You've done your research. You've visited some campuses (or lots of campuses). You've made your list (and changed your list). You've asked your teachers for recommendations (or that's on your to-do list). You've completed your Common Application (or that's on your to-do list right after "ask teachers for recommendations"). You've narrowed your list of potential friends to write your Peer Recommendation and decided to go with the friend who just knows you the best, despite the fact that English (and writing) aren't her greatest strengths. You've taken the SAT (or ACT) and two SAT Subject Tests (they went well - not quite as well as that last practice test, but you're okay with the scores). You've given your college counselor the Secondary School Report to send with your transcript and recommendation. You're getting ready to hit the submit button (or you hit the submit button as an Early Decision applicant several weeks ago and you're waiting anxiously for your decision). But what happens to all of this stuff - and all of that time and effort - on the other end?!
A very important question! And perhaps one that many Early Decision applicants are wondering about as they imagine what their applications are up to right now - and a question that many Regular Decision applicants are considering as the January 1 deadline draws near.
So what do we do with all of those applications and application materials? We read them (carefully). And we think about them (a lot). We read your application individually and holistically. There is no magic formula (see Colleen's post) but perhaps the following will give you a better sense of what goes on as an admissions reader engages with your application...
I usually read in my office (sometimes I read at home, too; it depends on how persistent my dog is in her attempts to engage me in games of fetch). We have a paperless reading system, so all application materials are reviewed online. The materials that are submitted electronically are loaded into our system, and the paper pieces we receive are scanned in (think about this when are you are considering sending in a funky shaped newspaper clipping... will it run through our scanner?) One of the first things you'd probably notice in my office is the 24-inch monitor that is flipped vertically and affords me a great full-page view of your application materials. I get my coffee (or tea) and settle in to read...
What kind of applicant is Dartmouth looking for?
In the most basic terms, students who are:
actively committed to their personal interests,
and reaching beyond their current circumstances.
(Think about how you show us these things throughout your application.)
As I read your application, I am thinking about five basic questions:
1. What opportunities have been available to this applicant?
2. What are the things that matter most to him/her?
3. Given these two, what choices has he/she made?
4. What are the applicant's successes?
5. How has he/she had an impact on others?
I consider your application, thinking about these questions and how the pieces of your application come together to answer these questions. I take some notes and I write a summary of my thoughts, along with a recommendation for a decision. Your application then makes its way on to a colleague, who engages in the same process (without looking at my notes or recommendation). We begin to reach decisions based on these individual reads.
But Dartmouth receives so many more outstanding, qualified, talented applicants than it has space for in its First-Year Class, you say? How can we possibly distinguish between such strong candidates? There either must be a magic formula or we just close our eyes and pick randomly at the end.
It is very true that Dartmouth's applicant pool has continued to grow and grow over the years, and the number of talented, interesting, well-qualified students in our applicant pool greatly exceeds the number of spaces in our entering class. But we don't plug in numbers and generate a decision (there are so many aspects of your candidacy and who you are that can't be captured in numbers). We consider the questions I listed above, and we consider your application materials as a mutually supportive set of parts. Just before I get ready to write my summary and recommendation, I ask myself: what will this student add? What kind of impact might he/she have at Dartmouth? And I think about how all of those individual voices and contributions will come together and form an interesting, diverse First-Year Class (perhaps the greatest class Dartmouth has ever seen?).
Think of it this way - I heard a fellow admissions officer use this metaphor recently, so I'm stealing it. You're hosting a party, maybe a dinner party. You're cute and funny, so you have lots of friends. You can't possibly feed (or fit) all of your many, many friends at your party, so you think about what group you are going to ask. You think about who might make for some lively conversation and a great party, and you invite that group. It's not that you don't like your other friends, but for this particular party, you decide to go with the group that you think will be interesting and engaging for one another. (And my guess is you would probably base this on a number of different factors, not just your friends' standardized test scores.)
How can you improve your chances? Check out Ben's post. I have to get back to reading applications for the Class of 2014.