College Applications: How to Stand Out in 8 Minutes or Less

Last month, after The Wall Street Journal reported that it takes college admissions officers eight minutes to read and evaluate your child’s entire college application  (“Some Elite Colleges Review an Application in 8 Minutes (or Less)”, I received many calls from alarmed parents. Eight minutes? Eight minutes to read and evaluate my child’s transcript, SAT and/or ACT score(s), common application essay, supplemental essays, and letters of recommendation?

Yes, eight minutes, max. Some college admissions offices evaluate student applications in six minutes. Some even say they’ve gotten it down to four.

Overwhelmed by application surges, college admissions offices overhaul the way they evaluate applicants.

You’re kidding, right?


What’s happening?  Simple. Swelling numbers of applicants require time efficiency. After all, as of January 15, 2018, 898,000 students applied to 4.8 colleges or universities via The Common Application. That means that at least 4,310,400 applications need to be read and evaluated by the spring of 2018. That’s a lot of reading, and thus the process of reading all those applications had to be streamlined. 

Prior to what is now called “committee-based” evaluation, generally, a single admissions officer took 20 to 30 minutes to read a student’s application and five or 10 more to write a  report for colleagues who then reviewed the recommendation and made the decision to admit, deny, or waitlist.  At some colleges, after the first review, another admissions officer gave the student’s application a second ten-minute review and wrote a second brief report that was reviewed by colleagues before the decision was made to admit, deny, or waitlist. In contrast, here’s how “committee-based” evaluation works: Simultaneously, the admissions officer in charge of your child’s geographic region (known as “the driver”), reads a student’s academic transcript and test scores while the second officer (known as “the passenger”) reviews your child’s common application essay, the supplemental essays, and the letters of recommendation. After eight minutes of reading and discussion, a recommendation is made to admit, deny, or waitlist.
Good thing? Yvonne Romero DaSilva, vice president for enrollment at Rice University and former vice dean and director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania where “committee-based” admissions evaluations began, says yes. “Synergies” created among the readers lead to a more contextualized or holistic review. Bad thing? Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment initiatives and dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Rochester says very bad.  While committee-based reviews have some upsides, the approach may lead to superficial reviews and reduce diversity among incoming students. 

Some Colleges Now Using Committee-Based Application Review:

University of Pennsylvania

Swarthmore College

Georgia Tech

Rice University

Colorado College

Case Western Reserve University

California Institute of Technology

Bucknell University

Regardless, this new trend in admissions offices underscores one thing: To stand out from the crowd, applicants need to write off-the-charts essays.

Think about it: The common application essay and supplemental essays are the only parts of your application that allow admissions officers to see the difference between you and all the other students with the same GPA and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). Put simply, writing great college application essays can make the difference between you being admitted or denied.

How to stand out in eight minutes or less? When writing your essays:

  • Start writing your common application essay during the summer between your junior and senior year, at the latest. In fact, you’re best off starting to think about and strategize your college application profile starting in ninth or tenth grade.
  • Make sure that you tell a coherent story of yourself across all essays, activities lists, and transcripts
  • Make sure that all of your essays, the common application essay and the supplemental essays, sound personal and have a unique and authentic sense of “voice”
  • Finally, remember that while the common application essay is described as a personal narrative, it’s really a strategic marketing document masquerading as a personal narrative. The essay that sings off the page is the one that sells you, instantly.

Ready to get started? Call me. 

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.