How Selective Colleges Read Your Application

Bonus Material: Behind-the-Scenes Look at College Admissions

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Do you know what happens after you submit your application?

In our post What College Admissions Officers Look For, we took a high-level look at what colleges look for in students.

In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into how they actually read and process your application.

We’ll focus mostly on the mechanics and structure of the admissions reading process at selective schools like Princeton, NYU, Stanford, and Vanderbilt.  

Plus, we give our readers free access to our Behind-the-Scenes Look at College Admissions, which examines two actual applications to Columbia College and their admission decisions. Grab this below.

Here’s what we cover:

What Data Did We Use?

Many parents are surprised when we explain that a lot of information about the admissions process is publicly available. Like burger chain In & Out’s “secret” menu, much of the process is not so secretive anymore!

For example:

  • Many former Ivy League admissions officers have written books and articles revealing the “secrets” of the college admissions process
  • NYU admissions officers share their experiences on an official school blog
  • New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg was given behind-the-scenes access of the admissions process at Wesleyan University and wrote a book about it
  • Lawsuits against schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University claiming discrimination in the admissions process have produced detailed, publicly available information about the admissions process at those schools

For this article, we reviewed the above sources (and many more) to dig into the admissions process at several schools, including:

  • Dartmouth College
  • Duke University
  • Hamilton College
  • Harvard University
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Wesleyan University

Note: These sources were published between 2002 to 2017. While certain details might now be different, the overall process should not have changed much.

The College Admissions Reading Process

The Admissions Reading Process

Each college has its own specific way of judging applicants. The general admissions process of the schools we researched, however, is remarkably similar!

Selective admissions processes typically follow these four steps:

  1.  Screen & Sort – organizing the apps and sending them to the appropriate admissions officer
  2.  Individual Reads – one, two, three, or more individual reads to form initial impressions
  3.  Committee – deliberation of applications among a group
  4.  Final Decision – the lucky few are selected, financial aid packages are created, and acceptance letters are mailed out

We’ll take a deep dive into each of these steps next.

Step #1: Screen and Sort

Screen & Sort

Selective schools can receive upwards of tens of thousands of applications! Take a look at this table to see the stats for 2020.

2020 Applications and Admittances

Princeton LogoPrinceton University32,8351,8485.6%
Harvard ShieldHarvard University40,2482,0155%
UChicago ShieldUniversity of Chicago34,3722,5117.3%
Yale ShieldYale University35,2202,3046.5%
Columbia ShieldColumbia University40,0842,5446.3%
Stanford LogoStanford University45,2272,3495.1%
MIT LogoMassachusetts Institute of Technology20,0751,4577.2%
Duke LogoDuke University36,2522,1706.0%
UPenn LogoUniversity of Pennsylvania44,2053,7899.0%
Johns Hopkins ShieldJohns Hopkins University27,2561,9227.0%

The first part of the admissions process is getting organized! This usually means sorting and sending applications to the appropriate regional team.

Admissions officers are often assigned to a geographic region. In addition to reading applications from their region, they are also responsible for recruiting students and getting to know the local high schools and guidance counselors.

Numerical Scoring

Numerical scores are sometimes calculated for each applicant. This is simply an attempt to incorporate some sort of organization and scientific rigor into a very qualitative process.

  • Numerical RatingsHamilton, for example, uses one overall score on a 9 point scale for their “Applicant Rating”
  • Princeton assigns Academic and Non-Academic ratings on a 5 point scale (1 is the highest rating, 5 is the lowest). They also have a rating for “Institutional Priority.”
  • Stanford gives scores in multiple categories: Tests, High School Records, Letters of Recommendation, Non-Academic, Support (Letters of Recommendation), Non-Academic, Self-Presentation and Intellectual Vitality

How are these scores generated?

Depending on the school, a staff member or regional coordinator may scan the application and apply the initial scores before the first read, initial readers may be responsible for generating this score, or the scores may be computed automatically by a computer system.

The Academic Index for Recruited Athletes

If you are a recruited athlete in the Ivy League (and increasingly in other schools as well), you are also assigned an Academic Index. This is calculated based on standardized test scores and high school GPA. Academic Indexes range from around 170 to 240.

