College Admissions Secrets: How Applications Are Reviewed

What happens after you submit your college application? How do admissions officers review your college application?

College and university admissions offices consider many factors when reviewing college applications. These include SAT/ACT score, GPA, the Common Application or Coalition Application essay, the supplemental essays, extra-curriculars, and recommendation letters.

Most US universities use a holistic review process when evaluating applicants

Because colleges want to get a sense of who you are as a whole person (not just how well you do on tests), admissions officers consider both “soft” factors including the application essays and “hard” data (your academic achievements).

Let’s take Cornell for example. Once Cornell receives your application, it is sent to the particular school within Cornell to which the student applied (for example, College of Engineering, College of Arts & Sciences, College of Human Ecology, SC Johnson College of Business; you get the picture). During this initial review, the admissions officers check to see that your SAT or ACT score and GPA meet Cornell’s standards. If not, your application will not be submitted for further review.

During this initial review, the admissions officers at Cornell are most concerned with the applicant’s high school record as they feel that the applicant’s high school performance best indicates if the applicant will succeed at Cornell. This according to Cornell’s interim vice provost for enrollment Pamela Tan.

This is also true of most colleges and universities.

Admissions officers use the applicant’s transcript not just to assess the level of an applicant’s academic performance but also to assess the level of difficulty of the courses taken. The more challenging the high school courses, the more the applicant appears fit for the academic challenges at college.

Because high school course offerings differ across the country, the admissions officers do not compare transcripts from applicants at different schools. Instead, they look to see if the applicant took the most challenging courses in her or his high school and compares that level of challenge to those of other applicants from the same high school.

At Cornell (as at most universities and colleges in the US, including the other Ivy League colleges), the “Why Cornell?”  (aka the “Why Us?) supplemental essay response is also reviewed during this first level of evaluation.  In fact, the “Why Us?” supplemental essay response is considered so useful when evaluating applicants that most colleges, including Cornell, review it a second time during a later stage of the review process.

According to Tan, admissions officers assess the “Why Us?” supplemental essay responses with two things in mind: to assess how well the applicant understands the opportunities available at the college and to evaluate how well the applicant writes. In other words, as with the Common App essay, the supplemental response is reviewed not just for what you say but how you say it.

Each year, about 80 percent of Cornell’s applicants pass the first review and move on to the second level of review.

During the second level of review, admissions officers consider other components of the student’s application including the Common Application essay, the “Why Us?” and other supplementary essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendation letters. During this review, the goal is to assess the applicant personally and academically to determine if the applicant fits the needs and goals of the college to which she or he applied. At Cornell and some other colleges and universities, faculty are sometimes invited to be part of this process. (At Cornell, faculty from all but  CALS, the College of Engineering, and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management are invited to participate.)

During this second review, the Common Application essay is reviewed for traits and qualities that indicate that the student will succeed at the university. Specifically, the admissions officers want to know that the applicant can learn from and collaborate with others from different backgrounds and from different fields, that the student can think independently and empathize, that the applicant has a passion for being part of a community, and that the student is likeable (in other words, not arrogant; see How Arrogance Can Kill Your College Application Essay). According to Tan, the information provided in the applicant’s Common App essay and “Why Cornell?” response can sometimes outweigh concerns about the applicant’s less than stellar academic record and push the student’s application into the admit pile.

If you have a question about the college admissions process or need help strategizing your college application, call me! I’m always ready to help you secure admission to the college of your dreams.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.