At this time of year, college admissions officers like me are bleary-eyed from weeks of reading applications. Many of us are now in committee sessions, determining which applicants will receive offers of admission.  At the very few super-selective, single-digit-percentage-acceptance places, the process is Darwinian.

Admissions officers at the vast majority of places, however, those of us that accept more than half of our applicants, are spending more time trying to strengthen relationships with students who have been or will be admitted, in order to get them to accept our offers and enroll.  These efforts to yield the best possible class are the main business of most offices in March, and they are the absolute business of all offices in April, before deposits are due May 1.

As I move into the stretch run of my second season on the university admissions side (after decades on the secondary school counseling side), I want to share how I read an application.  This protocol is my own; others read differently.  I offer my thoughts particularly for Juniors who will be preparing to apply over the next six to nine months—though they may also be of value to Seniors who are presently waiting to learn their fates.

I always start with the School Profile and Transcript:

  • First question: What percentage of graduates go on to four-year colleges or universities? The higher the percentage of college goers, the more likely the curriculum is strong and challenging.  The farther south of that percentage, the greater my concern about the “speed of the pool” and the quality of preparation for college work.
  • Second question: From the Profile I also learn what is on the school’s Curricular Menu: International Baccalaureate? Advanced Placement?  Honors?  Dual Enrollment?  I want to know what challenges the applicant had available; then evaluate what the candidate “ordered from the menu.”
  • Next, did the student “clean his or her plate?” There’s no point in ordering more food than you can eat, and no point in more academic challenge than you can handle.
  • When required (at Drew University only for our top merit scholarship), I look at standardized testing, to see if it corroborates, or leads me to question, classroom performance. (Those who underachieve their testing do not impress me.)
  • If the student does not attend a school that prepares students well for college, fails to challenge him or herself, fails to meet the challenge selected, and/or underperforms ability, our consideration of this candidacy is probably over. You have to be able to succeed in the academic program, or you need to look elsewhere.  If you have done enough to demonstrate that threshold academic capacity, you get a closer look.

I read the Recommendations next:

  • I like to get a sense of what the Counselor and Teachers have to say about the student. I read for key descriptive words and phrases, also for anecdotes that show the student in action.  Curiosity, energy, humor, tenacity, grit, resilience, and the qualities of someone I would like to invite into our 24/7 residential community are what I seek.
  • If I find evidence of immaturity, insensitivity, laziness, or a lack of personal responsibility/accountability, the applicant may be done—or at least have sustained mortal injury—before I get to the Application itself.
  • I emphasize this point in particular, because many school counselors urge Juniors to make their “asks” before the end of 11th grade, enabling over-burdened teachers to do some, most, or all of their recommendation writing over the summer.
  • Juniors are well-advised to be careful about whom to ask for a letter of support. Ideally it is someone who is excited about the prospect of doing additional work for no additional pay for a student who may or may not remember to say Thank You once admitted to the college of his or her choice.

Finally, if I like what I’ve seen on the Profile and Transcript, and what I’ve read in the Recommendations, I spend time on the Application itself:

  • I note citizenship, ethnicity, family system, educational background of the parents. Then I reach the resume of Activities.  Having demonstrated via Transcript and Recs that the student can be successful in our program and is a quality human being, I now read for what he or she will add to campus life.
  • I look for length of commitment and significance of impact. Grades 9, 10, 11, 12 says a lot to me about duration of commitment as it might benefit my college.  Those who dabble, with a bit here and a bit there, do not impress me.
  • After Activities, it’s time for the Essay. I have read many fabulous ones this year, some predictable ones, and a few poor efforts.  The last are quite sad: short, with little insight, and sometimes with glaring flaws in spelling, punctuation and capitalization.  If I have gotten this far in your application, don’t disappoint me with avoidable errors.
  • My advice on essays: Be yourself, sound like a teenager, and tell me the story you’d share if we were in an Uber together for a brief ride across my home island of Manhattan. You want me leaving the car wanting to stay in touch with you; I want your voice in my ear as I make my recommendation to our committee.

A final note: if you’d like to see a two-minute video of my advice to Juniors and their parents at a wonderful independent school in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, check this YouTube link:

Conducting a Thoughtful Search: https://youtu.be/-ytJjbuQcvo