High School

How do the deans decide?

Behind the closed doors of college admissions

By Suzanne Shaffer

After my daughter applied to colleges, we waited. Following months and months of activity — study and travel, research and soul-search — there was nothing more for her (or her parents) to do.

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It was time for the colleges to begin the process of deciding her fate. Her applications would be scrutinized, examined and discussed by admissions committees who didn’t know and love her; who might not recognize her potential or how hard she had worked in high school. All they could see was on paper (or a screen), supplemented by the brief impressions of a campus or alumni interview.

On this basis, they would decide to admit…or not admit.

A few years ago in an interview on the Today Show, Seth Allen, who was at that time Grinnell College’s dean of admissions and financial aid (today Mr. Allen is at Pomona College), was asked what actually happens when the admission committee meets. “I would love to say that the admission process is a very straightforward process where every student is considered on her own merits, but that simply isn’t true, especially in highly selective admissions.” In other words, the process is subjective, and this reality makes parents and students uneasy (to put it mildly).

Fortunately, with a little research, you can get a good picture of how different kinds of colleges make their admission decisions. Your student won’t tailor her application to present the kind of student she thinks a certain college is looking for, but it does help to know what institutions value most.

Is it all about the numbers?

Students are often led to believe that grades and test scores alone will make or break their chance at acceptance. At some large schools this may be true. However, while grades and test scores are key components of the application, they are not the only ones. Colleges look at a student’s entire high school career. They evaluate all aspects of the application, compare your student to other applicants, and make a decision based on all these factors combined.

At some schools, admission committees look deep into an applicant’s history, background and demonstrated interest in attending their college. Again, Seth Allen: “Certainly one of the basic things we look for is a student who will be successful academically [at the college]. Beyond that, though, it’s little things in the process that surprise us, uncovering something that makes us think, wow, this is someone who is different, unusual, that we would like to include in the class.” (Grinnell is a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa with a very personalized approach to admissions.)

What factors do most colleges use when making a decision to admit?

A study conducted by NACAC (the National Association for College Admission Counseling) shows that colleges use these top five factors in order of importance when deciding offers of admission:

  1. Grades in college prep courses
  2. Strength of curriculum
  3. Admission test scores (SAT, ACT)
  4. Grades in all courses
  5. Essay or writing sample

As you can see, grades, curriculum and test scores weigh heavily in the decision. Further down the list are interviews, demonstrated interest, recommendations and extracurriculars.

Colleges may also consider other factors for admission such as a student’s geographic location, whether the student is a first generation student, race or ethnicity, relation to alumni (“legacy” status) and gender.

Do different colleges use different factors?

The NACAC study also points out that small colleges and large colleges tend to use a different approach when wading through the applications.

Small colleges pay more attention to all the facets of the application, using a more holistic approach.

Large colleges often have a more mechanical review process using numbers (GPA, test scores, etc.) to determine initial qualification. Large universities (selective or otherwise) may hire outside readers to help them comb through the tens of thousands of applications they receive.

Highly selective institutions pick and choose among qualified applicants as they seek to satisfy “institutional priorities” and invite a diverse class of applicants to attend.

In conclusion, there is a method to the madness…and also a degree of subjectivity and randomness. This can be frustrating but it’s all the more reason to keep perspective and help make sure your student’s list of colleges is balanced and thoughtful.

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