“High Anxiety Time”

By Peter Van Buskirk

If you are a college applicant waiting out the “Regular” admission process, mid-winter can be high anxiety time. Even if you may have experienced success with an Early Action application or two, it will be the admission decisions in the Regular selection process that finally define your range of options.

For now, though, all you can do is wait—and that isn’t easy. After months of deadlines, interviews, phone conversations, and campus visits, the chatter from the colleges has all but disappeared. Although momentarily welcome, the silence becomes more deafening by the day.

So, what happens to your application when it reaches the admission office? Who reads it? What do they think? How will they decide? Surprisingly, the answers aren’t that simple.

The credential review processes at colleges and universities vary widely according to applicant volume, levels of selectivity, and institutional agendas. For example, colleges that practice “rolling admission” make decisions on applications as they arrive in complete form. Starting September—and sometimes earlier—they admit qualified candidates until their classes are full, a process that can extend well into the following summer.

The type of review will vary across schools as well. Many state universities engage in an objective review of applicants that involves an initial screening based on a formula of test results and GPA. In some cases, a student’s ability to present credentials that meet or exceed the preset standard of the formula are admitted. In others, those students are simply passed along for a more subjective or “holistic” review by members of the admission committee.

The holistic review considers a variety of factors in addressing the question, “What do we gain by admitting this student?” Extracurricular profiles, letters of recommendation, essays and, where offered, personal interviews provide relevant insight. Out-of-state candidates at state universities as well as applicants to honors programs at those schools often face even greater levels of scrutiny as they compete with other, similarly qualified students for limited places in areas of restricted enrollment.

The holistic review is also common among selective, private schools. In these “deadline-driven” environments, admission committees are eager to see the breadth and depth of the competition before making fine distinctions about whom to admit. Again, the questions will be, “What do we get? Who among the qualified candidates will fit best into the community we are trying to build with this class? Who do we value most?”

In just about every admission process, the “committee” is where the more difficult decisions are often made. Consider the term “committee” loosely because committee members or “readers” may meet together in conference rooms or individually in their offices or the quiet comfort of their homes. Once in committee, applications are usually reviewed by at least two readers before any decisions are made. Readers can include part-time staff hired to participate in credential review, specialists in particular majors or subgroups of students (international students, for example) and members of the admission staff. The staff person who recruits in your area is almost certainly going to be an interested participant as well.

In some cases, faculty members are invited to read applications from students interested in their respective academic disciplines. This is more likely at universities that are comprised of “colleges” or “academic programs” to which you apply directly.

What follows in the review process is an attempt to arrive at consensus regarding your application. As readers review your credentials, they start with your transcript, noting both the strength of your academic program and your academic successes relative to other students in your school. In all likelihood, you will be regarded as qualified—you could do the work academically if given the opportunity.

Having been established as a viable candidate on their competitive “playing field,” readers begin to dig more deeply into your application. Driven by the “What do we get?” question, they look at extracurricular activities, test results and essays for “hooks” or points of distinction. As the research into your application continues, committee members probe for authenticity and sincerity of purpose in all your application materials.

Readers will also look for explanations that might shed light on any irregularities in your program and/or performance. Such explanations might be found in personal statements, interviews and letters of recommendation.

In a very short period of time, admission officers develop a bias — a sense of what you have to offer and where you fit in the competition. The more intense the competition the more important it is to have a decisive or “over the top” credential—and the more important it is for that credential to be authentic. This is when arguments on behalf of students with special talents, interests and perspectives begin to emerge.

Assuming the bias is favorable, readers quickly scan letters of recommendation to look for validation—evidence that supports the information on your application. Sometimes these letters provide an added dimension of understanding regarding your performance that can be very powerful.

As the selection process moves into March, the focus turns to the students who remain on the “bubble” or the margin of the competition. Questions such as “What is the likelihood that she will enroll if we take her?” and “How are his third marking period grades?” and “Are we sure we will get a good return on our investment if we give him that much financial aid?” While candidates at opposite ends of the competitive spectrum are sorted quickly and easily, those in the middle continue to get lots of attention as the process winds down.

This is also a time when institutional agendas can dictate outcomes. Special talents, legacy connections, leadership and diverse perspectives can become hooks that make all the difference in a tight competition.

The final weeks of the Regular Decision selection process, often in mid-March, are more important than most students realize. Typically a “settling” or “move-down period” for the class in waiting, it is a time the likelihood of enrollment is calibrated for each student and fine points are considered. Further arguments are heard from special interest groups about special cases, grades are checked—again—and adjustments are made based on yield (on offers of admission) forecasts to make sure the group of admitted students will generate the needed enrollment—and revenue—to balance the budget in the coming year.

Before long—as early as the middle of March for some deadline-driven schools—letters will be mailed and decisions will be posted on institutional websites. If you focused on “fit” and were able to prove your value to the schools where you applied, happy outcomes will soon find you.

Be sure to check future blogs for more tips and suggestions regarding next steps in the enrollment process.

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