You’ve hit the “submit” button on your Common App for your early application (CONGRATS!). After weeks and months of researching schools, selecting recommenders, preparing for tests, keeping up your grades and your extracurricular commitments, and writes and rewrites of your main essay and supplements, the process you’ve worked so hard on is done (for now).
NOW THAT YOUR EARLY APPLICATION IS IN –WHAT’S NEXT?
During your campus visit or at college info sessions in your school or hometown, you’ve no doubt heard admissions officers describe their selection process. Top colleges often refer to their process as a “holistic” one – meaning that they’ll carefully consider lots of information about you in making their decision. No surprise, your application contains a mix of both quantitative and qualitative academic, personal and extracurricular information that will be used in the selection process.
Read on to learn more about how applications are read and decisions are made.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
The first step in a holistic admissions process is getting to know you and that starts with your portion of the Common Application. Admissions officers reading your file will start here so that they can get to know you – your personal and family background, a bit about your academic profile, the kinds of things you have chosen to devote time to and your accomplishments, and, most importantly, what you chose to share about yourself through your essays and supplements.
It’s true that first impressions matter and that’s why you worked so hard on your portion of the application. Interesting and engaging essays that grab the readers’ attention set the stage for the how the rest of your file will be reviewed.
GRADES AND COURSES AND SCORES, OH MY
With an image of you in their minds, admissions officers next turn to your academic profile. Here, they seek to understand what you have done with the opportunities available to you in your school (often referred to as “school context”) and how you may have stretched beyond your school’s walls. Starting with your high school profile, admissions officers make a point of getting to know your high school, especially the courses offered and how grading works at your school. As they look closely at your transcript, they’re trying to see how you’ve taken advantage of courses and programs available to you in your school, the level of rigor of your program, and how well you’ve done relative to others in your school (your grades).
Rounding out the quantitative aspects of your academic profile is your record of standardized testing. Probably no other aspect of your application process was as angst-ridden as taking standardized tests. Yes, most applicants to highly selective colleges tend to score well on standardized tests, but high scores are not a guarantee of admission nor are lower scores an automatic denial. A holistic admissions process thinks carefully and thoughtfully about testing as a piece of your academic profile but are not determinative by themselves. Did you attend a top private school or an inner city public school? Much has been written about the relationship between testing, family income and educational resources and admissions officers at top colleges are very attuned to these realities when looking at your testing. If you go to a top private school with the best teachers and opportunities money can buy, your SAT, ACT, Subject Test and AP scores naturally are expected to be higher than a student without that sort of support.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU, PART II
Most students applying to top colleges are terrific students – bright, hardworking and motivated – and have transcripts and test scores that demonstrate their willingness to stretch and challenge themselves and their academic abilities and potential. In order to make the nuanced decisions needed to differentiate between such a well-qualified applicant pool, admissions officers balance your quantitative academic side with qualitative feedback on you in the classroom and you as a member of your school and community.
Letters of recommendation from your teachers and counselors, supplemental letters from your peers and mentors, perhaps even an interview, all tell a story about you. Admissions officers are curious to know who you are as a student and a member of your school’s community, not stopping at just your grades and scores. As they read your recommendations, they read for impact. Are you the student who raises the level of discussion in class? Do you go further and deeper in pursuit of your learning? What kinds of contributions have you made and what impact have you had in the school and broader community through your activities, organizations and teams? How are these communities better because of your efforts?
As your application moves through the selection process, different members of the admissions committee will review your materials and be asked to offer a recommendation on your candidacy. Most selective admissions offices also employ a committee process, where officers with greatest familiarity with a group of applicants (often based on geography), summarize individual applicants to their colleagues; discussion ensues and then a vote is taken. In each of these stages – individual reads and committee review – your application is considered in context of the broader applicant pool with an eye to answering key questions. How does the sum of your accomplishments and potential (taking into account your specific contextual factors) compare to others in the applicant pool this year? What makes your application stand out from those who are similarly well-qualified? How would the college community be enriched by your presence?
Through the collective process of multiple reviews, a set of individual decisions emerges and a class begins to take shape.
A FINAL THOUGHT
You’ve done your hard work – both in and out of the classroom – and to put together an application that tells a part of your story. Take time to catch your breath and remember that, even if the outcome on your early application is not what you had hoped for, you will go to college. Don’t leave it to chance, however. Maybe now is the time to think about possible ED II choices or safe schools for the regular round when the odds get harder – hope for the best but always have a smart “plan B” so that you have great options come May 1st.