When you apply to college, you obviously try to make yourself a desirable candidate for admissions. More often than not, you will receive advice on how to appeal to the admissions officers. Admissions officers will like this. Admissions officers will like that. The list of qualities, accomplishments, and experiences you seemingly need to highlight will only grow longer. Moreover, the committee of admissions officers starts to appear as larger-than-life, ominous beings whose sole purpose in life is to reject candidates who do not fit their list of ridiculous requirements. Or, maybe we’re just projecting here.

Also Read: How To Write the Perfect UC Essay

Still, the concept of appealing to the people who review your application feels fairly abstract. That’s right, we said people. That’s all they are—regular human beings who generally have intimate knowledge of what the university you are applying to is like. Their main objective is to figure out whether you are a worthwhile addition to the existing cultures and communities on campus.

With that in mind, let’s talk shop. To curate a great application, you will need to know how your application will be read. First, we’ll go over the process by which applications are reviewed. Then, we’ll give you some helpful tips in applying this newfound information.

A Four Stage Admissions Process

If it’s any consolation, colleges consider applications carefully and thoughtfully. In fact, most universities use this four stage process when considering applications:

  1. Assess and Assemble
  2. First Impressions
  3. Committee
  4. Final Decision

Let’s take a look into each of these stages.

Assess and Assemble

How Admissions Officers Read College Applications

We know that you don’t like being put in a box, but unfortunately, you will be!

The number of applications that universities receive each year is always growing. With the increase of applications to review, colleges must streamline their process to the utmost efficiency. To do this, they must do an initial screening of the applications. Simply put, the admissions data is sorted and the appropriate applications are generally sent to the relevant regional teams.

These regional teams generally consist of admissions officers who have the responsibility of connecting with counselors among other things. They may also recruit students from the local high schools and should be familiar with the socio-economic dynamics in their region. Usually, the admissions officers hail from or live in their assigned region.

To create some sort of organization of application data, many universities apply a quantitative scoring method to the applications. Applications may be scored through an “Applicant Rating” from 1 to 9 (Hamilton) or maybe scored under various categories like academics, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation (Stanford). The regional coordinator may assign the scores before sending it off to the appropriate regional team. Sometimes the responsibility falls on the individual readers who first read your application. In some universities, computer algorithms do the scoring automatically using a set of predetermined factors.

First Impressions

How Admissions Officers Read College Applications

Meet the individual reader through your application!

Universities will have at least one read before the application is sent off to the committee stage. This read is the “First Read”. We will refer to the individual admissions officer who reads your application as “individual reader” henceforth. But, who are these individual readers? The individual reader may be a young professional or veteran admissions officer. They may also be fresh out of college themselves! Since they are deciding if you are a good fit for the campus, the individual readers tend to have intimate knowledge of the campus culture.

The individual reader is responsible for a couple of important aspects of the admissions decision process. Firstly, they are the ones who create the first impression of your application. Obviously, this initial judgment needs to be fair and accurate. This first impression in admissions terms is the “Application Summary Card”. That’s right, the individual reader reduces your application to a few key points. The individual reader comes up with these key points within the ten minutes they take to read your application. If your application passes the First Impressions stage and goes to the Committee stage, the individual reader may also be responsible for presenting your application and advocating on your behalf.

Many universities will also have multiple individual readers read the same application. The admissions officers are human, too. This means that they may have some intrinsic biases toward students. To combat the bias, universities employ this multiple readers technique. A “Second Read” will continue on the same “Application Summary Card” with the second individual reader either affirming or disagreeing with the first’s impression of you. The recommendation of these individual readers greatly affects the likelihood of an offer.

Committee of Admissions Officers

If your application goes to the committee, a discussion will take place among the officers on whether to admit you to the university or not. While the process varies for different universities, the crux of it will include consideration of your scores, your personal information, and the recommendations of your individual readers. Here are some accounts from universities themselves.


According to Rebecca Larson, an NYU admissions officer, every application is considered by the committee. She explains this in the school’s official admissions blog:

“Our team re-reviews the notes the first reader took on your application. The first reader will discuss your grades, the rigor of your curriculum, extra-curricular involvement, fit for NYU, quality of your essays, and what your teachers/counselor had to say about you.
Once we read those notes, the committee discusses what to do with your application. We may vote to admit, deny, wait list, or refer a student to a different program at NYU–there are lots of different outcomes for each application.”
Sometimes committee goes smoothly and other times the group is split between a particular decision. While we all get along well, we will get into arguments over some students. The benefit of committee comes from the diverse perspective each admissions counselor brings to the group–one counselor may see something in an application that another counselor doesn’t, and that dialogue is really important as we build the class.
We do this 63,000 times! Then we go back and look at our admissions decisions one last time to make sure all students received an individualized and holistic review. Once our decisions are finalized, applications are sent over to the Office of Financial Aid where students are packaged with scholarships, loans, grants and work study opportunities.”

Harvard’s committee stage involves a subcommittee who vote on applicant and then discuss their recommendation to the whole committee. We know this through Harvard’s Dean Fitzsimmons’ interview with the New York Times back in 2009.

“Each subcommittee normally includes four to five members, a senior admissions officer, and faculty readers.
Once all applications have been read and the subcommittee process begins, the area representative acts as an advocate, and summarizes to the subcommittee the strengths of each candidate. Subcommittee members discuss the application, and then vote to recommend an action to the full Committee. Majorities rule, but the degree of support expressed for applicants is always noted to allow for comparisons with other subcommittees.
Subcommittees then present and defend their recommendations to the full committee. While reading or hearing the summary of any case, any committee member may raise questions about the proposed decision and request a full review of the case.
Many candidates are re-presented in full committee. Discussions in subcommittee or in full committee on a single applicant can last up to an hour. The full Committee compares all candidates across all subcommittees, and therefore across geographic lines.”

Believe it or not, Stanford rarely uses a committee to make the final decision on applications. The individual readers tend to make the final decision themselves. In fact, New York Times journalist, Jacques Steinberg explains that

“At Stanford, for example, the officers rarely met as a committee, which meant that the odds of someone sympathetic being able to advocate to the group…are low.”

However, most schools do make a final decision through the admissions committee! We only wanted to illustrate some of the outliers through this example!

Final Decision

How Admissions Officers Read College Applications

Looks like this girl got her decision letter!

By the end of the committee stage, colleges are close to their deadlines. The admitted applications will proceed to consideration for financial aid before the offer letters are sent out. Of course, when the admissions officers make the final decisions they must look at the selectivity of the majors as well as the diversity of the incoming class. As a result of this, many amazing candidates may be denied admission. Fret not! Here’s how to apply what you’ve learned!

How Should I Consider the Admissions Officers in My Application?

  • Don’t waste time researching individual college admissions processes! Seriously, every top-notch university uses the aforementioned four stage process. Larger, less selective universities will generally make decisions based on your academics. They will not take as much time to consider other aspects of your application.
  • Choose stand-out experiences! The individual reader’s recommendation is important. They have a limited amount of time to read your application. Make sure to be clear about what makes you exceptional!
  • Remember, the admissions officer is human. Appeal to them by showing them who you are. A major part of that will be through your essay. If you have the opportunity to interview with an admissions officer, take it! Ensure to show your interest in the school by asking questions or at least by answering the “why this school” prompts in the supplementals.

Finally, this quick manner of reviewing your application may seem careless. However, this efficiency still utilizes careful consideration. The admissions officers are looking for a way to admit you not reject you. Help them out by crafting the best application you can!