How College Admission Works

Students admitted to Duke University beat the odds in the school's rigorous and highly competitive admission process. See more investing pictures.
Photo courtesy Duke Photography

Planning for college can be one of the most exciting times in a young person's life. But it can also be stressful, because there's a lot that has to happen before you're actually moving into your new dorm room. The process of selecting a college or university and applying for admission probably starts around the time you take your PSATs and concludes (happily, we hope) by April of your senior year in high school when you're notified of your status (acceptance or rejection) at the college of your choice.

Whether you are a student or a parent, the entire college admission process can seem mysterious. In this article, we'll make the admissions process much more understandable. With the help of Duke University director of undergraduate admissions Christoph Guttentag, we will use Duke University in Durham, N.C., as a real-world example of how college admission works in America.


Remember that every college and university -- and there are many, many schools in the United States, not to mention abroad -- has its own admissions standards and processes. So, depending upon where you apply, your experience may be different from the rather rigorous one employed by nationally ranked Duke. However, you'll definitely learn something about what can be a somewhat mysterious process -- something that can help you gain admission to the college of your choice!

Let's start at the beginning: When should you begin to think about college applications?

Thinking About the Future

The subject of college comes up with most students when they take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, better known as the PSAT -- usually in fall of the 10th grade and no later than fall of the 11th grade. Even if you aren't thinking much about college yet, after the PSATs (which give you a good idea of how you'll do on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT), you might start to get information in the mail from colleges and universities.

How do they find you if you haven't contacted them? Colleges and universities can actually purchase mailing lists from the College Board (the organization that sponsors PSAT and SAT tests), the company that gives ACT Assessment Tests (another college admissions test) and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA). Guttentag describes the lists that Duke purchases as defined mailing lists -- lists of students who did well on their PSATs and who had good high school grades. Duke uses these mailing lists as a recruitment tool, according to Guttentag. It definitely has an effect -- about 25 percent of the undergraduates accepted at Duke each year come from these defined lists.

In case you or your parents are wondering, you actually gave permission for colleges to purchase a list with your name on it if you checked a box on your PSAT agreeing to participate in a "student search" program. There are several other ways you can get on a school's mailing list -- writing to them yourself, calling them, visiting the college and meeting admissions staff or attending college fairs. It's a pretty good idea to get on mailing lists for the schools in which you're interested. You can get a feeling through regular reading of their materials for the kind of place that school might be and what it might offer to someone with your background and interests.

So how do you know if a particular school is right for you? Read on to find out.



Selecting a College

Guttentag believes that a very important criterion for choosing a college should be the question: Will I be both "comfortable and challenged" there? He believes that these criteria should be applied to every college or university that you consider. He also advises thinking about these three kinds of college environments:

  • Physical environment - Is the college big or small, old or new? Which would you prefer? It's important -- after all, you'll be there for four years!
  • Academic environment - Does the college have the programs and/or major you want? Is it academically rigorous? What are the faculty's expectations of students? What's the overall academic atmosphere -- is it a grind or a party school?
  • Social/cultural environment - Is this university a rural school or a city school? Is it conservative or liberal? Is it religious? Again, we're back to the question: Will you be comfortable there? Guttentag encourages students to view diversity on college campuses as a good thing -- something between the homogeneity of high school and the wide diversity of the "real world."

Other considerations should include a frank look at the question: What are my chances of being admitted to this school? It takes some homework to get the answer, Guttentag says. Start with a school's Web site, checking to see if it includes a profile of the entering class or discusses the kind of students it is looking for. Another revealing way to learn about a school is to visit it! You'll get a pretty good idea rather quickly about what the school is like. In fact, a campus visit is very often the decision-maker in cases where students are accepted at more than one desired college. (Check out Collegiate Choice's Walking Tour Videos for a look at 330 universities and colleges in the United States and abroad.)


Of course, you and/or your parents will want to know how much the college costs per year. And that's certainly important. However, Guttentag urges high school students not to let cost stop them from applying to a school they'd really like to attend. "Don't let the 'sticker price' of a school keep you from applying. As a rule, the less you can afford a school, the more financial aid you can get there," he says. "You might be pleasantly surprised -- even without scholarships -- at what need-based financial aid can offer."

Once you have an idea about which schools you want to apply to, you have to begin the actual application process. Let's see how that works.


College Applications

Again, application forms vary from one institution to another (and some let you apply online). Some colleges have very brief forms for students to fill out, while others, like Duke, have comprehensive forms with several requirements:

  • Three letters of recommendation - Duke requires letters from two teachers and one counselor. These are extremely important, according to Guttentag, even though students seek letters from teachers they know will say positive things. There are real differences -- differences that matter -- in what letters reveal about students. When faced with several qualified applicants, admissions staffers will look to these letters for information that sets students apart.
  • One or two essays - Students are asked to write on a variety of topics, such as describing a significant experience or writing about someone they admire even though they disagree with that person. "We want to learn more about what students are interested in as well as the quality of thought and writing in the pieces," Guttentag says. (Check out these tips on application essay writing.)
  • Extracurricular activities - Students are asked about non-academic activities, including clubs, sports, community service and jobs. Guttentag likes to use a baseball analogy to describe how factors contribute to a student's advancement in the admission process. "Think of it as a baseball game. Everybody gets their time at bat. The quality of their academic work that we can measure (through test scores and analysis of high school courses) gets about 10 percent of the applicants to third base, 50 percent to second base and about 30 percent to first base. And 10 percent strike out," he says. Most students can be nudged toward "home base" by what they do outside of class -- especially if a student is a published writer, a national leader making an impact in some area or a championship athlete. In an overwhelming number of applicants, academic and extracurricular activities are pretty balanced, Guttentag says. So grades and outside activities definitely make a difference in whether you get accepted to a particular school. But what about those pesky SAT scores we hear so much about?

