While I don’t think any two colleges proceed in precisely the same manner when evaluating applications and making admission decisions, I am confident that the ultimate goal is the same — to admit a richly diverse freshman class that is comprised of students who have convinced the admissions staff, in one way or another, that they are capable of successfully pursuing and completing the college’s academic programs.
Here, in short form, is what happens in the admission offices of many selective colleges:
1. Your transcript is considered of primary importance. Staff members look at the kinds of courses you have taken, the level of achievement in those courses, and their breadth and relative difficulty. They look to see if you have made reasonably good use of the resources available at your school. For instance, if the school offers numerous AP and/or honors courses, have you taken a reasonable number of them? Many, perhaps most, colleges look at grades 9 — 12. Some look only at grades 10 — 12. Finally, they do their best to try to get a fix on how rigorous the school’s grading system appears to be in order to place your GPA in context.
2. They look at your test scores (SAT I and/or ACT and three different SAT II tests in many cases). Some consider the highest in each subject area only. Others, for example, may use your highest total SAT I scores from any one test date. If you are not sure how the colleges on your list do it, you can always call them and ask.
3. They read the school references: the counselor’s report and two teacher reports. In those they look for substance, straightforwardness, credibility, and an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses.
4. They look at your self-presentation in the application — your ability to think and to express yourself in writing. They consider whether you have met them at least halfway in completing their application. In other words, have you given their application some thought and made a reasonable effort to respond to the particular questions that they have asked?
5. They note it if you have any special academic talents or achievements.
6. They note it if you have any special non-academic talents or achievements.
7. They try to get a sense of your energy level, i.e., the likelihood that you will have both the ability and the inclination to jump in and take advantage of the many resources, both academic and extracurricular, offered by their institution.
8. They ask themselves if all of the pieces of your application fit together. Is there a consistency (i.e., a credibility) to your application? Do others see you as you see yourself? Is your application simply a promotion piece? Are the school and teacher references largely boiler-plate, or do they really help the admission officers get to know you?
9. Lastly, they try to gauge what sort of difference it might make (for you and for the institution) if you enrolled there: in the classrooms, in the dorms, or in the sorts of activities and organizations that make up the daily life of their particular campus.
In this manner, they try to get a handle on each of the thousands of applicants, one by one. Only after such initial review are they able to know the full range of choices that are available to them. Choosing from a large number of well-qualified young men and women only a relatively small number to whom they can offer admission each year is obviously the most difficult part of their jobs as admission officers. And, by definition, given that their decisions are made one by one, individual applicant by individual applicant, it’s that part of their task that is least amenable to generalizations or formulas.