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How college admissions officers evaluate your application materials
It would be impossible to track the application evaluation strategies of every top college and university. We do hope to shed light on one of the most common methods by which admissions officers evaluate applications. This method has been described in a number of high-quality books on higher education, including Ted Fiske's annual Guide to Colleges and a now apparently out-of-print text called Getting In that explained the admissions decision-making process at Princeton University.

At a number of state schools, given the sheer volume of applications they receive, they accept or reject students largely based on their academic credentials. For students who have excelled in high school and on standardized tests, these colleges and universities will be quick to offer admission. There are very real time constraints in making admissions decisions and students who appear academically well-qualified to succeed at these state schools will be more often than not be offered admission.

Private colleges and universities, especially those anticipating fewer applications, undergo a more comprehensive decision process that takes into greater account students' extracurricular activities and personal development. In one common method, admissions officers give students a rating between one and five both for their academic achievements and for their personal achievements. In these programs, students may be called "academic ones" or "personal twos" for short. As Princeton's campus paper The Daily Princetonian noted in 2001, the university's admissions office is always hoping to place academic ones and twos in the freshman class. In fact, there are simply too many academically qualified students for spots in the freshman class. Indeed, there are great numbers as well of talented students who may or may not be classroom stars. In each class at top schools, one may find Westinghouse Scholars, concert violinists, well-traveled dancers, superb athletes, award-winning photographers, painters, and a host of high school newspaper editors. How to choose from among such an exciting pool?

In order to come upon the one-through-five ratings, one admissions officer or perhaps a team reviews a student's application materials including his personal statements. During the final-decision process, the entire admissions team may meet to discuss each applicant. Generally, the "point people" – the initial reviewers of the student's application – will speak on the student's behalf to the team at large. In this manner, everyone may be caught up to speed on the student's merits. During these discussions, the admissions team hashes out how the student would benefit the university community and his or her ability to succeed in the school's environment. After the deliberations have been completed, the team may cast votes in order to admit the students. The head admissions officer may have the final say over all decisions as well. Dean Fred Hargadon, Princeton's director of admission, famously makes the final decision on all admissions questions, and he displays a steel-trap memory for students' backgrounds.

Athletics programs may also have the opportunity to recommend certain numbers of students each year to fill their rosters. These recommendations are by no means binding, however, and we discourage any athletes from accepting blindly coaches' guarantees of admission or anything of the sort.

Colleges and universities may have goals about establishing a diverse freshman class. In order to meet these marks, they may look favorably upon students from diverse ethnic, geographic, and educational backgrounds. As much of the learning in college takes place outside of the classroom, admissions officers would love to guarantee a great variety of sources for extracurricular learning.