The Application Evaluation Process: A General Overview

During the 2010-2011 admissions cycle, over 1.8 million Common Applications were submitted to its 414 member colleges. With this coming application season, the Common Application will have 461 members including such new schools as USC, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and now St. Andrews of Scotland, the alma mater of Prince William and Kate. With such vast numbers of applications firing out across cyberspace, or through the mail, one has to admire the abilities of admissions offices to carefully evaluate all the applications flooding their offices.

When you submit a Common application digitally, the actual application goes nowhere. It stays on the Common Application server and a message is sent to the applicant’s college notifying it that there is mail in its Common Application mailbox. The admissions office then logs into its Common App mailbox and downloads the applications.

Most schools prefer getting all of its application materials digitally. In fact, many schools, including Harvard and Northeastern, have a special address for paper submissions, which upon reception, are scanned into their respective document management systems. Harvard, as most savvy applicants are aware, had over 35,000 applications this last admissions cycle: could you imagine the clutter and confusion if most of these were paper applications? UCLA admissions, with its 60,000 applications, would be a virtual sea of paper.  

In whatever form, once your application reaches admissions, it goes to your ‘first read’. The ‘first read’ is, oftentimes—especially for Ivy League schools, the college’s regional representative for your high school. Consequently, if a college that you’re interested in visits your high school, go to the meeting and introduce yourself to the representative; he or she can greatly influence the success of your application. ‘First reads’ will give your application a thoughtful review: usually spending between 15-35 minutes with it. Moreover, the first read creates your electronic data sheet, which includes your hard data and basic information. (So if the school super-scores your SAT, the ‘first reader’ will usually assemble your highest scores from each section of the test.) Interestingly, after the score and GPA are factored out by the ‘first read,’ it’s rare the original test scores or transcript will be accessed. The rest of the data is then assembled: race or ethnicity, special status, extracurricular…The “first read” then determines whether your application is admitted or denied, or warranting further discussion.

Your application will then workflow to a second reader. If both readers concur on denial or acceptance, then it’s likely your application will go to the dean of admissions for final authorization. If the two are in disagreement, or your application is somewhere in the gray zone—the purgatory between acceptance and rejection-- then it goes to committee for consideration.

As with virtually all things in the admissions process, there are exceptions. At Middlebury in Vermont, an elite liberal arts college, all denied applicants are reviewed by at least 4 members of the admissions committee. At Harvard and Wellesley, all applicant folders are sent before a committee for final vote. On the other hand Stanford, especially for reviewing the inundation of early action single choice (EASC) candidates, uses a process called sorting to eliminate a high portion of candidates. ‘Sorting’ amounts to a quick skim of applications by a highly experienced admissions officer.

If you take the application evaluation process at Harvard, and multiply it by 35,000 (the number of applicants), and assume each application takes 25 minutes to review, that amounts to 11,670 hours. Between January 1st and April 15th, there are around 70 business days (560 hours). It will take 21 people devoting every minute to reading applications, to review all 35,000 applications. Now, imagine that your application is read at 4:30 pm on a Thursday, in all likelihood, the admissions officer has read dozens of applications that day, and yours is being reviewed at the end of the week; if the essay is so-so, what do you think your admissions chances will be? It is for this very reason that it’s good to be aware of the application evaluation process and what it is you’re up against.