What is it Like Inside the Room of College Admission Deciders?

Becky Munsterer Sabky spent years as an admissions director at Dartmouth. In this excerpt from her book Valedictorians at the Gate, she describes the conversations college admission officers have while admitting and denying potential students.

Becky Munsterer Sabky
5-minute read

“So, what really happens in there?” It’s a question I’m regularly asked when folks find out I was an admissions director. They want to know what happens behind closed doors. “Do you actually read every application?” “Does the dean always have the final say?” “Do you ever just secretly flip a coin?” (I’ve never been asked this question, but I know at least one parent was thinking it.) The application process is not transparent. Admissions officers fiercely preserve and protect the privacy of their decisions. As a student applying to colleges I, too, was fiercely curious about what happened behind the scenes. I had heard that admissions decision making was an art. I had heard it was a science. And some admissions counselors had publicly proclaimed it to be an “artsy science.” But after becoming an insider, I learned that the process is more of a business. An artsy-science-y business.

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“Why would a student born in July be named October?” a committee colleague commented while biting off a Twizzler head. “Maybe that’s when she was conceived,” another colleague chimed in. “Kind of like when people name their kids after locations where they were conceived. Paris. Brooklyn.” In this excerpt, I share examples of how conversations about applicants could have progressed. As a reminder, I’ve changed all identifying details of applicants and their candidacies. (October and all other applicants are fictional.)

The application process is not transparent. Admissions officers fiercely preserve and protect the privacy of their decisions.

“Schenectady,” another colleague muttered sarcastically. It wasn’t my first time at the admissions rodeo, but I was the rookie in the room. I had worked for two years at St. Lawrence University before joining the Dartmouth staff. At St. Lawrence, 60 percent of students were admitted. At Dartmouth, we were nearing the 10 percent mark. I had been on the job for a few months, learning the ropes of reading. The process itself was straightforward (and similar to other processes at competitive institutions). Every application received at least two independent reads. (The regional admissions officer read the app first, summarizing and taking notes on the file.) Applications with stronger votes were sent for a dean’s final read. Applications with fewer strong votes were sent for a director’s third look. (Those whom the dean or director weren’t ready to admit or deny were kicked to committee.) In addition to learning how files were processed, I was trained how to read the applications. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Record all grade trends from freshman to senior years. Summarize essays succinctly. Read U.S. citizens abroad in context of their school group. I’d read about a couple dozen early decision applications on my own and was now sitting on the early decision committee. Reading applications had come naturally to me, but voting was a whole other story. “What do you think, Becky?” the committee chair asked me. “Maybe October is a family name,” I said with a shrug. “Not about the name, about her candidacy.”

I liked October. She was a Latinx woman interested in science from a high school where Dartmouth historically didn’t see many applications. “I see the admit.” “I don’t,” the Twizzler eater disagreed. “She’s strong, certainly, but not a standout in the pool.” The committee chair nodded his head at the Twizzler eater. “Other thoughts?” October’s application spoke for itself. She was involved in gymnastics. She was an active school tutor. Her recommenders spoke to her  engagement in the classroom. She was a very strong student with multiple interests. “Then, let’s take a vote,” he continued. “Admit?” I raised my hand. “Defer?” No hands raised. “Deny?” Four hands raised. “The denies have it,” the committee chair wrote as he scribbled down the 1–0–4 vote on a spreadsheet. “Next!”

We were reading applications from tremendously interesting and engaged students, but we only had enough beds on campus for 10 percent of the pool. The rules had been simple. Deny most. Wait-list some. Admit few.

As I looked around the room, I wondered if I’d ever be as confident in my votes as my colleagues. They were a mix of people who were young, old, skinny, chubby, Black, white, Native, gay, straight, left-handed, and pigeon-toed.* Some were Dartmouth alumni. Others had graduated from various other universities throughout the country. As much as they were likable, they were also intimidating. (They were NPR-listening, black-coffee-drinking folks. I was fonder of pop music and pumpkin spice lattes.) Somehow these colleagues had figured out how to be discerning with their reviews. But in my individual application reading, I had voted to admit many more applications than I should have. Everyone struck me as deserving a spot in the class. In committee, I was committing the same crime. “Now we have Reginald from Philadelphia, a white male, who is his local chess champion,” the committee chair said between bites of Twizzlers. “That’s interesting.” I smiled. “I haven’t seen many chess champions.” “I read one yesterday,” a colleague inserted. “Well, we do have room for more than one chess champion. He’s ranked sixth in class and has impressive talent in languages.” “Which languages?” another colleague asked. “Spanish and Italian.” “As does everyone else in this pool,” the skeptical colleague responded. “Adios and ciao,” he joked. I cracked a smile. As harsh as my colleague was, he had a point. Many applicants spoke multiple languages. (And as a unilingual English speaker, I appreciated this type of talent. When I was growing up, the only other language spoken in my house was my mother’s “Jersey City.”) “Well, let’s slow down,” the chair insisted. “What’s he doing with his language talent?” “It’s hard to say,” a colleague responded. “Nobody really speaks to it.” “Well, is there anything else the committee would like to discuss before voting?” “His verbal score is on the low side for our pool,” one colleague added. “But his math score is nearly perfect,” another announced.

The crowd sat silent for a while, pondering the master card. After a few moments, the chair called for a vote. “Admits?” I raised my hand. (A chess champion who spoke three languages seemed impossibly impressive.) “Defer?” No hands raised. I sheepishly felt silly about my admit vote if none of the others in the room would even vote for a defer. “Deny?” Four hands raised. “Another vote of 1–0–4. He’s a deny. Moving on.” I was struggling. We were reading applications from tremendously interesting and engaged students, but we only had enough beds on campus for 10 percent of the pool. The rules had been simple. Deny most. Wait-list some. Admit few. But for each one we admitted, there were nine more who seemed just as good. It was The Hunger Games, college edition. Choosing one over another seemed impossible, if not ridiculous.