Who is reviewing your application?

You spend a long time crafting your applications. You may come across admissions counselors who visit your school, college fairs, or give presentations on campus visits. Though admissions appears as a faceless and bureaucratic monolith, there is a human side to this process. The psychological aspect of admissions application review receives little discussion. Let’s start by asking a simple question.

Who reviews?

Unlike many industries, higher education and college admissions are well-represented by females, minorities, and people who identify as LGBT. Admissions professionals are often young recent graduates. Some come from low-income communities and may have been the first in their families to attend college.

Turnover in our profession is very high and, after my second full-year, I was considered a “veteran” in the eyes of my peers. Young service-minded admissions professionals reviewing your application are often idealistic and looking to recruit promising students to their institutions – where they are typically alumni. The young professionals visiting your schools are often the first line of review in a complicated process.

Next time you go to a college fair, look around. College admissions professionals are a pretty diverse crowd. Though I came from a working/middle-class background where neither parent went to college, I had few straight white male colleagues. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

In our office of six when I worked in Dallas, we were a black gay male, a gay Korean-American male, a Hispanic female hired following the departure of a black female, a black female, a straight white male administrative assistant, and myself. Most of our parents didn’t go to college. When we went out to happy hour, it was at a gay bar. This is typical.

An interesting recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education makes two observations: one about whether most universities use a true holistic admissions process (no), and the other about internal biases of admissions reviewers. I will focus on the second point.

The Chronicle conducted a survey that confirmed something I had witnessed anecdotally – admissions reviewers are more likely to view favorably applicants who come from similar backgrounds. The article is worth a detailed read, but this stuck out to me.

“Women gave applicants better admissions recommendations overall than men did. They showed a preference for the low-income applicant, who was described in the simulation as having lower standardized-test scores and having taken less-advanced courses than one other applicant. They showed no preference for the simulation’s high-achieving applicant from an upper-middle-class high school. Admissions officers of color were much less likely than were white admissions officers to admit the simulation’s high-achieving, upper-middle-class applicant.”

Their findings don’t imply that reviewers are prejudice towards high-income white students, only that admissions committees are more likely to give applicants from underresourced and historically marginalized communities the benefit of the doubt. It may not seem this way, but admissions is in the business of rewarding and not punishing students. During training, our leaders stressed to find the best in each applicant.

What does this mean for the applicant?

Know your audience!

It is, generally speaking, a recent graduate who probably didn’t intend to work in college admissions and fell into the job (yet ironically requiring you to lay out your lifetime plans). There’s a good chance they are female and from a minority background. They are likely sympathetic to whatever you’re writing about and are looking for ways to reward you. Your reader may also come from a divorced family, suffered a loss in the family, recovered from a serious injury, have been intimidated about enrolling in college, or whatever else you’re deciding to write about in your essays.

I found that I sympathized and perhaps subconsciously rewarded those students who did speech and debate, grew up in a mixed race or working class community, or who have had interesting travel experiences. Find ways to stand out in the crowd by appealing to the emotions and things you may have in common with your reviewer. You want them to advocate for you. Obviously, you can’t please everyone, but have your audience in mind when you craft your application.

One of my first clients was a Division I college football athlete seeking transfer to UT. During high school, he volunteered to work with incarcerated LGBT prisoners in his state’s prison system. He applied for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European studies with an interest in languages. His family came from central Russia. He wanted to transition from athletics and focus on his studies full-time.

Initially, he didn’t mention these essential qualities in his essays. There was a good chance his file reviewer is a gay man fan of UT football (my boss, for instance) or someone who also came from an immigrant family (one of my coworkers.) Maybe your reviewer has an incarcerated family member or grew up with their father behind bars or was a stand-out athlete who decided to walk away.

I encouraged him to appeal to his potential audience by hitting on these subtle cues to play into potential biases of admissions reviewers. He turned in some of the strongest essays I have had the pleasure of working with, and he received admission to his dream school.