For applicants, the college admissions process is full of secrecy and mystery. The path your application takes once it leaves your hands is a big unknown – and when that path ends with a letter of acceptance or rejection, it’s not always clear why. It could be anyone’s guess why you ended up with the result you did.
In 2015, though, students at Stanford found a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes mechanics of college admissions: a federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA for short. Since 1974, students have had a right to read records their schools keep on them using FERPA. But in 2015, word got out, and hundreds of students started to request access to their files – first at Stanford, then at schools across the country.
Because schools often save files from the college admissions process, that meant students suddenly got to see how they’d been evaluated as applicants and how the admissions officers had sized them up against other students. Since then, some schools have responded to the wave of FERPA requests by changing their file keeping policies and opting to destroy college admissions files more quickly. For a window of time, though, students got an unprecedented look behind the curtain of college admissions.
Many of these students shared what they’d learned by reading their own college admissions files. In some cases, what they found that the college admissions process works pretty much as you’d expect. In other cases, their discoveries were surprising. Here are some of the takeaways of what we’ve found out about the college admissions process thanks to these students.
1. How your application gets summarized makes all the difference
For all the work applicants put into crafting essays, studying for the SAT, and making the most of their extracurriculars, the job of admissions officers is ultimately to boil all that information down into a yes or a no. No surprise, then, that the application review process is an exercise in summarizing.
At all the schools where students have made FERPA requests to read their admissions files, there’s a common thread: admissions officers use numerical scores to capture different parts of each application. For example, each applicant will get a numerical score for extracurriculars, one for their interview, one for test results, and so on.
Besides scoring applicants on different criteria, admissions officers give short summaries of their thoughts. Jonah Lewis, a George Washington student who read his admissions files, wrote that “It’s a bit jarring, though not entirely shocking, to see your entire personality and college application summarized in one sentence.”
In Lewis’s case, it all worked out for the best, with one of his reviewers declaring him “a perfect fit.”
Sometimes, though, the comments go into more detail. Sasha Chhabra, a student at University of Chicago, found that one reviewer had written in his file: “I get sort of a ‘that kid’ vibe from him. But knowing that he is socially confident makes the application look a lot better.” Meanwhile, Chhabra’s essay was summarized as “a little wordy but good.”
Of course, with multiple reviewers looking at each application, there was sometimes disagreement. When Molly Hensley-Clancy read her Yale admissions files, it turned out that one of her admissions officers had evaluated her application much more favorably than the other. In fact, the first officer had given her interview a rating of 9 out of 9 and her teacher recommendations ratings of 8 out of 9. The second officer, on the other hand, had given her interview a 6 out of 9 and the recommendations 5 and 6 out of 9!
This kind of subjectivity in the process appears to be common. For instance, Leigh Anne Schreiver discovered that the first admissions officer reviewing her application had been lukewarm while the other had upped the recommendation to “admit.”
These anecdotes suggest that some of the process is down to good old fashioned luck. Still, it doesn’t hurt to hone your self-presentation and help guide the readers toward summarizing your application favorably.
When Scott Greenberg did a FERPA request for his Yale application, he found that while his reviewers had tried to put together the pieces of his application to create a picture of who he was, “any broad themes about my life that my readers identified were almost certainly those that I intended them to pick up on when I wrote the application four years ago.”
Overall, then, while the essence of the application process is in how admissions officers choose to summarize your application, you can help craft a narrative for them and point them in the right direction.
2. Interviews matter
As the only portion of the application that’s done in person, interviews are a part of the college admissions process that’s unique. They’re also a part that shouldn’t be underestimated, it turns out. A look at college admissions files suggests that the interview can make or break an application.
Jacob Scheer, another Princeton student who accessed his admissions files, said that he’d “had a suspicion that it was my interview that pushed me over the edge.” And when he read the comments from admissions officers, he found that his intuition was right – his interviewer “wrote a raving description of me and said that she would highly recommend me to be a student here.”
Schreiver, on the other hand, may have been admitted to Princeton not because of her interview but in spite of it. One of her reviewers raised concerns that she was “self-described shy and quiet,” referencing her answer to an interview question that asked her to name “one of her greatest challenges to overcome.” But then again, who has ever answered the classic “name one thing you struggle with” question well, anyway?
In any case, the takeaway for applicants is clear: your interview can make a difference, so prepare and take advantage of it.
3. It’s not just who you are but where you’re coming from
A running theme through the admissions files uncovered by FERPA requests is that admissions officers pay close attention to the school, region and circumstances applicants are coming from.
In some cases, this approach is executed in a way that’s a little heavy-handed. For example, Catherine Goetze discovered that Stanford uses a short reference sheet in which each applicant is given a simple “yes” or “no” rating on “diversity.”
Often, though, reviewers will go into much greater detail. Hensley-Clancy found that her Yale reviewers had written: “She’d be a good admit for us from the Minneapolis public schools” despite the fact that she describes herself as not being “diverse” in the sense of being an ethnic minority or coming from a low-income family.
Similarly, Schreiver found that going to high school in rural New Jersey had been a plus in the application process. Her reviewers had described her as a “neat and ambitious young lady from a county from which we admit few.”
These comments suggest that schools are interested not just in the content of the application, but in the context. For applicants coming from unique circumstances, that means emphasizing how you’ll bring a different perspective can work to your advantage and frame how reviewers evaluate your application overall.
In the end, admissions officers are synthesizing several different kinds of information as they try to sum up who you are in a few numbers and sentences. Some of the information has to do with things you have control over (how you present yourself in your interview and what kind of narrative you create in your essay) and some of it has to do with things you don’t have a say in (what school you’re coming from). Part of getting the result you want is about using the things you do have control over to tilt the odds in your favor – and part, the admissions files suggest, is about topping the right application off with a dash of good luck.
By Niels V.