I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.


But the longer I read applications, the more holes I saw in the so-called “holistic” process, and the more I discovered how much it came down to money.

Not infrequently, I would pull up a student’s file, see my “Defer” or “Deny” recommendation, and then a second reviewer recommending the same thing, and then a high-ranking admissions staff member would flip the decision to admit. Usually, the justification would be a brief couple of sentences with purposefully vague language, like “Student has struggled with math sequence but should be fine with on campus tutoring resources, ADMIT.” I saw these decisions flipped frequently for students from affluent backgrounds, and rarely for students who’d applied for financial aid. Once, I saw a student who fell far below our clearly outlined admissions requirements admitted — this student was heir to a popular processed-meat company’s fortune.

Although our school advertised our “holistic” review process, our director typically used test scores to screen applicants. His rationale was that these were “riskier” students. The only time he didn’t? If the student could pay full price to attend our institution, or a “full pay” student. He was not coy about this fact, and would frequently make comments about how students from Silicon Valley could “afford” to come here. When I planned my recruitment trip in California, I was given an Excel spreadsheet that listed high schools by average household income.

There were a variety of ways of gleaning if a student was “full pay” from an application. Firstly, on the Common Application, there is a place where students can indicate if they intend to apply for financial aid or not. My director’s instinct was always to see what we could do to admit the students who checked that they were not intending to file for aid, regardless of the student’s academic achievement. I had one student from Northern California who was, by all metrics, an outright deny. I remember vividly that he had several Cs and Ds on his transcript, plus a test score well below our average range, and an essay that consisted of two sentences (really, just two). He visited campus twice, once before applying, and later once he was admitted. He paid full tuition with no aid for four years.

Related: Financial Aid Leveraging

“The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”