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Last updated March 22, 2024

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How A Selective Admissions Office Reads 50k Applications In A Season

Key Takeaway

The admissions process at most highly selective schools is broken down into several phases. There's an "academic review," a holistic review process, and a committee-based evaluation. You have to make it through all three to get in. 

“How the hell does an admissions office get through 20, 30, 50 thousand applications every cycle?”

That question is one of the most common we’d field as admissions officers. When the sheer numbers are so astronomical, it’s hard not to wonder just how the sausage gets made. It’s also hard to look at application volumes without raising a skeptical eyebrow about the thoroughness of the process. Applicants spend massive amounts of time crafting their applications—and your telling me admissions officers spend 5, maybe 15 minutes reading each one?

Massive volumes of applications appear to give the lie to the “holistic” nature of college admissions. Even at the toughest schools, there are often ten or twenty-thousand students who are technically qualified to study there. But with admission rates hovering just below 10%, the difference between who gets in and who doesn’t can feel almost random.

Anyone outside the system might reasonably conclude that admissions is no more than a machine. One that’s fine-tuned to roll through massive piles of applications, turning out decisions that might not add up. They wouldn’t be (all) wrong.

But admissions isn’t random. It’s also not (well, mostly not) a series of smoky rooms with inscrutable decision-making.

We wrote this post because we wanted to reveal how top admissions offices actually triage such massive quantities of applications from such competent students.

We want you to know what actually takes place after you’ve finalized and submitted your app.

The information in this post is the collective output of our team and our contributors, drawing from experience in 3 highly selective admissions offices. It’s also informed by a lot of conversations we’ve had with current and former admissions officers. It’s worth noting, however, that not every elite admissions office approaches their process in the same way. There are significant differences between how Duke and Stanford, or Princeton and MIT deal with applicants. We make references to public and private schools in this post, and tried to be as universally insightful as possible.

Caveats aside, strap in. Let’s do this thing.

The First Trial: Academic Review

Did you know that, at many admissions offices, the entire process isn’t really holistic? Some AOs would dispute that, but it’s true.

That’s because the first filter your application must pass through is usually an academic one.

(Because we’re all about sharing the goods, here’s a graph we made that explains this pretty well.)

Applicant pool: 50,000 files

Academics are the bedrock of admissions practices. That’s why most offices will start their process by giving each candidate file an “academic achievement score.” By giving each file a score, all files can be compared and ranked on a standard scale. Each university will have its own process for deriving scores. But in all likelihood, every school will use some combination of Unweighted GPA, test scores, class rank, and the rigor of your curriculum in the calculus.

Don’t believe us? Take a look at Michigan’s and Harvard’s public information about the weighting and scoring process.

Academic scores decide the amount of an admission officer’s attention a file gets as it continues down the admissions flowchart. If you crushed it in school and have a great academic score, your application will receive a thorough and holistic secondary review. If you don’t meet the cut? Your application might go into a “likely deny” bin, where your app may get only a cursory second glance.

What you need to know: applications move “up” to a holistic review or “down” and out.  It isn’t so clear-cut at every school, but this kind of logic is common. Alex has confirmed similar processes at schools like Stanford and within the UC system. One can only speculate that this process might be even more common at public schools, where application volumes are massive and holistic review processes tend to get displaced by commitments to in-state enrollment, for example.

Does the academic sort seem arbitrary? Remember, there’s a logic behind the madness. It is, quite simply, the only way for schools receiving so many applications to triage and tackle their pool. Lots of the students who get cut in this phase are still strong students. But at Yale, or Harvard, or Duke—a 3.7 just might not cut it in a pool where the average admitted student has a perfect 4.0.

(By the way, if you’re curious about specific school data points like average GPA, we have a whole series about the common dataset and what you can extrapolate from it. We recommend giving it a read and using it as you build your school list.)

Strong academics are required to advance. But at “highly rejective” institutions, they aren’t sufficient by themselves. The academic cut round may winnow down an application pool to 50% or 40% of what it was at the outset.

Phase Applications Time reviewing per file
Initial pool 50,000 n/a
Post-academic review 20,000 ~5 min

The Second Trial: Holistic Review

Alright. Now, after passing through the academic gateway, your application moves onto the oft-cited phase of true “holistic review.”

This is the phase of the process where your application actually gets read by someone in the admissions office. Usually, the person who reads your application will be the admissions officer who is assigned to your geographical region. You can figure out who this is specifically by visiting the admissions office page and looking through the regional assignments for the different admissions offices.

There’s a period of almost 5 months (reading season) between late September and the end of April or beginning of May when admissions officers sit in their caves and read applications. Hours a day, with hours bleeding into nights and spilling over into the weekend. Tens of applications every day, 100+ per week, up to thousands a year—for every AO! You get the idea.

There are two models of application review that are most commonly practiced in admissions offices across the country today.

The first is the more traditional. An admissions officer sitting down with a single application file, reading it all the way through. They make their ratings, commenting on the scale and magnitude of extracurricular involvement, adding notes as they go along. After they’re done, another member of the admissions office will pick up the same file and go over it again. At this phase, the goal is to see which applications elicit shared high ratings. Those that do advance. Those that don’t, might be headed for a deny pile.

So, if you’re keeping track—by this point three people will have seen it. There’s the “reader” (more like glancer) who takes the application through the initial review phase. Then there are the two admissions officers who go through the more time-consuming holistic review process.

The second approach to reviewing files was introduced by UPenn a few years ago. It’s called “Committee Based Evaluation.” Basically, instead of stinging the holistic reviews back-to-back, two AOs sit down together and read it. It’s a very popular method that has gained major traction over the last five-ten years.

