How are College Applications Read?

Question: How are applications read? It seems as if January is devoted to opening and sorting mail. Do admissions officers skim the first paragraph of an essay only? Do they look at every piece of paper? Do supplementary materials enrage them or do they help? Does the order in which applications are discussed affect an individual's chances (i.e., as the class fills are up the last few spaces more competitive?)

You ask good questions, and the short answer to all of them is that the norm at one college may not be the norm at another. For a longer answer, dig up an old copy of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions, and turn to Chapter 7, "How Admission Decisions Are Made." (Last revised in 2002, there may be some specifics that are out of date, but the overall process hasn't changed.)

Now, here's what you probably wanted all along ... the in-between answer:

Because there rarely seems to be enough time for admission officials to finish all the work that they must do between application deadlines and decision notification day, many colleges like to get started as soon as possible. This means that, at some places, applications will be read before all documentation has been received or filed. However, there are always certain materials that are not expendable. For instance, a college may decide to evaluate an applicant when only one of two teacher references is in the folder, but no school will read an application without a transcript or required test results (but they probably WILL read an application if test scores appear on the transcript, even if the official ones haven't come from the College Board or ACT). Typically, if a student is evaluated before the application is complete, the new material may spawn a revised verdict. As Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till it's over."

But classes do not fill up early. While, as the weeks pass by, admission officials may keep an eye on how many students have received "Yes" votes (or "10's" or "1's" or whatever the good number at that institution is), they don't call a pow-wow on Valentine's Day to say, "Stop reading. The class is full." At the end of the process, when EVERY applicant has been evaluated, if there are too many who passed muster, then some tough cuts will be made. But those who were judged at the end of the line will not automatically be squeezed out. Of course, here I'm referring to colleges that have a specific deadlines, not Rolling Admission schools, where classes do fill up and latecomers may be disappointed.

But does the order of discussion affect outcomes? Officially, definitely not, but possibly on some subconscious level it has to. If an admissions committee has just reviewed a candidate who earns straight A's, performs countless hours of community service, and lives in a homeless shelter, and then the next kid in line writes an apologetic essay explaining some C's in his junior year because his grandpa died, even the admission folks most sympathetic to the loss may view this applicant less favorably in light of the one that had come just before. Such is life. It's hard to avoid head-to-head comparisons, and timing is important. If I ever make it to the Academy Awards, I'll try to arrive on the red carpet right behind Roseanne Barr, not Jennifer Lopez.

As for the essays, in theory at least, every word of every essay will be read. But imagine that YOU'RE a beleaguered admission counselor with a stack of 40 folders in your family rumpus room on a cold February night. If you suffer through a painful opening paragraph about the State football finals, rife with egregious spelling errors, and then the second paragraph offers no relief, wouldn't you rush down to the end, if only to see who took home the "trofee"? Admission folks will rarely confess to skimming, but it does happen.

Unsolicited supplementary materials are a mixed bag. Sometimes a picture (poem, DVD, etc.) can be worth a thousand words, and may indeed provide a glimpse of a candidate that nothing else in the folder offers. More commonly, however, admission folks roll their eyes when they flip over yet another certificate of participation from the sophomore-year community clean-up or a column of newsprint touting the selection of 17 seniors into the Home Economics Honor Society. Extra references may showcase a new side of the applicant, but those that lack novel insights can be annoying. I've written entire "Ask the Dean" columns on the pros and cons of VIP/alumni endorsements. Usually these are not helpful and may even be harmful, but it really depends on who the reference is from and how close the connection to the candidate. Additional writing samples may be apt for aspiring writers, but I've seen some pretty awful poems and short stories that turned out to be deal-breakers. I recommend that, before submitting such samples, students should seek out a candid adult opinion, if possible. And, yes, most every scrap of paper with an applicant's name on it will probably end up in that student's file, but not all will be scrutinized in the selection process.

Also, when it comes to evaluating essays, supplemental materials, extracurriculars, etc., beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What enthralls one admission officer may mean little to another. That's why I always say that there's a big element of luck involved. If Junior's folder lands on the right desk--the one that belongs to the guy who shares his passion for the piccolo--he may be in better stead than if it falls into the hands of the ice-hockey aficionado.

So, the bottom line is this: Despite efforts--and claims--to the contrary, there are often subjective factors that play a role in final verdicts. However, from what I've seen first-hand, admission officials do strive to be as fair as possible and to consider extenuating circumstances as required. I've also seen many "favorite" candidates turned away. So even when an applicant gets bad news from top-choice colleges, it doesn't mean that staff members didn't "like" this child very much. Sometimes these decisions are nearly as tough to make as they are to swallow.

Good luck to you as you await whatever outcomes lie ahead.