Five Things I Didn’t Know Before Working in Undergraduate Admissions

For as many years as universities have been around, it’s amazing that the admission process still feels very much shrouded in mystery for most people. What really happens “in committee”? Who are the people making the decisions? Are there different piles for different students? What do I need to do to be admitted??

While it’s difficult to condense all that I learned as a Stanford admission officer in just five points, I hope to offer important contextual information and a peek inside the many factors considered behind the doors of the admission committee room(s).


1. “Angular” versus “Well-Rounded” students. We want them all.

I used to think that universities were only looking to admit renaissance students -- the ones that excel as academically genius, musically-talented, artistically-gifted, athletically standout, community-focused and selflessly-motivated wunderkinds in every way. While it’s true that top universities are looking for outstanding applicants, they’re not necessarily looking (solely) for students who can walk on water (though it helps if you can). Just kidding. What they are looking for is your “point of excellence” -- this can be your unparalleled strength in a particular subject area (perhaps you’ve exceeded the curriculum offered at your school), notable impact through extracurricular activities (perhaps at a national or international level), or even just your stellar personality (as evidenced by teacher recommendation letter support). Don’t be so concerned if your application makes it abundantly clear that STEM is your strong suit while foreign languages are not. Admissions looks for a well-rounded class, so extremely angular students are fully embraced as well. 


2. GPA is not everything. Neither are your SAT and ACT scores.

At Stanford, we were not as concerned with GPA as we were with whether you were taking the most demanding curriculum offered by your school and excelling in all of your classes from 10th-12th grades. We actually went line by line down your transcript to compare your rigor against the school report submitted by your guidance counselor. In reality, at the top universities, you can expect that your “competition” also submitted near-perfect standardized test scores and GPAs. So what will truly make you stand out? Everything else that adds more personalized color and richness to your application. Everything else is much more interesting and a stronger indicator of your “fit” at any particular school.


3. Every high school is different. This matters.

Some schools offer the IB curriculum while others offer APs, and still others offer both or neither. Some offer varsity sports and international volunteer opportunities, while others just don’t have the funding for them. Some offer a limited number of extracurriculars, while others have a student organization for each and every quirky interest a student expresses. The important thing to know is that admission officers review your application from the context of the school you attend. When you consider holistic admissions, this matters because you’re not being unfairly stacked against students from schools with more or less opportunities than yours; instead, you’re evaluated based on how you -- compared to your peers -- have taken your curiosities and passions to the next level. It’s not just about the title you hold or how many you have. What’s more important is the impact you’ve shown, the evidence you present, and the support that is expressed by your recommendation writers regarding that impact.


4. What “Holistic Admissions” looks like.

Students and parents always ask which parts of the application matter most. Is it class rank? Leadership? Standardized test scores? Awards and honors? Others are curious how “connections” play into the decision. Do legacies have an advantage? What about significant donors? Faculty relationships? And so on. If you think of your application process as a whole pie, the different components can be thought of as slices of that pie. Each slice is carefully considered, and no single slice weighs more than others. All of the slices you submit are part of the committee conversation as they evaluate the whole person, but no single decorative topping on any piece of the pie is going to tip the scale heavily in one direction. As I mentioned, not every school or community offers the same opportunities, and some students have to travel a greater distance (figuratively, and sometimes literally) to achieve what they have accomplished. For example, a student who commutes 1.5 hours each way to get to school would reasonably have fewer extracurricular engagements on their Common Application. We talk about this context in committee, too. Truth be told, admission decisions are very challenging as a result of so many considerations.


5. The value of strong recommendation letters.

An increasing number of schools are looking past the numbers and really searching for the students with strong character -- the ones who will enrich the experience of their peers and add value within and outside of the classroom. While your essays and extracurricular commitment will provide evidence of this, an additional, trustworthy perspective (besides your own!) can give admission officers extra confidence in your potential contributions to their school’s community. Do not underestimate the influence these recommendation letters can have in the decision-making process. Standard positive letters are a dime a dozen and don’t hold much weight. However, a teacher who can give significant anecdotes and superlatively speaks of your involvement in class and/or in your school community, one whose letter screams: IF YOU’RE GOING TO ACCEPT ANYONE FROM THIS HIGH SCHOOL, THIS IS THE STUDENT YOU SHOULD ACCEPT, and backs it up with concrete reasons why -- is one in ten thousand. That’s how well you want your selected teacher to know you, and you can bet admission officers will notice and share snippets from such letters in committee.


-Grace K, College Consultant and former Stanford Admissions Officer