Let’s revisit the files that had lower academic achievement scores. What happens to those? At best, those applications get another brief examination. An AO will make sure a mistake wasn’t made or that some exceptional extracurricular engagement wasn’t passed over in the academic review phase.

Another reason it’s extremely important for your extracurricular section to be good? If by some unfortunate turn of fate you do end up in the “deny” stack, your extracurricular resume is kind of your one chance for redemption. You need to convey amazing ECs at a first glance, because that may be all an admissions officer is willing to give you.

A few seconds is all it takes for an AO to figure out whether your file should stay in the pits of doom deny pile or get a second shot.

This round is probably the most time-intensive overall. It’s also where the largest proportional reduction of the total application pool happens.

Phase Applications Time reviewing per file
Initial pool 50,000 n/a
Post-academic review 20,000 ~5 min
Post-holistic review 4,000 ~20 min

The Third Trial: Committee & Recommendations

If you made it past the holistic review round, you head to committee. Committee is a special place where many or all (depends on the school) of the admissions office, including the Head Honcho (Director of Admissions), gather around a table and sit in judgement.

This is the round where any application that didn’t clear the holistic hurdle with flying colors will be picked apart and examined. This is also where the fun part of being an admissions officer happens: advocating for your kids. In committee, admissions officers will “pitch” their files. They’ll highlight the strengths of the students whom they’re most pulling for. They tell the story of their applications, making the best case possible. This is often where decisions to waitlist happen, emerging when a committee just isn’t clear about what should happen with an application.

To be clear: by the time an application has made it to committee, it’s already admissible. But due to class size restrictions, not every application that could get in does. The question is, will the application shine with a clear and cohesive enough story to pass the group review?

This phase of the process is really where the investment in your application—not just your resume but your essays—pays off. A lot of students are able to make it past the first round of academic review. Where most applications falter is in committee, where so much comes down to the narrative you tell about yourself, your accomplishments, and your vision for your future in college. We write about this extensively on Admit Report—it’s kinda our thing. This kind of work (helping students craft great narratives that stand out) is also what we do in our work as admissions consultants.

After files are evaluated in committee, and the members have voted, there’s one more (secret?) layer to the admissions process that all applications pass through. Big Data.

First, let’s tally the numbers on our starting pool of 50,000 files:

  • Admitted*: 3,000*
  • Committee*: 1,000*
  • After committee, additional files slated for admit: 500
  • Average time spent reviewing each of the 1,000 committee files: 5 minutes per file

Phase Applications Time reviewing per file
Initial pool 50,000 n/a
Post-academic review 20,000 ~5 min
Post-holistic review 4,000 ~20 min
Going to committee 1,000 ~5 min
Post-committee 3,500 admitted ~25-30 min

Admissions decisions also rely on data

So far, this has all been about holistic admissions—the quantitative and qualitative factors that make up your application.  But, let’s be honest. We’re living in a world of Big Data, AI, and machine learning. Admissions offices aren’t going to leave all the decision making up to us humans.

Let’s talk about predictive modeling.

Before founding our company, Alex worked with over 100 colleges and universities to solve enrollment issues. He noticed in this role how ubiquitous data is in admissions decision making.

Highly selective schools with endowments in the billions often have a team of data experts on staff to support enrollment. They study questions like, what factors entice students to enroll and graduate, how likely engineering majors are to switch majors, or if students from certain zip codes are more or less likely to enroll, drop out, or have a high or low GPA. Safe to say, these data scientists help inform the shaping of the class and do things like balance its diversity as the institution sees fit.

A note that, in a world of admissions scandals, universities often seek counsel from inside and outside auditors to ensure these systems and models are both legal and ethical. They are monitoring the relevant US Supreme Court cases, to be sure.

Oh yeah, and there are millions upon millions of the university’s dollars on the line. There’s a lot of incentive for universities to not screw this up. One could argue that enrollment managers are stewards of the university’s budget.

Let’s look at Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt invested nearly $57 million in financial aid for the 2022-23 class.  And remember, that’s one of four classes! At that rate, Vanderbilt spends nearly $228 million per year on scholarships.

Like we said, there’s a lot of incentive to get this right.

And yes, these top-ranked wealthy schools practice need-blind admissions and meet the full need of their admitted students. Their financial aid offices still operate on budgets—however enormous they may be. These budgets are informed by data.

Okay, that’s about as deep as we need to go on data in admissions. Hope you found it interesting.

Number of admitted students*: 3,500*

Admit Rate: 7%

If we yield 40% of these students, our school would enroll 1400 students.

Uh oh! This hypothetical school actually wanted to enroll 1447 students this year. Great news, they waitlisted 5,500! That means 47 lucky students will be admitted off the waitlist!🤪


Okay, this post covered a lot of ground. Let’s break it down and identify the key takeaways:

  1. The most highly-selective schools in the country receive many thousands of qualifies applicants that they must deny. This requires admissions to identify the most viable files and spend most of their limited time reviewing them.
  2. Excellent academic achievement is necessary in admissions, but it isn’t sufficient. Supplemental essays, personal statements, extracurriculars and other written parts of the application tell your story and help you stand out.
  3. Selective schools tend to begin with some sort of academic review to identify applications that are actually competitive. It is rare that an application would get serious consideration after not “passing” an initial academic review. You are going to want your writing and extracurriculars to jump off the page
  4. Your school list should be grounded in an understanding of how competitive your academic metrics are at each school. Check out our post on how to build a school list to get started.

We know this article is chock full of pretty dense information. We hope pulling back the curtain some is helpful on your admissions journey! Reach out to us if you’re interested in 1-on-1 support, or check out the Essay Academy course.




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