What College Admissions Officers Look For: How Do Colleges Read Applications?

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

There are various ways in which colleges read your application. Some city and state universities set minimum GPAs and standardized test scores and then in some cases a computer determines whether you have met the minimum qualifications for admission. More selective universities have a multistep process. The University of Michigan, for example, clearly posts its process for reading applications and its freshman rating sheet on its Web site. The process at the University of Michigan and at many other colleges is that there are at least two holistic reviews completed for each applicant. There is an initial reader, who reviews your file and makes a determination to admit or reject. Your file is then reviewed by a second reader and he or she makes an independent assessment of your admission status. The file is then given to an assistant director who may agree with the first two readers or he or she can bring your file to the attention of a committee for its last review for a final decision.

Many colleges have a two-reader process. Some colleges have counselors who read for a specific region, others just have general readers. Applicants who are clear-cut for admission or rejection may not go before a committee for a final review. At these committee meetings, counselors discuss in detail the merits of your application, taking into account your grades, standardized test scores, academic program, reputation of your high school, extracurricular activities, essays, teachers and counselor recommendations, and other admission criteria.

The University of Michigan’s rating system targets seven areas as follows, which should give you an idea of how many complex factors some colleges take into account when evaluating applicants.

University of Michigan’s Rating System

1. Secondary school academic performance

  • Recalculated GPA
  • Quality of high school curriculum
  • Test scores
  • Academic interests
  • Class rank
  • Other

 2.  Educational environment

  • Strength of curriculum (honors, AP, IB courses offered)
  • Average SAT/ACT scores
  • Percent attending four-year colleges
  • Grading system
  • Academically disadvantaged school

3. Counselor and teacher recommendations

  • Character
  • Civic and cultural awareness
  • Commitment to high ideals
  • Intellectual independence/enthusiasm for learning/risk taking
  • Creative/artistic talent
  • Concern for others
  • Motivation/determination/effort
  • Leadership potential/maturity/responsibility

4. Personal background

  • Cultural awareness/experiences
  • Socioeconomic and educational background (including first generation to attend college)
  • Geographic considerations (including underrepresented geographic areas)
  • Awards/honors
  • Extracurricular activities, service and leadership
  • Participation in enrichment or outreach activities
  • Alumni relationships
  • Scholarship athlete
  • Work experience
  • Other (military, other types of service)
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