College Admission Committee: What Happens Behind Closed Doors?

Posted on August 20th, 2019 by Allendale Columbia School

Ten stern-looking men and women, stacks of college applications surrounding them, gather around a conference table, where they are poised and ready to dash the dreams of thousands of high school seniors. Is this what you picture when you think of college admission committee?  Having spent fifteen years in selective college admissions, I can promise you that image is not entirely accurate. Sure, there may be admission counselors sitting in a meeting room, but they’re looking bleary-eyed because they’ve spent the past 5 months reviewing seemingly endless files of transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays. They’re not excited about sending bad news to anyone, let alone you.  

More often than not, your admission counselor is your biggest cheerleader.

Most colleges read applications by territory, meaning whoever travels to your region, and perhaps visits your high school or hosts an evening information session, will be the first person to review your application and make notes for additional readers. Your regional admission counselor is also the person who will represent your application in admission committee. They’re familiar with the nuances of your application: they know you’ve put all of your energy into Robotics Club and that you’re fascinated with all things related to Engineering, Math, and Science. They secretly want to have more of their students represented in the freshman class than other admission counselors, so they are (sometimes unconsciously) rooting for you throughout the process.



My admission stats fall into the college’s mid-50% ranges. I’m safe…right?

Despite seemingly perfect grades, curriculum, recommendations, activities, essays, and scores, you still may receive a waitlist or deny decision. I remember sitting in admission committee thinking most of the students up for discussion met our published ranges of grades and test scores. However, given the huge volume of applications (NYU received nearly 85,000 applications for this fall’s incoming class!), applicants have to be standouts to make it through multiple rounds of admission committee. Further, students who earn admission to some of the most highly selective colleges are doing things the typical high school student would never think of: creating a non-profit, inventing an app, or teaming up with local college faculty on cutting-edge research. It’s hard to predict your chances of admission without having the context of the entire applicant pool.



Admission committee is a fancy term for how colleges shape a freshman class.

When all of the applications have been reviewed and are deemed ready for admission committee, the Dean of Admission or Director of Selection will run statistics on the current admits. More often than not, there are too many students admitted for the freshman class and the admission committee is tasked with trimming (aka “shaping”) the number of admits to the appropriate count. For example, let’s say the target number of admitted students is 4,000 and admission counselors, feeling generous during application review, have actually admitted 4,500.  The Admission Committee must now find 500 students to either waitlist or deny.



How does the admission committee decide who is on the chopping block?

This is where institutional priorities come into play. This is also why seemingly perfect students receive different admission decisions from different colleges: there’s no perfect formula to guarantee your spot in the freshman class. Some years, the college’s Music Department needs more students who play cello instead of piano. Or maybe the Debate Team will graduate four seniors and needs to fill that gap by admitting more freshmen this year. Better yet, perhaps there is a brand new film program with lofty enrollment goals. Deans of Admission may also have their own priorities, focusing on the geographic, cultural, socioeconomic, or other student factors. Admission counselors will cut students from the admit list during admission committee if they do not fall into desired categories. Stated more plainly, luck may not be on your side as admission counselors scour the admit roster to ensure appropriate representation where it’s most needed.



You will never be admitted if you don’t apply.

When it’s your turn for review in admission committee, your regional counselor will give a brief overview of the merits of your application. For example:

“This student is from Western New York and attends Allendale Columbia School. The school does not calculate a GPA, but the student is in the A- range and has taken the most challenging courses available. The student has leadership positions in sports and community service. Recommendations point to the student’s strength in abstract thought, highlighting several papers that were written researched and written at the college level.”

The committee will determine whether you fall into any of the aforementioned priority groups and whether the strength of your application alone is enough to admit you to the class. At the end of the discussion, counselors will vote (majority rule) on your application: admit, waitlist, or deny. The admission committee will then move on to the next application, until all applications have final decisions. Sometimes, it takes a few rounds of admission committee to reach the target number of admits. The only way for you to join this coveted admit list is let the strength of your application, or in some instances luck, carry you through admission committee.


Emily Nevinger

Emily Nevinger

Emily is Associate Director of Admissions and College Advising Consultant at Allendale Columbia School. After serving as the Interim College Advisor in Fall 2018, Emily took on a role to offer students and families outside AC with guidance in the college admissions process. Her role has since expanded to the Admissions team, where she helps prospective families learn more about AC's innovative education. Emily joined AC from Emory University where she directed the selection process for more than 20,000 freshmen candidates each year. She started working at the university level in 2003 and was a senior member of the admission committees for University of Miami, Emory University, and UNC Chapel Hill. Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from Duke University, a Master of Higher Education Administration and Enrollment Management from the University of Miami, and a Certificate in College Access Counseling from Rice University.

Learn more at Emily’s (FREE!) upcoming mini-workshop 

Wednesday, August 28th, 7:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Pittsford Library

During this mock committee, we will read and discuss three college applicants, highlighting which qualifications admission counselors are likely to find most significant (or not!). Attendees will leave the workshop with a greater understanding of how admission counselors review applications, providing students and families with valuable insight on what matters most to colleges. This mini-workshop is free, open to the public, and provides a preview of AC College Consulting’s regular workshop offerings.



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