Mar 2, 2011

An Insider’s View of the College Admission Process

Applications are in, but the decisions are still weeks away.

“It’s reading season,” said Jenni Pfeiffer, on a short break from her responsibilities as Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at George Washington University. And college admissions offices all over the country are knee-deep in applications, transcripts, essays, and recommendations—all of which must be processed and reviewed in time for decisions to be mailed by the end of March.

So how do selective colleges decide who gets in and who gets left behind?

The admissions office at Grinnell College, a selective liberal arts school in Iowa, gave the Today Show a rare insider’s view of how an admissions committee operates. Cameras were allowed into the room while staff reviewed applications and voted on which students to admit.

“I would love to say the admission process is a very straightforward process where every student is considered on their own merits, but that simply isn’t true,” said Seth Allen, dean of admissions and financial aid. “The process is highly subjective.”

Here are some highlights:
  • Two admissions officers read each application

  • Grades, test scores and extracurricular activities are each considered as part of the applicant’s profile

  • Each applicant is put to a vote, with a majority determining who will get a coveted acceptance and who will be denied or waitlisted.

And it all takes place within the span of a few minutes.

“It’s little things in the process that surprise us, uncover something that we think, wow, this is someone who is different in our process, unusual, that we would like to include in the class,” Allen added. “That might come from a letter of recommendation from a teacher or a guidance counselor, it might come from an unusual perspective that we find out through the essay, it may come from an alumni interview and that person gives us a sense of how that student has succeeded in his or her local community that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about.”

In an interview with Meredith Vieira, Jacques Steinberg, moderator of the New York Times blog on college admissions, described Grinnell’s process as “typical of the template used at 50 or so high selective schools around the nation.”

At each school, the process is nothing short of subjective, Steinberg admitted. “Kids and parents should never read this process as a referendum on how they did as students or how they did as parents.”

He adds that the rigor of the student’s curriculum, involvement in extracurricular activities, and the quality of the essay are all important to the decision and are within a student’s control. Other factors such as gender, socioeconomic level and race are also important but beyond the applicant’s control.

With so much outside of the applicant’s ability to control, Steinberg has a little advice for high school juniors. “If you can’t control this process, and you can’t out-strategize it, can’t you relax a little bit and be yourself, and let the chips fall where they may?”

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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