How College Admission Works

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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