Understanding How the US Admissions Process Works

If humans functioned as machines, our decisions would not be laden with emotions or subjectivity and they would be much more black and white. Thank goodness we have not been replaced by machines – life’s decisions would get really boring. But what that means is that there are a myriad of factors that come into play. Whether you’re taking the decision to buy that new mobile phone, purchase a bubble tea, hire extra help for your summer start-up endeavour or whether an Admissions officer decides to admit you to their college or not, there’s a huge element of subjectivity – and that also means luck when we talk about humans choosing humans.

So, when your application is up next on the Admissions officer’s desk, you want to make sure you’ve done your best up to that point to control what you could have controlled prior to submitting it, and adhering to an approach post-submission of not trying to control what you cannot. You’ll never win that game.

Aside from the subjectivity involved in humans making decisions regarding other human beings (from the same home country, speak the same language, love the same food, have someone they know in common, etc.), we can and should take a look at what factors Admissions may or certainly will take into considerations when evaluating your application.

Keep in mind the following that may sway an Admissions officer:

  • All components of your application (including essays, test scores, recommendations, awards, etc.)
  • What does the university need this year? In most cases you won’t know this, but in some you may. Don’t stress about trying to figure this out, but if you do get an indication – perhaps your counsellor mentions something to you, the actual Admissions officer mentions something to you in the interview, or the college actually states blatantly on their website what qualities or qualifications they are looking for in candidates – this will be important to keep in mind.
  • When did you apply (EA, ED, REA, SCEA, ED2, RD…**)? This can have an impact, but will depend on the university and whether the university clearly states this information. Many colleges accept higher and higher percentages of their class through their ED application round. This helps a college with their enrolment management at the end of the day.
  • Do you “fit”? Have you articulated and shown that? US Admissions offices will accept candidates based on fit. For instance, if one of the key values of a college is building an ethically responsible community, you won’t be a great fit if you don’t share this value and show this specifically through your application.
  • Niche applicant. A niche applicant can either be someone who has a very specific talent that draws them out of the application pool – published author, artist, athlete, actor, musician, etc. – or someone whose experience fits very neatly into what the Admissions committee would love to have on their campus. In some cases, an applicant will know if they are a niche applicant – the violinist who has been in touch with the college’s strings director over the past year and who has been given a clear indication that they are interested. In other cases, it will be something only discovered and discussed behind those Admissions office doors.
  • EGI: “Efforts of Genuine Interest”. Focus in on the word “genuine”. This is also known as “Demonstrated Interest” but I like to call it EGI, as I think there is a clear differentiation between those who just “demonstrate interest” (sending an email to the Admissions officer to ask a non-specific question) to try to tick that box and those who show a truly genuine interest by making efforts to connect with the school and let them know they are interested and, perhaps, to get themselves on the school’s radar.
  • If they accept you, what are the chances you’ll accept back? Colleges and Admissions staff most definitely will be looking at this factor as they review your application. Of course if you apply ED – a binding Early Admissions option for many schools – you have to accept back. An Admissions officer will always be trying to gauge if you will accept them back, thereby making up their yield number – the higher the better for them – and may make a decision based on this. A college may ask you where else you are applying to see where they land on the totem pole. If they feel they are “just a safety school”, they may not accept you for fear there is very little chance of you accepting them back. This is where applying “Early” comes into play as well; usually if a student is applying EA, SCEA or ED, the college knows they are at the top of this student’s list.
  • Do you have an international or unique passport? Are you a full-pay candidate? The P&L (“profit and loss”) at any university in the US – public or private – is enormous. While most institutions that you apply to will have an endowment, this does not mean they are not tuition dependent. Being full-pay is usually a very positive thing, but of course would never guarantee admission. There are many full-pay candidates applying everywhere. Being international and perhaps even carrying a “unique” passport can also be factors in an Admissions decision. International students on campus make up a very important cohort because diversity is key for many colleges.

EA: Early Action
ED: Early Decision
REA: Restrictive Early Action
SCEA: Single Choice Early
RD: Regular Decision

This is the first of a series of excerpts from my book, “The International Family Guide to US University Admissions”. You can read a review of the book here.

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