ADMIT, DENY, or WAITLIST- Inside a College Admissions Committee War Room

Suzie’s C in sophomore English and so-so essay led to each admissions officer’s right hand going up after hearing the proposed “Deny?”

But Alfonzo’s compelling first-generation essay and transcript full of As and Bs in honors classes resulted in a unanimous “Admit” vote.

Meanwhile, Devan’s failure to open emails or attend campus events offset his strong academic rating of 6 at a local high school and, after some discussion, meant a “Waitlist” verdict, the purgatory of college admissions decisions. (To respect confidentiality, profiles here are representative composites, and student names have been changed.)

‘Tis the season for regular decision admissions to pour into inboxes and portals, eliciting calls and texts to us of either euphoria or heartbreak. Our understanding of the complex admissions decision process helps us guide our students, and recently McMillan Education college counselors became the first independent consultants to earn an invitation inside the “war room” of The College of the Holy Cross to observe the admissions committee making final decisions. We sat hushed in the back row, a bit like medical students observing open heart surgery.

Snacks and drinks lightened the mood. In fact, our invitation pointed out: “You will find all of us decked out in our finest leisure wear — jeans and sweatshirts — and we hope you do the same.” And Holy Cross being, well, Holy, a Jesuit was part of the committee but, we were informed in advance, “he even leaves his collar at home.”

While some larger universities outsource folders to outside “readers” – UCLA received over 113,000 applications last year so focuses on test scores and grades– Holy Cross deliberates the old-fashioned way, with a roomful of up to 13 admissions officers individually poring over not just grades and curricular rigor but also extracurriculars, essays, and teacher recommendations for 7,100 applications, of which only approximately 2,700 will be offered admission. (Standardized test scores are optional at Holy Cross.) The selective liberal arts college, considered the crown jewel of the 13 colleges in Worcester, New England’s second largest city, is renowned for its Classics, Humanities, and community service in the Jesuit tradition, but it’s also a hidden gem in the competitive pre-med scene: graduates have a 90% medical school acceptance rate, often interning at one of the city’s many hospitals.

“Assigning each application to be read by two readers and then presenting each application for a vote by the entire admissions staff requires an enormous time commitment during our busiest time of year,” explains Andrew Carter, Senior Associate Director of Admissions. “But by doing so, we ensure a sense of thoroughness and fairness in the decision making process and that makes all the long hours, days and weeks well worth it.”

No longer does the committee sit around an oval table and debate over manila folders. They now sit in rows and stare at two enormous screens, one with the student’s school and class rank highlighted, the second showing each major piece of the student’s Common Application, including the transcript, test scores (if submitted), extracurricular descriptions, essay, and recommendations. A one-page synopsis crystallizes the teacher rec (such as “engaged and curious”), the essay (“grandma story – some grammatical errors”), as well as a personal score ranging from 2 (low) to 5 (high) based largely on interview and recs, and finally an almighty academic rating ranging from 1 (low) to 9 (so high they might lose the candidate to an Ivy, or even worse – Georgetown!). Also noted are key indicators such as “Legacy” or “First Generation.” (All the athletes had already been accepted Early Decision; Holy Cross fields a full slate of Division I teams despite an enrollment of only 3,000, closer to Division III NESCAC size.) Each folder we see judged has already been thoroughly read by two admissions officers in the weeks leading up to this all-committee meeting, so final decisions come fast and furious, and are typed for eternity in the spreadsheet on the right – ADMIT, DENY, WAITLIST. March 16 they will be released en masse to applicants’ private portals.

Occasionally a student “on the bubble” receives a personal email to gauge interest, as in “Dear Robert: We noticed a C+ in sophomore Chemistry and were hoping you could explain why.” Robert wasn’t categorially denied because he had attended Classics Day on campus and written back to his admission rep when he was asked why he was applying. Nowadays colleges are more and more interested in their “yield” – or percentage of accepted students who decide to attend.

As we were ushered out of the committee room, and walked past a current exhibit of Rodin sculptures on display at the Cantor Gallery in the giant O’Kane Hall towards the bottom of the campus on a hill, I considered how our students seeking admissions at competitive colleges could benefit from certain takeaways from our behind the scenes session:

  1. Your academic performance in rigorous courses matters most. Admissions officers will stare at your transcript – then literally zoom in tight at specific courses. Anything below a B- for an end-of-year grade can be toxic. And they expect a few honors or AP courses. Senior year courses are especially critical.
  2. Show you are interested in the college – More small and medium-sized colleges are keeping track not only if a student visits, but how often they open and respond to emails from the admissions office. Some colleges are beginning to look unfavorably on a student who doesn’t even bother to open up the portal the college has asked them to use to receive info – including the potential acceptance notice. The most influential way to show interest? Apply Early Decision!
  3. Proofread your essay and activity list descriptions – Admissions officers notice the misspellings and botched punctuation. One student was accused of “comma-it is” by a Holy Cross admissions officer.
  4. Explain Oddities in Additional Information – There’s an oft-ignored section at the very end of the Common Application that is nebulously titled “Additional Information.” Fill it in if you have unusual circumstances! When I was a college counselor at a school, one boy had straight As – outside a pair of Cs sophomore year. I asked him to write what happened. “My Dad was deployed to Iraq…” it began. A concussion or mono or, even learning difference or mental health issue should be explained, but remember to describe how you have overcome these setbacks. Ideally your college counselor backs you up in his or her letter.

Whether or not you apply to Holy Cross, these war room lessons can help guide your process. Ultimately if you focus on your academics, demonstrate leadership and depth in a few activities, and show you are authentically interested in a college, you boost your chances to earn a coveted ADMIT entry next to your name on the giant spreadsheet projected on the screen at the front of the room.

About The Author

Don McMillan, M.A., M.F.A.