The purpose of the Academic Index, or AI, is to ensure that:

  1. Every recruited athlete meets a minimum AI of at least 176
  2. The academic credentials of recruited athletes is no more than 1 standard deviation below that of the rest of the student body

Ivy League institutions have agreed to uphold these standards to keep the athletic playing field competitive while maintaining high academic standards. Just like the other ratings used in college admissions, a high AI is great, but it won’t guarantee admission.

Step #2: Individual Reads

Individual Reads

First Read

1st Read

The main job of the first reader is to pass an initial, fair judgment on a new application.

First readers have varying levels of experience. Some are hired part-time to supplement the admissions team. Some are fresh out of college.

Immediately after graduation, my college roommate served as an admissions officer for Princeton University, responsible for first reads in his region. This was his first job, and he was 22 years old when he started.

After the first read, which often takes less than 10 minutes, an initial idea of how competitive the candidate is forms. In some cases, the first reader assigns a written recommendation of Accept, Deny, Likely, or Unlikely (or some other variation).

The first reader is sometimes responsible for creating an application summary card and creating detailed notes for each application.

Application Summary & Notes

Reader Card

The application summary card lists key details about the applicant. Admissions officers are responsible for reading thousands of applications over the course of several months and will often review an application file at various times, so summary cards are essential for allowing a quick scan of an application and refreshing their memories.

Note-taking is also essential. Admissions officers often take important notes on a card that follows the application from officer to officer and ultimately to committee. Nowadays, physical reader cards might be replaced with digitized versions, but the idea is the same.

If the application goes to committee, the first reader may be responsible for presenting/summarizing the application to the committee group and advocating for the applicant.

Second and Third Reads

2nd and 3rd Reads

Some schools (e.g. NYU) will go to committee after the first read. Many other selective schools have two or more reads before the next stage of the process.

Admissions readers and officers go through intensive training to provide standardized and objective judgements. However, they have varying levels of admissions experience and their assessments and opinions might be shaped by their individual backgrounds and preferences.

Or, perhaps the first reader was having a bad day and missed something. Maybe he has more knowledge about science achievements and extracurriculars, while a colleague has broader knowledge about music and athletic achievements.

The second and third read can be thought of as a validation or second opinion for the first read.

This additional perspective is especially helpful for more subjective and difficult to judge scenarios, like these:

  • How do you rate an underrepresented minority at an under-resourced school with a great essay, okay grades, and few extracurriculars because he was working after school?
  • How much do you value the impact of certain “hooks,” like alumni legacies, 1st generation students, exceptional talent, or departmental needs?
  • How do you make subjective judgments about character and personal qualities to determine “fit” for the class?

According to a Dartmouth admissions officer who kept her identity a secret,


“You expect it to be more numbers driven than it is, but the message we always got was to make sure we consider everything else in the application…There’s a high degree of subjectivity, at least in the first read, but that’s what the second and third read are for. The probability that you get two people in a bad mood is … lower than the probability that you get one person in a bad mood.”

Many schools make sure most applications receive at least two full reads before going to committee.

The second reader will add additional input and notes to the applicant’s file. The second reader often agrees with the comments and recommendations of the first reader but sometimes they will disagree.

Team Reads

The first and second reads (and third reads, etc.) are usually done individually and at home on the admissions officer’s own time.

Faced with an increasing number of applications, admissions teams from schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore are implementing a team-based method of reading applications to further streamline the process.

According to the Daily Pennsylvanian:

UPenn Logo

“Under Penn’s new regimen, admissions officers split into teams of two and read one application at the same time in the office. Then they discuss the application together and come to a consensus before passing it along.

After the team of two screens the application, it is given to admission officers responsible for the geographic region where the applicant lives. An exceptional applicant may skip this step and be handed immediately to a selection committee that includes school-based representatives. This committee will make the final decision on a potential acceptance.”

Not Everybody Goes to Committee After Individual (or Team) Reads

Some schools can make a decision after the initial reading process without sending the application to committee.

