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Admissions Committees: What Goes On Behind-the-Scenes

Picture of Sam Joustra
By Sam Joustra on September, 22 2021 | 5 minute read

If you’ve seen the 2013 movie Admission starring Tina Fey, you’ve gained some insight into a representation of an admissions committee. The operative words there are “a representation.” We can debate the truths and fallacies represented in that scene where Fey and her fellow Princeton University admissions colleagues are deep in committee discussions, but I thought it might be more helpful to pull back the curtain a little and share a more realistic portrait of committee.

Committee review is also not part of every college’s application review process – often, it is the most selective schools that participate in it; a small slice of the nearly-4,000 colleges and universities in the country. I think people are so fascinated by the idea of committee because it can often seem like admissions decisions—which, yes, are made behind closed doors—are shrouded in secrecy. It calls to mind this image, one of my all-time favorite memes:


Does this photo depict a crazed man devising an elaborate scheme to catch a villain, or an admissions counselor making his case to admit a student? Hard to say! The truth about committee is that incredibly difficult and nuanced decisions are being made with input from multiple staffers, all trying to put together the best incoming class they can. It is not easy, straightforward, or formulaic. It is highly individualized, personal, and subjective. Applications are read by real people, so you cannot extract the human element from the committee process. (I love this article that explores the human element of application decision-making.) My caveat with this post, of course, is that while I share some general realities of what committee looks like from my experience in highly selective admissions, the processes and details will vary from school to school.


What: The committee review process is one of the most illustrative examples of what it means to have a “holistic application review process.” Committee gives admission officers an opportunity to advocate for their applicants. Because only one or two people have read the application at that point, it is up to the assigned counselor to share their applicant with the larger group and do a little storytelling. As the reader who likely visited the high school the student attended, attended a college fair, or maybe even met the student in person, they can share details of the application that make the student come alive. (Important note: it is absolutely OK if you haven’t met your admission counselor! Especially over the last year when travel has been so limited, it has been much more difficult for college reps to visit students in their hometowns and for families to make campus visits.) More than just their grades, rigor, and even activity list, what is it about this student that makes them a great fit for the university? What are their compelling character traits? How would they positively impact the community? The admission counselor presenting their student to the larger group has the opportunity to extract the nuances of the application, essentially answering the question: Why should we admit this student?


Who: Who is in the room where it happens? The answer, as is often the case, is that it depends. Typically, it’s a group of anywhere from a small handful of admissions counselors to a large roomful, huddled around a table. One myth I love to bust about the admissions process is that a student’s fate rests in the hands of one single person. The truth is that applications receive multiple reads by more than one person (and often, especially with committee, even more than that). I worked in college admissions for ten years, and not once did I ever have the sole power to finalize an admission decision. It is typical for the Director of Admissions, Dean, or Vice President for Enrollment (or any combination thereof) to review every admission decision. It is a collaborative effort.


Where and When: From my experience, it was not uncommon for committee members to be holed up in a room (windows optional) for 10-12 hours a day for days on end. And at other schools with larger volumes of applications to move through, committee can last for weeks. Often, admissions offices will meet for committee before most, if not all, major application deadlines, including Early Decision and Regular Decision.


How: Let me back up: colleges have a finite number of seats available in their first-year class. But it’s not just about filling those seats; it’s about crafting a community of students who will contribute in many and differing ways. And for that reason, a conversation is necessary to get to know the students better. After the admission counselor presents their students, it is up to the group as a whole to decide if the student will be admitted. If it’s an Early Decision committee, the decision may be either to admit or deny the student. If it’s a Regular Decision committee, the decision not to admit a student may mean they remain on the waitlist. At some schools, final decisions are reached by majority vote; others rely upon unanimous agreement. Either way, the ultimate decision rests with the collective to address how students meet institutional needs.


No matter what these specific logistical details look like, there are some aspects of committee that remain constant. For one, you can bet that there are always snacks in the back of the room. (I often pretended not to notice the bowls of fresh fruit and instead reached right for the homemade brownies or very-much-not-homemade Keebler cookies.) The second thing you can always count on is that committee is all about storytelling. Just as you, the student, poured yourself into every corner of your application, now it’s your admission counselor’s turn to share that story with the larger committee.

Committee was by far one of my favorite parts of the application review process, and really, of my job as a whole. It was the time for me to really advocate for my students. Preparation took hours; I would comb back through a student’s application, re-reading every line from their essays and recommendation letters, analyzing their transcript with a critical eye on rigor and grade trends. I typed up my notes in a succinct summary, crafting my outline based on how I wanted to tell the student’s story.

And the last thing I’ll say is that these decisions are incredibly difficult to make. Many of the most selective (or highly selective) colleges simply do not have the space to admit all of the students they know would be a great fit. So, if your admission decision is not what you hoped it would be, it is not an indictment of your intelligence, talent, or achievements. Regardless of what your admission decision is, you can know that your application was given the time, respect, and dignity that it—and you—deserve in this review process. You will know that the time and energy that you poured into your application was thoughtfully reviewed by not only one person, but multiple (real!) people. It is a human process, and I hope that brings you some peace of mind.


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