Insider Tips Ivy Admissions

Behind the Scenes in an Ivy League Admissions Office

Ever wonder what goes on behind closed doors in an Ivy League admissions office?  Let’s go!

Dr. Michele Hernandez worked in the Dartmouth admissions office for 4 years and shares some of her insider information below.

Are admissions officers like the omniscient Oz, ruler of your fate, or just ordinary people working to ensure their schools admit the best possible fit of students for the incoming class? Read on:

The majority of admissions offices support a holistic review of applications though there are many factors involved in making final decisions regarding who makes the cut and who doesn’t.

Much of their decision is based on ‘perspective’ coupled with academics. Of course data is key because schools report things like SAT/ACT scores and high school rank so they are reluctant to drop their average for non-hooked candidates.

They will review your information and notice how high impact you were during high school.  Were there multiple opportunities offered through your school, did you take them and run? Did you go that extra step and take actionable steps to demonstrate your academic passion? Did you win high level awards, start opportunities for others, make an impact in your community, show initiative?  Outside of exemplary grades and tests scores which show your academically high impact, these are the actions noted by Ivy League admissions counselors that show you will more than likely continue this type of behavior at their school. These are the kids that separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

So, your actionable steps:

HOW do Ivy Leagues and other top schools keep getting SO many applications?

Schools solicit applications from students around the world.  They market to YOU.  If you received a high PSAT score, we pretty much guarantee you will receive multiple ‘YOU ARE AWESOME; WE WANT YOU!’ mailings from all level schools.   Even though you are most assuredly awesome, unfortunately this does NOT mean Harvard truly loves you and you’ll be admitted. Colleges buy lists, admissions officers visit schools in the fall, travel overseas, trying to drum up interest so they get a lot of applicants. Why? To look more selective and compete with other top colleges.  And, of course, to up their rank in US News and World Report and other ranking services.

So many files, so little time.


HOW exactly are files read at schools, Ivy or other?

First, there are many myths surrounding this question and we’re here to set the record straight.  You must know, if your application is incomplete or your essays not directed at the right school, you will be penalized meaning they won’t waste time.  This means stay in control of your submitted materials.  Check once you have submitted your Common Application that each school has received all materials including teacher recommendations, counselor recommendation, transcripts, and payment.

It is imperative you pay attention to the nitty-gritty details when submitting your school applications.

Of course, protocols vary by school but typically there is a 1st reader, then a 2nd reader and then finally a committee. The 1st reader is usually a more junior admissions counselor who spends approximately 15 minutes first determining if scores and grades are in range and if it’s worth reviewing the rest of the materials.  If so, he/she reads the essay and creates a 1-pager highlighting the student’s strengths and/or weaknesses. At the end of their synopsis they select one of 3 boxes – Admit, Deny or Waitlist. If we’re talking the early rounds then ‘defer’ would simply replace ‘waitlist’ as an option.


Hook Hook Hook

Hook em’ early!

The 1st reader then emails their files along to a 2nd reader, usually a more senior admissions counselor. They again review the file, including the 1st reader’s 1-pager on the student and again label Admit, Deny, or Defer/Waitlist.

Lastly, files are brought in front of the committee who review one last time. If the 1st and 2nd readers agreed on their recommendations, the flow usually continues and the committee typically agrees. If there is 1 admit and 1 deny or similar, there will be discussion. At the end of the day, your ‘stage-time’ is 45 minutes or less so you must be a no-brainer ADMIT with grades and test scores, compelling in your writing and high impact in your activities.  Many schools allow each admissions officer one free pass meaning one student they get to admit regardless of what the committee thinks.  What does that mean to you?  Meet the admissions rep who covers your school when he/she visits for a College Fair or if you visit the school.  Again, not always possible as most schools no longer interview but research to find out if this is an option.  If they do have on campus interviews with admissions officers, take advantage.

HOW do admissions officers put together a class?

The quick answer? Piece by piece, student by student BUT the earlier the better.


Most students don’t realize how KEY the early round actually is – many schools fill up to 45-50% of their class in the early rounds alone due to various ‘hooks’ so demographics are locked in for the whole class.  Another key point, is that during the early rounds admissions officers actually take more time to read through essays and applications simply because there aren’t as many. Granted this number is continuously increasing but it is nowhere near the numbers seen in the regular rounds. In a nutshell, your odds are much higher for a favorable decision in the earlier rounds.

2016IvyPlusStatsNow you can see why acceptance rates are so low, it’s no coincidence that a school like Columbia only takes 6% overall…there are simply few spaces left after the early rounds which is why admission in the regular round is so low.

HOW is a class made up and the impact of ‘hooked’ applicants?

Admissions officers at top schools are seeking a well rounded CLASS, not necessarily well rounded individuals – musicians, singers, that oboe player, athletes, a balance of academic interests (not all STEM or Pre med). All of these “hooks” add up to 45-50% of the class. Some colleges (like Harvard) give more weight to legacies than others.  Athletic recruits have the highest accepted percentage of any group. The typical make up of a class looks like this:

  • 17-20% recruited athletes
  • 8-12% minority students
  • 3-5% development cases
  • 10-15% legacies

Most non-hooked kids are WAY better off doing Early Decision/binding.  In exchange for being taken out of the pool of regular applicants, your odds grow exponentially.  Just review the data. For example, in Dartmouth’s Class of 2019, 43% of the class was filled in early decision.

Standing out in all the right and wrong ways.

At the end of the day, in the regular round with so many ‘similar’ students  (all with high grades, high test scores and standout achievements) it often comes down to plain old likability.

Some Do’s and Don’ts to keep you on the proper path:

DON’T stalk admissions officers. Ever. A well-timed email or office drop in to demonstrate your interest is one thing; sending 35 emails a day and flowers is stalking, which never ends well for anyone.

DO stand out at admissions fairs or events with a professional demeanor, articulate speech and acute business acumen.

DON’T think that your parents can help on this, nothing worse than a parent calling an admissions officer gushing about his/her son or daughter.

DO put your best foot forward in any and all interactions with the college admissions office.

DO be high impact both academically and in terms of your academic niche.

DO be genuine and extraordinary.

So, while admissions counselors can sometimes seem like the ruler of your fate, make it easy for them, be the ‘no-brainer’ file in the ADMIT pile. BE THE RULER OF YOUR OWN fate by ensuring you have a proactive application strategy, are high impact both academically and personally and push yourself (outside your comfort zone at times) to really reach for the stars.

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