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Not having sufficient paying students can have a serious impact on the department's finances. To mitigate this issue, a school imposes tight acceptance deadlines in the hope that if a student offered admission turns it down, the school can scramble to offer the same seat to someone else.  But the risk here is that the second student may already have accepted elsewhere.  "Second lists" and "Third lists" are less meaningful in international admissions.  So schools typically mail out slightly more offers than there are seats for - a term referred to in the airline industry as "overbooking" - in the hope that even if a few students decide not to attend, the school still has sufficient strength in the incoming class.

For an extremely detailed look at what happens behind the scenes at the admissions office of a North American Business School (this features the University of Toronto, Canada), read this article by John Byrne.

You may also want to read a post by Don Martin of US News on June 21, 2013 - How Grad School Officials Evaluate International Applicants.  Some of these points clearly apply to undergrads as well.

For a detailed behind-the-scenes account of UC Berkeley's holistic admission policies - which tend to admit many more students with lower merit but with "compelling life experiences" - read this story from the New York Times.  In it, a reader of applications says - "A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India."

Or consider Harvard.  A professor there says that the admissions process is deliberately skewed against Asian Americans simply because there are too many good applicants from this ethic group.  This is affirmative action in reverse where the standards for one group are higher than the rest!

This is why we like how the Princeton Dean summarizes it  - "the admission process is more of an art than a science, and we have developed it in a way that we believe assures all students the opportunity to present their best case".  We believe that this statement is true for 99% of US schools. 

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