The Mind of the College Admissions Officer

We like to think that when admissions officers read applications, they approach each one with an open mind, eager to learn about that student’s strengths and dreams for the future. But what are they really thinking?

One of my favorite workshops at last week’s Western Association of College Admission Counseling conference was the session on selective college admission. We reviewed sample applications with admissions officers from competitive schools, who shared how they would respond to different applicants.

At highly selective schools, where most applicants have strong grades and test scores, admissions decisions are largely based on whether the student is a good fit for their school. For instance, if a student with no record of leadership applies to Claremont McKenna, a college that emphasizes leadership, that student wouldn’t be seen as a good fit.

But even while admissions officers are focusing on institutional priorities, their own life experiences color the way they respond to applicants. It’s human nature to feel an affinity for people who share our backgrounds, interests, values or beliefs. And it can be challenging to feel connected to people who don’t.

You don’t want to worry so much about offending someone that you tone down your application to the point where your voice isn’t coming through. But you need to think about what you’re communicating. One admissions officer told us about a boss who grew up poor and did not respond positively to essays about a student’s third African safari. Resentment is not the reaction you want to evoke in the reader. As I advised one of my students last year, listing every country you’ve ever visited will not help your case. If you’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities that other students haven’t had, admissions officers won’t give you points for your good fortune. You need to show what you’ve done, not what you’ve received.

You don’t know the personal history of the admissions officer who reads applications from your school. One of the workshop presenters told us about the admissions dean who tried out for cheerleader when she was in high school and never made it. She may cringe when she reads applications from cheerleaders, but she and her colleagues try to be aware of their biases so they can keep them out of the decision-making process.

If your ideas are controversial, find a way to express them that is respectful rather than strident. When I asked my nephew what extracurricular activities he was interested in, he said he’d like to start an atheist club at his high school. It could be risky, but if he presented himself as open and not dogmatic, he could mitigate the risk of offending some readers, while creating a memorable impression.

At most selective colleges, applications are read by two people, and sometimes by full committees. It helps to have an advocate who is making your case to the committee. You want the admissions officer to bond with you through your application and feel invested in bringing you to the college.

This is why likeability can play a big part in admissions. Highly selective colleges have so many well-qualified applicants that it’s not about having SAT scores that are thirty points higher than someone else’s scores. It’s whether the reader can imagine staying up late in a residence hall eating pizza with you.

Rather than trying to impress, you need to convey who you are in an authentic and friendly way. That’s how you help the reader look beyond any personal bias and get excited about having you as a member of the college community.

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