For example:

  • Fast TrackExceptionally strong or exceptionally weak applicants often get ‘fast-tracked’ to the top for a chance at a quick decision
  • Schools with very quantitative admissions processes (e.g. large state schools) can make decisions without significant group deliberation
  • A senior admissions officer may have ultimate discretion to make the final decision after reading the notes and scores from the initial reading process

In The Gatekeepers, which takes an in-depth, behind the scenes view of Wesleyan’s admissions process, New York Times journalist Jacques Steinberg shares his observations and research about the reading process at different schools.

He talks about Stanford’s committee process, or lack of it:

“At Stanford, for example, the officers rarely met as a committee, which meant that the odds of someone sympathetic being able to advocate to the group…are low.”

At Wesleyan, when readers arrived at a consensus on an application, the director of admissions would often endorse the choice, forgoing the need for committee deliberation.

“In the main round, in which there would be nearly six thousand applicants, each application would be read by two officers and then sent on to Greg Pyke, the interim director of admissions. If the two readers were in consensus on a decision, Greg would likely endorse the choice. But if there was a split recommendation, he would probably send that application to the committee for consideration during a series of meetings in early March.”

For many schools, however, final decisions are made in Committee, where a group of individuals discuss student applications and pass final judgment.

3. Committee


Every school has a slightly different committee process, but the overall idea behind committee judgement is similar.

A group of individuals gets together to discuss and decide the fate of your application. The group considers the notes, scores, and recommendations of the initial readers. A discussion ensues and each officer can share their opinion on the fit of the candidate for the school.

Hamilton’s Committee Process: Senior Officer Has Final Say

In Creating A Class, Mitchell L. Stevens describes the Committee process at Hamilton, a selective liberal arts school:

Hamilton College

“The primary form for evaluative storytelling in the office was committee, the weeks-long series of meetings during which officers consider and collectively determine the fate of applications. In contrast to the quiet solitude of reading and rating, storytelling was collaborative and often highly theatrical.”

Admissions officers from the initial reading process use their “pink sheet” (application summary form) and read off key details from the application (grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, essay comments, recommendation letter summaries, family information, initial recommendations for Admit/Defer/Wait List/Deny) to a committee of at least three officers. The Dean or Assistant Dean is present.

After the presentation and a discussion (sometimes debate) between committee members, the most senior officer has final authority over each decision.

At Hamilton, committee evaluations for easier decisions can take 5 minutes, but some cases can take 30 minutes or more.

Wesleyan’s Committee Process: Quick Discussion & Majority Vote

Wesleyan University

In The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg describes the very fast committee process at Wesleyan:

“It was those committee hearings, coming just days before final decisions were due, that provided the most visible drama of the admissions process. In a form of sudden death, each applicant would be discussed by the committee for no more than five minutes, after which a vote would be called…the majority, again, would carry the day.”

NYU’s Committee Process: All Applications Debated in Committee


NYU admissions officer Rebecca Larson describes the committee and final judgment process in the official school admissions blog:

“Our team re-reviews the notes the first reader took on your application. The first reader will discuss your grades, the rigor of your curriculum, extra-curricular involvement, fit for NYU, quality of your essays, and what your teachers/counselor had to say about you. Once we read those notes, the committee discusses what to do with your application. We may vote to admit, deny, wait list, or refer a student to a different program at NYU–there are lots of different outcomes for each application.”

Sometimes committee goes smoothly and other times the group is split between a particular decision. While we all get along well, we will get into arguments over some students. The benefit of committee comes from the diverse perspective each admissions counselor brings to the group–one counselor may see something in an application that another counselor doesn’t, and that dialogue is really important as we build the class.

We do this 63,000 times! Then we go back and look at our admissions decisions one last time to make sure all students received an individualized and holistic review. Once our decisions are finalized, applications are sent over to the Office of Financial Aid where students are packaged with scholarships, loans, grants and work study opportunities.”

Harvard’s Committee Process: 2 Step-Process Involving Faculty

Harvard uses a two-step committee process that involves the faculty. A subcommittee discusses and votes on an applicant, and then they present their recommendations to the larger full committee. Harvard’s Dean Fitzsimmons describes the process in an interview with the New York Times:

Harvard Shield

“Each subcommittee normally includes four to five members, a senior admissions officer, and faculty readers.

