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How Colleges Make Admissions Decisions

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Each college has a unique admissions process. Admissions processes are lengthy and complex. This lesson generally explains each step of the application review process, including how colleges make admissions decisions.

The First Step

Do you have a favorite college? Somewhere you dream of going? College admissions can be tedious and competitive, but you can better your chances by familiarizing yourself with the process.

When you are first exploring college options, you are known as a prospect. Prospects are potential students who have not yet applied. As a prospect, you'll likely receive correspondence from several different colleges. College admissions offices contact prospects to invite them to visit their campuses and learn more about their colleges. Typically, this will be your first contact with the college admissions office. The admissions offices will contact hundreds - and sometimes thousands - of prospects hoping they will eventually become applicants.

An applicant is a student who has submitted a completed application to the college. The college will start an 'applicant's file' for you as soon as they start receiving your application documents, such as your standardized test scores or your online application. If you had contact with an admissions representative through a high school college fair or similar presentation, that information is also likely in your file. Once all required information is received, your file is ready for review.

The Initial Review

Many colleges, especially larger universities, use an initial review at the outset of the application review process. An initial review usually serves as a 'first cut' evaluation round based on the college's minimum standards. For colleges using an initial review, many use a formula based on the student's grade point average and standardized test scores. Other information, like essays and references, are not considered at this point.

Let's say the college uses a minimum grade point average of 2.5 and a minimum ACT score of 21. Using a formula, a student with a 2.3 GPA but a 27 ACT might still be eligible for admission. That student's application might be forwarded for further review. However, a student with a 2.3 GPA and a 20 ACT might automatically be denied admission.

The Admissions Committee

More detailed reviews are typically conducted by more than one person. Most colleges use an admissions committee made up of several admissions officers, and sometimes including faculty members or other college personnel. Committees are used to ensure fairness and weed out bias.

Sometimes each committee member will review the entire file and assign it a grade or score. Colleges have different formulas and rubrics used while scoring in order to standardize the scores. The applicant's scores are averaged, and the entire applicant pool is ranked based on final scores. The top scores will be offered admission. The middle-range scores will likely be wait listed until all applications are received and admitted students are given a chance to respond to their offers of admission. Wait listed students will be offered admission at a later date if space allows. Lower scores will be denied admission.

At some colleges, one admissions officer fully reviews each file. That officer then presents the file to the rest of the committee. The committee then votes on admission according to the information presented by the admissions officer. This approach is sometimes used at smaller colleges.

If one person presents your admissions file to the rest of a committee, the presenter will probably be the admissions officer assigned to your high school or region. Because this representative plays an important role in your admissions decision, you will want to meet this officer at a college presentation or tour if you are able.

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