Wow, that title is surely a mouthful, but it truly is so exciting!
Admissions officers are basically the people standing in between you and your college of choice. They go through all of the applications, choose which ones seem like the best fit for that school, and categorize each application into either the “accepted” or “rejected” pile.
As it turns out, an ivy league admissions officer set up an AMA on Reddit (which is just a short way of saying ‘ask me anything’, for those that are not fluent in Reddit lingo – *cough* *cough* I had to look up the meaning myself, so do not feel bad if you are not fluent). The admissions officer on this thread did no disclose the school they work for due to the sensitivity the job requires.
Note that some of the quotes from this article will be slightly altered in case of specific jargon used, abbreviations, or minor typos.
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“One question that I have seen on some applications is ‘What is the biggest struggle in your life and how did you deal with it?’ Honestly, I have not had any catastrophic or terrible event happen to me that is worthy writing about. Any comments on how to respond to questions like this?”
“Great question. Make something up.
Kidding. It is a pretty standard question that you will be asked in many job interviews, too. What matters is not necessarily the actual event, but your response to what you do write about. It is not a competition to find the students with the worst things that happened to them. We certainly do not view it that way. We are looking for you to demonstrate ability to adapt, cope, be positive, improve, develop a mature sense of self, and learn from an experience. These things can happen in comparatively insignificant incidents. Honestly, consider yourself fortunate that you are this blessed– on the most superficial level, it is easier for you to demonstrate these qualities in pretty everyday-human-experience situations than it is for someone with a severe medical condition or loss in the family to stay positive, cope, learn, etc.”
“Because grading standards vary by country, how do you compare international vs American applicants? A lot of my Calculus II classmates who are from India or China and had “studied” this material previously had mentioned to me that the systems there did not really allow them to understand it.”
“We do not compare international applicants vs. American applicants. Each are considered separately. International applicants are not at a disadvantage or at an advantage relative to American applicants. We have admissions officers that exclusively read international applicants and are extremely familiar with the grading systems, educational culture, and systems in each country. You are considered in your school’s context and your country’s context.”
“I am an incoming senior at a rather small, poor, underachieving high school (No AP classes, very few honors classes, low test scores, etc). Fortunately, I have been able to excel despite these circumstances (my test scores are about average for the top-tier schools). My question is: does my high school’s lack of opportunities pretty much disqualify me from the top-tier schools?”
“Not at all. We look at each student in the context of his or her own environment. Students that rise above their environments are the most capable to succeed in college and substantially contribute to a community. If you think you are ready for the challenges of a top-tier school that is very much unlike your community and have really gone above and beyond what your environment offers, demonstrate it to us in a kick-ass application.”
“I am currently a student at an Ivy League school, and I am curious as to how having a sibling at the school affects your chances for admission. My brother is interested in attending my school, but he does not have stats anywhere near mine (I was salutatorian with a 2400 SAT and two 800 subject tests). His are not bad, but they are not typically what is seen in a successful Ivy League applicant.”
“Legacy connections matter far less than people think. Last year, I believe that amongst all the Ivies, the average was something like 12% of the enrolled freshman class had a legacy connection. That percentage used to be much higher. We have moved away from considering it as an important factor.”
“How much does applying early decision to a school help one’s acceptance chances?”
“Statistically, schools with Early programs do have higher admission rates for Early applicants than for Regular applicants. It is not a significant difference. You can find these numbers readily available online. Among the most top-tier programs, this does not mean that the students have lower credentials. Our class profile for Early and Regular students is essentially identical. The review process is the same. There is just fewer people applying Early than are applying Regular. Apply Early for the right reasons. It will not help an otherwise under qualified candidate.”
“Could you explain how you decide who gets in and who does not? Do ‘X’ number of people make independent decisions or do a number of people sit around a table to discuss?”
“This process is the same at every top-tier institution I know of: admissions officers are assigned regions of the country for which they do the ‘first-read’ on all the applications from that area. That person makes a recommendation: send to committee or deny. Another admissions officer does a second read on those files, just to make sure the first person made good summary comments and whose recommendation is supported with reason. Most files are given a recommendation to go to committee; it is pretty obvious the person will be denied if the recommendation is an initial deny. Most of the admissions officers do first-reading and second-reading. Sometimes, in institutional or athletic, or special cases, there is a third-review.
Then committee happens, where you present all the files you recommended for committee to the actual committee. You basically give a short presentation for each file. Then there is a discussion, then a vote. Committee composition can vary based on a number of factors: how busy we are, the student’s major, etc etc. We do sit around a table, but it is not always round.“
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“Be honest. GRE (graduate record examination), LoR (letters of recommendation), experience, or GPA (grade point average). Which is more important?”
“Well, I can say with certainty that among the choice you listed, GRE would be the least important for high school applicants.
I am going to give what may seemed like a canned answer, but it honestly is true: everything matters, and there are no weights or percentages placed on any component of the application.
To the extent your question is asking ‘which of these is more important to have be the strongest part of the application (GPA, leadership, essay, rec letters, etc)?’ the answer is ‘none’, because having the #1 GPA, for example, is not necessarily better than having the school’s best teacher write the best letters, and winning some national competition is not necessarily more important than having the #1 GPA.
But, to the extent the question is asking ‘which of these is most important NOT to do really poorly on?’, the answer is unequivocally your GPA.”
“Assume you have an application and notice that their Freshman and Sophomore years were filled with awful grades, but their Junior and beginning Senior year were filled with great grades. What are you thinking to yourself when you see this? Do you accept the student on the hopes that they will be able to transition their late success to college, or do you see their first two years as a red flag and deny their acceptance?”
“What I’m thinking: I hope there is context for why those grades are lower in 9th and 10th, and that the student has described that context to us.
There absolutely must be an upward trend in grades. Upward trends are better than downward trends.
To be candid: Colleges do not admit students on the hopes that they will transition successfully to college. We are admitting students based on demonstrated information that they WILL be successful in college.
Is that naive? Sure. Obviously, some students do not transition well to college, even (sometimes, especially) to the most top-tier colleges. But, still, we offer admission to students that most effectively and substantially demonstrate the capability to succeed, contribute, and acclimate to our community. Lower grades are a red flag to this; this is why it is important to have context and an explanation for your context, in order to really advocate for you!
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