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University Admissions Secrets: How Applications are Reviewed by Top-Tier Institutions

Students who apply to the Ivy League and top-tier institutions are the best of the best. While the initial grade cut-off is low, most students are in the very top of their high schools and have perfect or nearly-perfect grades and standardized test scores. For example, to get into Harvard, you need AT LEAST a 3.8 GPA, a 33 ACT score, and/or a 1500 SAT score. However, many thousands of top-tier applicants, year-after-year, have perfect grades, making extracurricular involvement, personal statements / application essays, and letters of recommendation, and the interview incredibly important. To learn more, read how applications are reviewed by the top-tier.

How Applications are Reviewed

  • Grades and SAT/ACT scores are used as the first cutoff. They are a quick way for admissions counselors to ascertain whether a student has the academic background to support them in a rigorous college or university. If a student is not in the top half of their class and does not have at least 24 ACT or 1160 SAT (new), they will be cut. This may seem low, but admissions counselors try to be fair and consider a person’s financial and educational opportunities. Students who come from poor areas, for example, are afforded more leniency. This cutoff removes roughly 5% of the applicant pool.

  • Applications are then read in full by a series of individuals. The first person to read an application is a regional counselor. They are tasked with being intimately familiar with the educational systems and schools (including grading practices, course offerings, and course rigor) of a particular region. They will read each application that comes in from their region and assign independent scores for a variety of markers. Those markers include academic standing (GPA, test scores, high school ranking), academic potential (letters of recommendation, displayed academic interests/curiosity), talents and abilities, extracurricular involvement, and writing ability. At this point, about 30% of the applications will be immediately moved to committee review, and the remainder will be read by a second counselor who will either reject the application or move it to committee review. These counselors will summarize and highlight important features to be discussed in the committees.

  • In a committee review, counselors review each applicant and discuss whether or not to admit them. They talk about every minute detail, such as a poor grade or poor sentence in a personal statement. These discussions are highly critical. At the end, all committee members vote to reject, admit, or waitlist a student. Majority rules, and a tie vote results in being waitlisted. I have posted a short video clip of this process on my Weibo account. It’s really interesting, so please view it if you have the time.

  • At the end, there are more students admitted than there are positions in the school, so the admit pool needs to be trimmed. Those who do not make the cut are added to the waitlist and are tagged as having been previously admitted. These are the applicants that will be removed from the waitlist first.

Some important points:

  • Although the initial cutoff points are low, the majority of applicants are in the top 10% of their schools, and top tier institutions prefer to admit those in the top 5%. The majority of applicants also have perfect or near perfect test scores. Because of this, having perfect grades/scores is not enough for admission.

  • Letters of recommendation, extracurricular involvement, and application essays/personal statements have a huge impact on whether a student is admitted, rejected, or waitlisted. They are discussed heavily during committee review. Committees like to see academic curiosity, compassion, creativity, and initiative. If student A has higher scores than student B, and student B displays more desirable characteristics than student A, student B will be admitted before student A.

  • Some applicants have what’s called a hook. A hook can be legacy (having family who have attended the institution), being an “influential” person (for example, a celebrity or the child of a politician), or donors. These applications are often reviewed by higher-ups in the institution, such as a dean, and have a higher chance of admission.

  • Admissions boards must submit a diverse student body. Diversity can help you or hurt you, depending on your background and the applicants you’re up against. Because there are a lot of Chinese applicants, admission is typically more competitive than for, say, students from the Philippines.

  • Different schools have different priorities. Some may want students who display certain characteristics, while others desire different characteristics. It depends on what these institutions want their campus to be like and the types of students already there. This is often why extremely qualified applicants are rejected from one top-tier school but not another.

  • Interviews are important. Interviews from faculty and current students hold more weight than alumni interviews because campuses change over time. If an interviewer does not feel you are a good fit for the school, your chances of admission decrease substantially.

So, as you can see, the admissions process is exhaustive. Great grades and test scores are only part of the equation.

If this stresses you out, you’re not alone. The college admissions process is daunting and confusing. Having a team on your side will not only help you submit standout applications but skip the application anxiety. Reach out and say “hi”! We’ll arrange a free 20-minute advisory session to jumpstart your college journey.



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