What is the Elusive Admissions Committee?

admissions committee

If you ever saw the movie “Admission” with Tina Fey, you might have an image in your mind of what an admissions committee looks like. Even if you haven’t seen it, I’m guessing most people conjure up an image of a boardroom with dark wood furniture. Old folks sit around with file folders arguing about student applications, right? And they arrive at a majority decision regarding said students’ futures?

I worked in admissions for about two decades and let me tell you, it rarely unfolds like that. Erase that image. So what does “committee” mean? Like so many answers in the world of college admissions – it depends.

An Actual Admissions Committee

I worked, primarily, for two different institutions. For one, the process involved each and every file being read by every member of the committee. I think there were ten members in total. There was literally a piece of paper clipped to the front of each file on which you would record your initials under the “yes” or “no” column. The few files that had close counts might make it to an admissions committee discussion but otherwise – majority wins.

At the other institution, in about 90 percent of the cases, review happened by a committee of exactly one. Yes, there were plenty of people “on” the committee, but most files never made it to the committee table. We were sorely understaffed and just didn’t have time to discuss each applicant.

You were trained. There was trust. You had your stack of files to review and you single-handedly made the decision on the vast majority of the files on your caseload. Only the ones that really left you scratching your head made it to committee for a full review where multiple factors were discussed, perspectives considered, and majority rules enacted. Even then, majority just meant the majority of whoever decided to show up to committee review that day.

Every School is Different

I loved committee. I loved the process when it unfolded that way and I loved the discussion and hearing different voices. It just didn’t happen very often. But you better believe when we gave information sessions to the public regarding our process we frequently referenced that applications were reviewed “by committee.”

We just didn’t say how many.

One of the most interesting projects I had was to call 10 other institutions to discuss their review processes and staffing practices. At the outset, this project was designed to garner additional staffing positions or raises for our own understaffed team. What I learned in the process was fascinating.

The Computer Is the Committee

At one institution, only about 30 percent of the applications ever even made it to a human! If the GPA and SAT score fell within (or outside) a certain range, the decision was simply automatically entered by the system. If the quantitative measures fell within that range, the qualitative measures didn’t matter. In other words, only the statistical outliers made their way to a person for review.

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At another institution there was no such thing as a “committee.” Files were reviewed in stages. Each file had a first review (by a single person) then a second review (by another person). If those two people agreed, the decision was done. If they disagreed, the file would move on to a senior staff member for a tie-breaker decision.

Bottom line, a “committee” can mean very different things at different institutions. Sometimes, institutions are very transparent about their process. Other times, not so much. How decisions are made isn’t something institutions have to disclose. It’s nice when they do, but not required. And even when they give you a general description of how files are reviewed, it doesn’t necessarily paint the full picture of what’s happening.

Making the Sausage

If you have a committee, you can say then say applications are reviewed by committee. Then, the public can make assumptions and picture the boardroom with the dark furniture and the robust discussions. Who will be the information session attendee to press the presenter with a question like, “What percent of your applications are reviewed by the full committee?” And, for the record, I wouldn’t recommend being that person.

What you have to trust is that each institution has enacted a system that works best for itself. There are constraints the general public doesn’t recognize. Budget is, of course, one. Time another. Institutional priorities still another. Some institutions receive over 50,000 applications each cycle. Conservatively, let’s say each file takes 10 minutes to read and discuss (which is really not even realistic if it includes essays). Some quick math tells you that’s 500,000 minutes of review. Which is 8,333 hours of review… which is 1389 days of 6-hour committee meetings. There are only about 90 working days between application deadlines and April 1.

You can understand, then, why what many envision as an admissions committee is simply impossible at many institutions. Regardless of what process each institution uses, be sure you’re presenting the most robust, thoughtful, and compelling application possible. You never know who might end up making the decision!

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