poly campuses, Long Beach State, et al.  These schools do not require any supplemental material, such as essays, with the exception of some specific programs and specific categories of students, such as transfer students for  the Architecture major at Cal Poly, or Graphic Arts and Fine Arts majors at most schools–Cal State Long Beach is an example–for which portfolios and other supplemental materials are required. (CSLB is ranked #58 in the country for fine arts, and it’s “in” Los Angeles, which also puts you in one of our big art markets.  There are only a few Ivy League schools in the rankings above CSLB and a couple of U.C. schools, if that gives you some perspective.  I have more to say about having some perspective and widening your search below as well as in my last post, where I discussed evaluating schools based on majors and cost.  See the U.S. News rankings here for more details on the rankings in Art).

Special Admissions Categories in Objective Schools

Objective schools, like the holistic schools,  do set aside places for various categories each year, from athletics to out-of-state students, among other categories; individual departments may ask for spots to be set aside for particular kinds of students as well, and these numbers change from year to year.  This is not widely understood–many people assume that objective schools only look at tests and grades, but  even this so-called “objective” evaluation is more complicated than it seems, and not just because other factors than your grades and test scores may matter.

Even your grades are open to interpretation, based on factors like your class rank and the profile of your school, both of which can also factor into an “objective” assessment.  If you are a top ten-percent student  at a good high school and you score well on standardized measurements, that means something different than the same ranking at a low-scoring high school.  So a grade is not just a grade and a class rank is not just a class rank.  On the other hand, a computer can do almost all of this processing as the school tweaks the software to meet the needs that year, and they have profiles on most high schools based on applications and data on students who enrolled in the past.  Not a lot of direct human intervention is needed, aside from specific categories of students the school will seek that year, and even then, the initial analysis is mostly automated.

Holistic Evaluations and Common Application Schools

Evaluations at holistic schools are even more complex.  So-called “subjective” elements, such as essays, play an important role.

An easy way to quickly distinguish between objective and holistic schools and systems is this:  if they require essays for all applicants, they are holistic.  The most well-known holistic application is the Common Application, so I will simply quote it here to define the holistic approach:

Membership is limited to colleges and universities that evaluate students using a holistic selection process. A holistic process includes subjective as well as objective criteria, including at least one recommendation form, at least one untimed essay, and broader campus diversity considerations. The vast majority of colleges and universities in the US use only objective criteria – grades and test scores – and therefore are not eligible to join. If a college or university is not listed on this website, they are not members of the consortium. Sending the Common Application to non-members is prohibited.

So any Common App school is de facto a holistic school.  But does that mean that all the holistic schools are the same?


For example, some holistic schools use committees which discuss many applicants, particularly in Early Decision.  Some use a small number of readers–two or three, most commonly–and a kind of referee.

Let’s look at the last kind first, which I will call the triumvirate model.  In this evaluation,  your file,  including various test and grade information, letters of recommendation and essays,  most often gets two readers who give it an evaluation; if both give it a clear thumbs-up, determined by some high baseline number that is a composite of the different parts of the file, then you are in. Assume for this example that the school uses a 1-9 scale and that the cutoff for definite admissions is a rating of 8 out of 9.  If one reader gives it clear approval–giving it a 9 out of 9 overall rating, for example–but the other reader gives it, say, a 7 out of 9, then the file would get a third reading from the “referee,” who could even be the dean in charge of Admissions, though in a large institution, might be an assistant of some kind.  They won’t generally just do an average of the two readers. An 8 and a 9 would be in, but the 7 in the example above would probably trigger a third reading by a final arbiter.

And less tangible factors play a role in each reading.  This is one of the reasons why I have spent so much time in earlier posts discussing the ancient idea of the rhetorical triangle and have focused on how to approach your audience in your essays.  Grabbing a reader with your essays will help if other parts of your information are a bit weak.

Grades and test scores are still the first consideration in the holistic evaluation, but they will evaluate other factors for all applicants, not just those fitting a category they want to emphasize in admissions.  Like the objective evaluations, the first thing that holistic schools will look at is the SAT/ACT and GPA/class rank numbers.  But essays, letters of recommendation, a transcript trajectory  showing that the student has taken five “solid” subjects every semester, taking on challenges and steadily increased the difficulty of classes, all of these things matter.  And the personal, “gut’ response of the reader matters.

It is here that the application essays, recommendations, the summary of an interview, if there was one, and other personal information can play a role.  In particular, strong essays that click with other elements of the admissions information you give can turn your reader into an advocate in a committee discussion and in the notes they append to your file.

Institutional Priorities and Special Categories

As I mentioned earlier, needs within the institution also establish priorities.  For example, a university may decide that certain factors should be weighted more heavily to bring in students who will add something to the institution.  Maybe the college has started a cycling team and wants to recruit good cyclists and has applicants who did well in the Junior racing series of U.S. Cycling.   An applicant like this may have SAT scores a hundred points below the average, as well as having a few B’s and maybe a C, and he or she may not have a wide selection of outside activities, but because he -or she–fits this category established as a priority, he will be approved right away.  More obvious are the big team sports, which seek athletes who can compete at whatever level the university fits, but the school might also want actors or singers or brilliant mathematicians who are otherwise relatively mediocre academically.  Up to 40% of spots at some holistic schools may be held for special categories.

Not fair, you say?  Too subjective? Maybe, but employers do this all the time, looking for basic skills but also for less tangible elements, like “leadership ability” and being a “team player.”   Most universities using holistic evaluations do have a category for “leadership” or for the contribution the applicant is likely to make to the campus community, and these traits can be measured in ways that may not seem obvious to a layman.  Interviews do matter in making these determinations, for those schools that use interviews.

