Photo by Ann Oakman

A peek behind the college admissions curtain

The decision process from the desk of an admissions counselor

“Top Ramen is the best invention in the world,” read the opening line of an Augsburg University applicant’s Common Application essay.

Shonna Fulford, the director of admissions at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, befuddled and amused, read on. Her eyes curiously trailed the page, leading her through an unexpectedly charming essay not only about the deliciousness of Top Ramen, but about the student’s value of family and tradition.

High-school seniors nationwide are anxiously submitting applications to numerous colleges and universities. Many wonder what happens to their application after they hit that tiny blue “submit” button.

The Common Application throws confetti across the screen. Meanwhile, admissions officers get to work.

Fulford is an exceptional guide through the process. She speaks specifically for Augsburg, a small, private urban university. The admissions process and methods of selection may differ elsewhere, according to a school’s size, type or degree of selectivity. 

The Process

The applicant clicks “submit.” Within the next 24 hours, the application is submitted and downloaded by the desired college or university. 

As the admissions office receives the student’s application, a digital file containing all of their information is created, including the application itself, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and any pieces of demonstrated interest, such as in-person visits and more. 

The student is then assigned a counselor based on their high school. Each admissions counselor is specialized in a certain region of the United States, whether that be one county or a whole state. This way, the counselor can familiarize themselves with each individual high school in that region.

“I’ve had the exact same territory for 10 years now,” said Fulford. “So, I know… Coon Rapids High School very well. I know the counselors. I know the type of curriculum they offer. I know what type of students are at that high school. [Admissions counselors] know that certain smaller charter high schools just don’t offer the AP and IB [Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes] like a Minnetonka High School or Minnehaha Academy might. So, yeah, we really get to know our territory.”

This allows them to visualize the applicant in a certain environment. 

“We also get to know territories in terms of geographic demographics,” said Fulford. “I work with Northern Minnesota a lot, so students coming from that area are going to be different from students coming from the metro area for a variety of reasons; what they’re interested in or their want and need for a small school versus a big school. [We get to know] the schools, but also the area that these students are coming from.”

This way, they can contextualize the applicant’s activities, transcript and classes to gain a better understanding of the student’s circumstances. This can provide context regarding grades, rigor of courses and opportunities presented to the applicant.   

To make sure the file is complete, the counselor will reach out to the student and ask for any other piece of information they need. The file is finalized once the necessary documents are submitted. Now the red x’s on the application checklist have turned into green check marks.

It is time to review the application. The counselor assigned to the student’s region reads every single piece of information.

“I mean there’s not necessarily this big committee that sits around a big wooden table with applications and stamps ‘ADMIT’ or ‘DENY’,” said Fulford. “If you’re a really strong academic student, I’m the only one looking at your application. It is just me… So, I think that’s maybe a misperception that some people have, that there’s this huge committee that is tearing apart your application.”  

Starting with the standard information, where the student is from, their family, interests and activities, a base of the applicant’s identity begins to take shape in the admissions counselor’s mind. 

The power of a personal essay

They then read the personal essay. This is where the student’s character vibrantly shines through.

“Specifically, because of the holistic review [we use], essays are so important,” said Fulford. “We know students are more than just that [applicant] number. So let’s learn about them.”

Personal essays can provide insight into the student’s reading and writing ability and any events that may have impacted their academic performance. 

“We allow students lots of ample opportunity in the application to tell us about themselves and experiences that might have affected what we’re going to see on a transcript.”

More importantly, they are an opportunity to showcase one’s personality and identity.

“The really vulnerable ones [are my favorite],” said Fulford. “Not everybody has the privilege of being vulnerable, so I understand that, but the ones where a student really opens up and you’re like ‘wow, that is really fantastic to read. I really know who this student is, or at least in this one aspect.’ And the really creative ones, like the student’s whose opening line was about Top Ramen. They are so much fun to read sometimes. The creativity behind some of these is so absolutely great.”

The truth behind a transcript

The next, and arguably the most important step in the process, is the transcript. 

