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An Insider’s View of What Happens Inside a College Admissions Office

I worked in the trenches of the admissions process at Kenyon College for a good four years. Working my way through to the position of Senior Assistant Director of Admissions, I read thousands of applications, interviewed hundreds of students, and sat in on four entire applications cycles of decision-making committees. When I sat down during “reading season” to evaluate the hundreds of applications that came before my desk, I considered multiple factors.

Here is a breakdown of how the different parts of the application play a role in the decision-making process:

Academics (transcript)

Any admissions officer will tell you that the most important part of the application review process is the high school transcript. This includes grades and the rigor of the classes that you took. The transcript will also reflect any trends in your high school career (for instance, it is always positive if your grades improved each year). The transcript is always reviewed in the context of your high school. Did your high school not offer AP classes? That’s totally okay and colleges won’t penalize you for not taking any. But if your high school did offer many AP classes and you didn’t take advantage of them, then that will be a problem.

In addition to the transcript, other things that will be considered are:


At most schools (with the exception of colleges that are test-optional), testing is an important part of the admissions process. You will have to take some combination of the SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests. If your test scores aren’t great, don’t worry too much. Some schools emphasize testing more than others. But as a rule of thumb, it is helpful to have scores that are higher than average. Testing can also be contextual. For instance, if you are applying to a strong engineering program, your math testing will be very important.


This is one of the few opportunities in the admissions process for your voice as a person to come through! The best personal essays are not about the oddest or most extraordinary experiences of your life. Instead, they give the admissions officer a glimpse into your life and unique perspective on the world. Of course, the essay is also an opportunity to demonstrate your writing ability.

Related: How to write a 500 word essay


While transcripts provide the raw data of your achievement in the classroom, letters of recommendation provide a qualitative assessment from your teachers about you as a scholar and learner. The most effective recommendations come from a teacher who knows you really well and can speak to your ability as a student. Ideally, recommendations should come from a teacher you had during your junior year. Read more about recommendations here.


When a college is considering your application, they are evaluating you not only as a student, but also as a person and community member. An activities list should include all of the ways you spend your time out- side of the classroom. This can include volunteering, clubs, sports, music, art, volunteering, a part-time job, taking care of younger siblings, and starting a business. Remember, colleges are looking for quality over quantity. The most compelling activities lists include things that the student is clearly passionate about.


Similar to the personal essay, interviews are an opportunity for your voice and perspective to come through. Sometimes, a college admissions office will “recommend, but not require” interviews in their application review. As a rule of thumb in the admissions process, you should do anything that colleges recommend. Interviews are usually very conversational, so there is no reason to be stressed. Typically, it is just an opportunity to talk with an admissions officer (or current student) about your passions inside and outside of the class- room, as well as your interest in the college. To get an idea of what kind of questions might be asked, check out our blog post.