• Dr. Thom

The Room Where It Happens: Inside an Admissions Committee


Photo by Evan Wise on Unsplash

Did you know that there is a town in Pennsylvania that has been on fire for over 50 years? How about the fact that there are people out there who jump on mattresses and feel faces for a living? How about the fact that there is an extensive secret menu at Starbucks that includes a Puppucino treat for your pooch? Did you know these were things?


Me neither.


I’ll admit it. I have a meh-hate relationship with the internet. Meh, because I, like many people, need it to keep up with the admissions world for our clients. Hate, because I, like many people, have to sift through gifs about memes that link to click bait that might have the information I need. It’s like running in waist-high water to get where you want to go. However, one thing I can’t argue, as much as I would enjoy that, is that the internet has broadened my horizons on things I didn’t know were things.


The megaphone of the internet provides the niche insider in all of us a platform to communicate an experience. I am fascinated by stories of what it is like to be backstage in lives very different than mine. What is it like to be an undercover mob informant, or a marine biologist studying sharks in the Indian Ocean, or a roadie for a famous band? We can learn it all.


In my own life, I am very aware that I got to be in rooms where admissions decisions were taking place that were of great interest to the public. There have been countless books and articles written about what actually happens inside an admissions committee, the enrollment managers “room where it happens.” And while most admissions folks will shrug off the notion of intrigue in an admissions committee (it is an all-the-time meeting that lasts for weeks after all), it is an objectively fascinating place to be in my opinion.


So for my own contribution to the corpus of “things you probably didn’t know were things” here’s some aspects of a selective university’s admissions committee I always found fascinating.


Context is Everything


Ninety percent of the efforts of the committee are centered around trying to provide as much context around an applicant as quickly as possible for committee members. The set up of an admissions committee is built to provide a wealth of simultaneous contextual information about an applicant. There will usually be multiple projectors displaying information about the applicant, the applicant's school, and historical (previous cycles) decisions that have been made at that high school.


The admissions committee members, of which there will be three or four usually, are prompting information they wish to hear from the presenting admissions officer. This officer has been preparing to present this applicant for several hours usually. Think of this officer as the applicant's lawyer in court. They are there to advocate for them and provide an honest appraisal for the committee. All of these efforts combine to create an incredibly rich environment to foster decisions that, while not perfect, are consistent in process and rigor. You may not like the decision, but you did get your day in court.


Yes, it Goes Fast


People are always interested in knowing how much time is allotted for each applicant in an admissions committee and they are sometimes worried with the answer (about 3-4 minutes per applicant). While there are certainly notable exceptions (I can recall one case where committee deliberations were just short of an hour for one applicant), the vast majority of committee decisions were relatively quick. That’s because there are two interacting variables at play, 1) you’re talking about seasoned admissions pros sitting at the helm who have seen thousands of applications and are attuned to the task, meaning they take in information about an applicant rapidly, and 2) the aforementioned contextual information that is simultaneously displayed about an applicant means the committee’s decision-making is engineered for efficiency. You would be surprised by how much ground can be covered in those few minutes.


Except when it Doesn’t Go Fast


So when does an admissions committee slow down? There are generally two categories of students that will cause an admissions committee to slow down and take its time, 1) politically sensitive applicants, and 2) disciplinary cases. For most selective universities, there are high schools that are simply more important to them politically (I mean relationship wise, not having to do with governmental politics exactly). You could call them feeder schools if you like, but the bottom line from the university’s point of view is simple, “we need to make sure we get these decisions right.” And so they will often take the time to do that.


A committee might also slow down to hear a case out when there is a student who would otherwise be highly admissible (in whatever way that means) who has a disciplinary infraction, particularly if it is academic in nature (i.e., cheating). The committee will want to hear the full nature of the infraction and most importantly, want to hear directly from the student about what happened and what they learned from it. This is a highly subjective read from the committee, but authenticity and genuine contrition will go a long way to help the applicant.


Twins are Considered at the Same Time


As a father of identical twin boys, I was always fascinated by how admissions committees handle twin and triplet applicants. While certainly not universal, my experience has been that admissions committees prefer to render the same decision for each student, but the academic profile of the students will often dictate whether that is possible. So, for example, if a set of twins are applying for admission, and there is one student who has a slightly stronger academic profile there will usually be a discussion on whether the same decision can be rendered for the set. I have seen situations go either way where one twin “brings up” the other as well as one twin “bringing down” the other.


What are some other things you would like to know about how admissions works from the inside? Leave a comment on any of our social media platforms and I will do my best to answer them. Spoiler alert though, don’t ask me about any secret Starbucks menu items. I got nothing on that.


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