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A Rare Behind-the-Scenes Look at the College Admissions Process

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

College applications are in, but decision letters are still weeks away. It’s reading season at colleges and universities across the country, as admissions offices sift through stacks of applications to craft next year’s freshman class.

 Many a high school senior and their parents have wondered just how admissions decisions are made. Now they have a chance to find out. The admissions office at Grinnell College, a selective liberal arts school in Iowa, gave the Today Show a rare inside look at the process.

 Grinnell allowed cameras into the room while admissions officers reviewed applications and voted on which students to admit and which to reject.

 “I would love to say the admission process is a very straightforward process where every student is considered on their own merits, but that simply isn’t true,” Seth Allen, dean of admissions and financial aid, told the Today Show. “The process is highly subjective.”

 Here are some highlights of the behind-the-scenes action.

  •  Two admissions officers read each application, including the essay.
  • Grades, test scores and extracurricular activities are then parsed to provide insight into the applicant’s potential.
  • Each applicant is put to a vote, with majority rule determining who’s in, who’s out, and who’s wait listed.
  • A student’s future is usually decided in 15 minutes or less.

Jacques Steinberg, moderator of New York Times’ The Choice blog on admissions, said Grinnell’s process is typical of the template used at the 50 or so highly selective schools around the nation.

 In each case, the process is highly subjective, Steinberg said. “Kids and parents should never read this process as a referendum on how they did as students or how they did as parents.”

 The rigor of the student’s curriculum, involvement in extracurricular activities, and the quality of the essay are all important and within a student’s control. But gender, socioeconomic level, and race are also important and obviously beyond the applicant’s control.

 With so much beyond control, Steinberg has advice for all those nervous high school seniors. “If you can’t control this process, and you can’t out-strategize it, can’t you relax a little bit and be yourself, and let the chips fall where they may?”