Demystifying the College Admissions Office

Admissions-Office-ImageIf you follow our blog regularly, odds are you’re either a high achiever or someone who is championing one or more such students. The nation’s highly selective colleges and universities are probably on your radar, but we know the admissions process causes a great deal of nervousness for many students.

So let’s take a moment and understand the people behind the application process.

A lot of students think of an admissions committee as the judge, jury, and executioner of their hopes and dreams. Or are they a group of psychologists and other scientists evaluating every word of your application? Maybe admissions offices are more like the war rooms you might have seen in military-themed movies. None of these could be further from the truth.

Applicants should look at admissions officers not as their adversaries, but as their best advocates. It may not always feel like it, but the admissions process is a two-way street.

They respect every applicant and very seriously appreciate the time and effort each took to put together an application. They want to understand who you are and find the very best in you and your application. Just as you worry about finding the right college or university for you, they often agonize about making the right decisions about who to admit. And remember, they are also hoping you’ll want to come to their school over all others.

Admissions officers are people too.

Depending on the size (and to some degree, the selectivity) of the schools you’re applying to, an admissions office can have a staff ranging from a handful of people to dozens. Admissions officers can range in age, but many schools try to hire a number of twenty- and thirty-somethings, people who aren’t too far removed from their own college days and can better understand today’s high school students. Often they are alumni of the institution they work for, and they have a lot of pride in maintaining and improving the quality of students they admit. They’re also typically the same recruiters you may have talked with at your guidance office, college fairs or on campus visits.

They’re under a great deal of pressure.

Applying is usually a stressful process for high achievers trying to manage academics, extracurricular activities, family responsibilities, and/or work. This time of year, October through January, is particularly demanding for students as deadlines loom.

Take heart in the fact that admissions officers know this and can relate in very tangible ways. From the time those first deadlines pass and through the spring, your admissions officers are probably buried in applications, reading dozens every day, and fielding calls and emails from anxious students. So if you don’t hear back from them for a while, keep that in mind.

They often “go with their gut.”

When it comes time to make final decisions, a group of several officers, and sometimes a few faculty members or even current students, gather to discuss applications. While they may evaluate each student in a matter of minutes, they’ve usually been vetted by individual officers who are making the case for their favorite candidates.

Meetings can last for hours, and during crunch time, there can be many late nights locked in a room with their co-workers. Just like you, many of them probably rely a little too much on caffeine and sugar at times!

It’s an art, not a science. There are specific criteria they look for, but there are not any secret formulas or algorithms to help them decide. While each individual part of your application is important, it’s the parts that really distinguish you that count. Emotions come in to play, so their choices can come down to a “gut feeling” about equally qualified applicants.

So what kinds of things do they really look for?

Rigorous courses—even if your grades are a little lower, they want to know you’ve challenged yourself. Activities are important, too, but spreading yourself too thin can be a detriment; most would rather see you in leadership roles with two or three groups rather than a passive member of every club in your school. They look for unique talents and personalities, so they want to hear your personal story.

What about the “red flags”? Admissions officers tend to say they are most concerned with students who “coast” their senior year, neglecting to take challenging courses thinking that they’ve already done enough.

You should certainly take plenty of time to complete your applications, but in the end, it’s fundamentally who you are and what you do for the previous four years that counts the most.