Behind the scenes: How a US school processes admission applications

By Rajkamal Rao 

Go back to Step 7: Finalize your application

Let's spend a few moments on understanding how the school admissions process works - behind the scenes.  US schools are largely democratic.  Admissions decisions are generally voted on and made by committee.

First, incoming applications are generally screened by clerical staff for obvious administrative errors such as missing documents, incorrect application fees.  Once the application package is deemed full and complete, it is passed on to the admissions committee. The committee is formed by professors with a chair elected (or appointed) to oversee the process.  Professors serve on the committee on a rotational basis, generally getting off after three years of service.  For large business schools and undergraduate admissions, however, decisions are made by a dedicated, professional staff headed by a "Dean" of admissions.

The school's objective criteria - the minimum TOEFL score it accepts, the documents checklist, etc - can be easily obtained by visiting its website or calling the admissions office.  But the school's subjective criteria - such as what exactly constitutes a good SOP or a good Recommendation Letter is rarely published.  Even if a school reveals the kinds of information it is looking for in a SOP - and may go as far as releasing a template - students may not find this adequate.  So students have to do their best and produce what they think is the best.  And leave the school to decide.

Whether rolling committee or dedicated staff, you can rest assured that your application will be reviewed word for word.  In an interview with the New York Times in the fall of 2012, the dean of admission at Princeton University said, "We thoroughly read every application twice before rendering a decision; some applications receive three and four reviews".  To the average international student, this might come as shocking!  International students are not used to having professors review their work in such detail.

In fact, the process is not only detailed but structured.  The application package is generally reviewed by two members of the committee - independently - who prepare separate summaries and note down their comments.  When the larger admissions committee overseen by the Chairperson meets, the initial reviewers present their summaries and the case of each student is discussed.  At these meetings, the presenters "own" their students and try to make the best case for each applicant - with the other members of the committee acting as judges. 

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