Even more aggravating to the layperson may be the idea that a “legacy” student, one whose relatives, brothers, sister, cousins, parents or significant donor uncles get priority for admissions.  Not fair, again?  Maybe.  But in an era when tax dollars for education are much diminished and when many private school endowments are depleted, the institution has a right to please donors or simply to create a grateful alumni pool from which it can draw support.  Money not only talks, it can  determine who walks in the door.

All of the factors I outline above and many others may come into play in a holistic evaluation. Which are most important is  determined on an annual basis by the indivdual institutions, and as the class traits change during the process of admission, the weighting given to various factors can also change.  So what is the secret to admissions I promised?  Read on:  I’ll get to that (cue the suspenseful music).

Committee Evaluations

In addition to using a limited number of readers and a “referee,” as in the “triumvirate” system,  some holistic schools use committees in which a larger number of readers convene to discuss applicants–say nine people.  This is the committee system.  Typically a university cannot do this for every applicant–a committee is too slow and cumbersome for the thousands and thousands of apps that most universities receive today– so what you end up with is a hybrid system.  The “referee” or judge used in the reader model is replaced largely by the committee, who meet to discuss students who are in a gray area, not quite in but not out either.  In the early stages of the application process, as when the Early Decision applications have come in, the committee will discuss specific cases who applied for Early Decision and who have merits but also have shortcomings, and in doing so help establish parameters for the current year’s evaluations as applications continue to come in.  The Dean in charge of admissions would generally chair this committee, and in this case would serve as the final judge and arbiter in the event of a close call.   In  Early Decision, many of the students who are judged by the committee will have a chance to be considered again as the Regular Decision applications come in, or in the next round with a school that uses Rolling Admissions.

In addition to discussing individual students, this committee, at its early meetings and as the year progresses, will be looking at statistics, such as the average SAT and GPA of its applicants, and this discussion will occur with one eye on the ratings the institution itself is getting from, most importantly, the U.S. News and World Report’s annual report on and ranking of universities, but also other ratings and evaluations.  They do care about P.R.  They will want to be either holding their own or moving up in rankings such as these and that will influence their choices as the year moves forward and as their own stats evolve.

This is why your chances of enrollment can actually change during the application season, and this makes for a difficult calculus for all but the best and most unusual students.

Know this also:   many universities use outside or external readers to assess applications.  U. C. Berkeley, for example, has been doing this for some time. They simply can’t afford to keep enough full-time people on staff year-round to account for the massive workload of the applications season.   And this will be increasingly true due to the rising number of applications at selective schools and the increasing budget pressures they face.  The material in your applications must speak to multiple readers, many of whom will never meet or talk to each other about you and none of whom you are ever likely to meet.

So now for the secret to admission–you can’t know what they want.  Give up on secrets.  If you feel like I suckered you into reading the post, at least you know something of value.

Keep in mind, for holistic evaluations and supplementary materials, that everything you write must be designed with your audience in mind.  At the same time,  you can’t change yourself to pander to a reader.  This sounds like a paradox, but you are making choices about what to share and how to present yourself all the time, and you alter your “personality” in significant ways when you talk to your peers informally and when you talk to, say, a teacher–but you still show aspects of your authentic self.  So you already know something about appealing to your audience.

If you want some certainty about your chances of admission, you need to  be one of the top ten or fifteen students at a very good school, get good SAT scores and write very good essays.  See the various sources I mentioned in my previous post to look up what a competitive SAT is at various schools.    If your school is not so good, be in the top five or three students.

If you are like most people and do not fit into these categories,  the problem then has to do with strategy but also with your own desire.  You will suffer in direct relation to how strongly you want something you may not get.  I suggest that a strong dose of perspective will help you.  Yes, an elite school is a nice thing on a resume, but it doesn’t guarantee much of anything after your first job.  It may help you get your foot in the door at a place that might otherwise not have looked at you, and the various Old Boys and Old Girls networks of elite schools may help you as your career moves forward, but the successful people I know were not successful because they went to a particular school.

If skills are what you want, you can get a great education at hundreds of schools outside of the Ivy League, Stanford, U.S.C. and the University of California system (the most popular examples in my area).  You need to expand your college search if you are only looking at the elite schools.  If you have a 3.9 and think going to Amherst instead of Princeton amounts to a failure, you are probably going to inflict unnecessary pain on yourself.

Be sure to consider individual majors and programs as you research schools.  As an example, I would recommend looking at the schools listed above Cal State Long Beach  in the Fine Arts major I linked above.  Count the Ivies that are above C.S.U.L.B.  This is an instructive exercise which can be repeated in many majors and may help you relax.  I talk about this at length in multiple posts, including my last post, in which I discuss options for students in the Western U.S.  Don’t give up on your most desired schools,  by any means, but do add some schools that you know you have a good profile for.

As for increasing your chances, look at your “objective” measurements and, if  you want to improve your SAT scores, for example, you should first focus on classwork and practicing the actual test by getting the College Board’s SAT book, which as of the last edition, has ten practice tests.  Take them all in the year before your first (or next) SAT test.  Research shows that taking actual tests under test conditions  is the best way to improve test scores (Don’t give yourself all day to take the practice tests–use the official time requirements and do it all at once).  Test boot camps do have bang for the buck, but spending about thirty bucks on a book will also yield good results, for a factor of magnitude less money than a boot camp.

And that is good advice for everybody.

One final thing about the elephant in the room which I have so far ignored:  ethnicity, otherwise known as race.  It is a factor in establishing special categories and it is the most important at many schools, but it is only one category.  When I hear somebody complaining that “race” eliminated them, I have to point out that their athletic ability or inability to sing or to calculate probabilities in their heads also eliminated them. As did their grades and supplementals.   I will write about ethnicity soon, as much is likely to change soon, now that the Supreme Court has decided to hear a Texas case challenging the use of race in admissions.

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