Once all applications have been read and the subcommittee process begins, the area representative acts as an advocate, and summarizes to the subcommittee the strengths of each candidate. Subcommittee members discuss the application, and then vote to recommend an action to the full Committee. Majorities rule, but the degree of support expressed for applicants is always noted to allow for comparisons with other subcommittees.

Subcommittees then present and defend their recommendations to the full committee. While reading or hearing the summary of any case, any committee member may raise questions about the proposed decision and request a full review of the case.

Many candidates are re-presented in full committee. Discussions in subcommittee or in full committee on a single applicant can last up to an hour. The full Committee compares all candidates across all subcommittees, and therefore across geographic lines.”

4. Final Decision

Final Decision

By the end of committee, colleges will be close to the finish line.

Colleges must consider the size and selectivity of the various schools within their College (e.g. Engineering vs. Arts and Sciences). They also must consider their institutional priorities, like strong athletics and diversity, as they make their final decisions.

Typically, after the final decision, admitted applications get sent for consideration of scholarships, loans, grants, and work study opportunities before final decisions letters are mailed out.

Major Takeaways

To recap, in this post, we took a comprehensive look at the mechanics of the application reading process.

Here are some big takeaways:

1. The admissions reading process of selective schools is remarkably similar

The process will most likely resemble some version of these four steps:

  1. Sort
  2. Individual reads
  3. Committee
  4. Final decision

Larger, less selective schools will have a less “holistic” approach that make quicker decisions based mostly on academics.

There’s no need for you to spend an inordinate amount of time researching the reading process of all the schools on your list. Understand the general reading process (which you’ve already done if you’ve made it this far) and you’ll be set!

2. Your application is read quickly

Admissions officers will often average less than 15 minutes to assess your entire application. How long exactly? It varies by school. Check out former UVA Associate Dean of Admission Parke Muth’s interesting post about “fast and slow reads.”

What should you do with this information? Make a strong first impression! Quickly and effectively communicate your strengths in your application.

3. Admissions officers are real people!

For example, NYU admissions officers look like this:

NYU Admissions Officers

Rebecca Larson (the admissions officer in the middle) really likes One Direction, looks forward to the the snacks her colleagues bring in for their committee meetings, and genuinely seems like she’s having fun at work.

What should you do with this information? Put a face on the process to make things less intimidating and help you create a more personal application.

4. Quantitative scoring is often used, but the process is very qualitative and subjective

Numbers and guidelines are used to create a standardized, efficient sorting process. However, at the end of the day, your application is being judged by real people with emotions and feelings. What’s more, colleges have something very specific they’re looking for.

What does this mean you should do? Tell a story through your application that is personal and emotionally engaging and you might be able to convince an admissions officer to go to bat for you during committee!

It can be discouraging to hear that your application is read fairly quickly.

However, please do not confuse “quickly” with “not carefully.” Admissions officers are experts in digesting a lot of information in a short amount of time. They understand the impact their decisions have and are extremely deliberate in their decisions. Most admissions officers genuinely care about your prospects and are looking for ways to accept, not reject you.

COVID-19 and College Admissions

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly influenced the way that colleges look at applications.

It’s revealed a lot about equity and access, for one thing. It’s also made it difficult for students to zero in on certain aspects of applications, like extracurricular activities and standardized test scores.

COVID has definitely impacted what colleges look for in applications, especially from a judgment perspective. You can learn more about this in our post COVID and College Admissions.

Has it changed the structure of admissions? Likely not. Officers might be changing how they look at aspects of applications, but the process probably remains the same.

How I Got Into Princeton Series

Interested in how other successful applicants have navigated the college admissions process?

We’ve created an entire series that takes a deep dive into the journeys of current and past Princeton students.

Check out Erica’s story, the first in this series.

“People telling me that I was worthless only drove me to study more, to work harder, to prove them wrong.”

You can find a summary of all of these stories here: How I Got Into Princeton Series.

Next Steps

So, now what? If you’re in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, you’ll want to focus on the Golden Rule of Admissions and developing your Three Pillars.

As you put pen to paper and start working on your application and college essays (ideally in the summer before senior year), keep in mind how your application will be read to keep things in perspective.

We’d also like to give you access to our Behind-the-Scenes Look at College Admissions, which debriefs two real applications to Columbia College and their admission decisions.

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.