Elisa Pacini Knudson is a seasonal application reader for a private university on the East Coast ranked among the top 50 colleges and universities in the nation. The number of applications received each year is high; gaining admissions is competitive. 

“Colleges and universities hire seasonal readers to support full-time staff in reviewing admissions applications by assessing candidate materials while synthesizing and writing succinct informative comments to be shared with the admissions committee,” said Pacini Knudson.  

This year, her focus is on the academic portion of students’ applications, the transcript. 

It provides insight into how academically prepared the applicant is for college. Readers and counselors analyze the rigor of courses and search for any trends in grades. 

“Any admissions officer or college counselor would tell you that a student’s transcript, rigor of courses and how they did in those classes, is the most important aspect of the application,” said Pacini Knudson. 

At Pacini Knudson’s university, students are scored on “Academic Rigor” and “Academic Ambition”.

“At Augsburg, we also really look closely into the transcript,” said Fulford. “Maybe there was just one semester one year that is all D’s, everything else is A’s. Clearly something went on [during] that semester. So let’s talk about it.”

On to the next step in the process, the counselor reads the letters of recommendation. Complimentary remarks on a student’s personality, work ethic or attitude can enlighten an admissions counselor’s view of the applicant in regards to how they would fit in at their school. 

“While 40 years ago an admissions office was looking for candidates who were well rounded,” said Pacini Knudson, “now schools look for what individual, unique talent a student can contribute to build a well-rounded class.”

These aspects do include the applicant’s academic preparedness, along with their personality, activities and fit — what makes them unique. 

A long — or not so long — awaited decision

Considering the whole of the student, the counselor decides whether to admit or deny the applicant. 

Surprisingly, this process may take up to 20 minutes at most. 

“You can read an application within about 10 minutes,” said Fulford. “You know, a 4.0 with all AP classes, pretty simple to read that. They’re a stellar student. I would say it can go up to 15 to 20 minutes for a student we might have to dive a little bit deeper into. And then it might go to another counselor for another review as well. But really, it probably doesn’t take more than 10 to 20 minutes to read an application because we make sure the application is very direct, very straightforward.”

With only five minutes needed to put the decision into the system, Fulford usually fully reviews an applicant’s file in under a half an hour. 

The decision is put into the college or university’s system before any notice of a decision is sent out. The big red “admit” button is clicked, and an email is sent to the student notifying them of a decision. Five to seven business days later, the acceptance packet is mailed.  

The entirety of the process elsewhere can take months, due to the volume of applications received and the institution’s selectivity.

Avoiding apprehensiveness

Fulford and Pacini Knudson have final pieces of advice to offer to current and future applicants. 

“Use your counselor,” said Fulford. “Use us. One hundred percent. That is literally what we are here for, is to answer those questions. That is why I am in this position, to help you through this process.” 

The process is stressful enough during the chaos of one’s senior year, to get a head start on it may be beneficial. 

“Start the college admissions process early,” said Pacini Knudson. “It is a far less stressful experience when a student has gotten started on the process the summer before junior year as there is much to do with taking college tests, visiting colleges, developing a resume, compiling a college list and getting at least some applications submitted before the rigors of senior year begin.”

Senior Tollef Currell can speak to that.

“Yeah, I’d say I’m stressed,” said Currel. “It’s just a lot of pressure. I haven’t submitted most of [my applications], because I’m doing music and theater scholarships and I wanted more time to work on auditions for those. So yeah, it’s just a lot of looming pressure over your head.”

Although, once a student’s application is submitted, the attitude towards the process changes, arguably for the better. 

“I just don’t really care. Now [that I have submitted all of my applications], the pain’s over,” chuckled senior Elena Monnot.

Perhaps a comfort to applicants, most admissions officers look for reasons to admit rather than deny.

“It breaks our hearts to have to hit a deny button,” said Fulford. “I mean, it happens. With some students, we would be doing a disservice to let them come knowing that they aren’t, at the time, prepared for college… It hurts our hearts to have to do that.”

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