Many students (and parents) wonder just how much extracurricular activities really count. Let's find out.


SAT Scores and Minority Students

It may come as a surprise, but most schools consider how you did academically in school to be more important than SAT scores. And most colleges don't have a cutoff SAT score. The way SAT scores are perceived has changed somewhat since, several years ago, colleges began to report scores differently. (To read more about the SAT and related issues, take a look at Secrets of the SAT from PBS.)

For example, many colleges now report the middle 50 percent of admits. An easy way to think of it is like this: If your SAT scores are in the bottom 25 percent of what the school reports, you have to be better than most other students the school admits in other areas to make up for that. If you're in the middle of the 50 percent, it doesn't matter much where your scores fall. "There's a very fine distinction between a score of 1460 and a score of 1410," Guttentag says. "Going back to our baseball analogy, it doesn't matter if you got your double by hitting a 300-foot shot to the back wall or whether you took what should have been a single and hustled extra hard and made it to second base. A double is a double, no matter how you get there."


Bear in mind, however, that it's all relative. If your SAT score is under 1000 and you're trying to get into a highly selective school that admits less than one-third of its applicants, you'll have to do some pretty fast talking to qualify!

There are other factors that can affect admission besides grades, scores and activities. A big question is whether the color of your skin or your heritage can actually make a difference when you're applying to schools.

While the debate about the role of affirmative action in college admissions continues around the country, Guttentag says he doesn't believe most selective schools (those that admit a third or fewer of their applicants) will admit students simply to make the school's minority numbers look better. "Most schools want students who are going to succeed there. To admit someone who isn't likely to be successful is not good for anybody -- not for the university and not for the student," he says.

So does race matter when it comes to college admissions? "Diversity matters," Guttentag says. "The working world in the 21st century is going to be increasingly diverse, particularly racially diverse. I tell students that the diversity of college is a transitional place between the homogeneity of high school and the diversity of the 'real world.'"

Again, he advises all students who are looking at various colleges to ask themselves the "comfortable and challenging" question and to think about something else, too: "A big part of college is having your assumptions challenged. The way this happens is through interacting with people whose values and backgrounds and experience are different from yours," he says. (If you have questions, check out the College Board's document responding to the Office of Civil Rights Resource Guide.)

Back to basics -- when do you actually start applying to these schools you've chosen?


College Admissions

Most colleges accept applications up until sometime between December 15 and February 1 for the next fall semester. (Some schools accept applications as early as the summer before a student's senior year.)

Some schools have what is known as rolling admissions, which means that they will notify you of your status (acceptance or rejection) in about two to three weeks from when your application is received. Hard-to-get-into schools, such as Duke, usually have two deadlines -- early decision (for those students who have made the school their very top choice) with a deadline somewhere between November 15 and December 15, and regular decision, with a deadline somewhere between December 15 and February 1. Early acceptances reach students by mid-December, and a binding agreement between students and Duke is reached -- basically, if you get in "early decision," you're supposed to go there. (Early admission allows colleges and universities to go ahead and enroll 25 percent to 45 percent of the incoming class.) The remaining admissions notices are sent out by early April.


Now, let's take a look at the admissions process employed by Duke to get a better feel for the way it works.

Applying to Duke University

It all starts with 14,000 applications in the mailroom. (Considering all the different parts of an application, this means well over 100,000 separate pieces of paper.) All of the pieces must be sorted and ordered and put into file folders, so that everything is in the right place in the right order. Each complete application is then evaluated by one of 15 to 20 "first readers" -- temporary professional staff (former admissions officers, faculty spouses, alumni, graduate students). These applications are randomly distributed.

Applications then receive a second full evaluation by the staff member responsible for the region of the country in which the applicant lives. So each application is evaluated at least twice. The strongest 5 percent to 7 percent of the pool (as defined by all parts of the application, not just the academic and quantifiable parts) then comes directly to the director of undergraduate admissions -- Guttentag -- for review. Most of the time, if both the first and second readers recommend an admit, the student will be admitted. But not always. Guttentag reserves the right to have a student discussed by a selection committee.

The weakest quarter to third of the applicant pool (again, as defined by all parts of the application) then go to an associate director for review -- but only if both readers recommend a "deny." The associate director can then "sign off" on a deny. All other applicants are reviewed by a selection committee where at least three staff members and the chairperson -- either the director of admissions or the senior associate director -- discuss the case.

"So we literally sit around a table and talk about -- often in great detail -- all students in the large middle of the pool, and anyone, regardless of qualifications, who an admissions officer thinks ought to be discussed," Guttentag says. "We ask ourselves, 'How much impact has a student had in his or her school or community? What sort of impact do we think they'll have at Duke?' That impact can take place in the classroom, in a religious context, in the community, on a playing field or on the tenor of the university as a whole. We look to create a class that is talented and interesting, where the students are inclined to take advantage of what Duke has to offer, and where they will learn from each other. And we learn that from sitting down and really digging into an application. That is so much more than just grades and test scores and activities. It's heart and passion and commitment and ability."

Finally, once decisions are made on all applicants, Guttentag reviews the group as a whole and sees if any decisions should be changed. After that, decision letters are printed, reviewed for accuracy, stuffed and sent. It's a very detail-oriented, high volume, labor-intensive process, which is why Duke admissions takes three months to do it! The whole process is designed to be personal and to consider each applicant both as an individual and as part of the whole applicant pool. "We never limit ourselves to a specific number of students from a state or high school. We never admit anyone we don't think can succeed and thrive at Duke," Guttentag says.

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