Confessions Of A College Admissions Officer

“Money won’t guarantee you a spot unless you’ve donated tens of millions of dollars. You pretty much need to have your name on a building.”

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For the past three years, I’ve been an admissions officer at a large university. I get to decide who gets in and who doesn’t.

There are three parts of the process. First, we go out and recruit. I cover a specific region, so I do the outreach to promising students and guidance counselors. Then, we read the applications. I read all the ones from my region, and then I decide whether I think we should accept or reject. The candidates I want to accept are then passed onto the more senior staff, who give the final OK. The applications I reject aren’t seen by anyone else; they basically go in the trash. If I have a “maybe,” which is often someone who’s very interesting but has a low GPA or test scores, I’ll pass those on for a second opinion. I don’t have specific quotas, but once we get all the applications and test scores, the dean of admissions’ office runs sophisticated models taking estimated yield into account, which gives me a general number of how many students I should admit.

Applications from students who are “important to the university” are flagged and read by a separate committee. Typically these are students whose parents are friends with a trustee, or are a friend of the president, or the kid of a former dean at the school. They might also be the child of someone who’s in talks with development to donate a very large amount of money.

Money won’t guarantee you a spot unless you’ve donated tens of millions of dollars. Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands won’t do it. You pretty much need to have your name on a building.

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A few weeks ago, a parent tried to offer us a cash bribe. The father of an applicant came into the admissions office and dropped off an envelope with $1,000 in it. He’d previously made an appointment, so we had his name and address, and we sent it back right away. Lots of people try to bribe more subtly. When we’re out on the road recruiting in the fall, people will offer to take us out to dinner. I always just say thanks, but that I have plans. One father also tried to leverage his connections in the business world, telling me he’d help me get a job if I got his kid in, which was a bit insulting. I told him I liked my job and field and had no interest in his business contacts.

Most of my time right now is spent reading applications. The essay is usually what piques my interest, more than the GPA or résumé. You wouldn’t believe some of the essays kids write. Last year there was an essay about this girl’s sexual exploits, right down to this whole voyeuristic thing about her having sex on golf courses. Why would we want to read about that? We also get a lot of religious-themed essays on why you shouldn’t have sex before marriage. I also got what was basically a report on the negative effects of abortion. People write reports on global warming too. That’s not a personal statement! I also got two essays this year saying we need to explore living in space. It’s so weird that two people wrote that. They must have seen a TED talk about it.

I recently read an essay in which the kid misspelled “intellectual.” We’ll pass those special applications around the office and laugh about them.

Students always ask if we check them out on Facebook and Twitter. If an applicant seems really cocky or entitled, I do Google them. Facebook is so easy to block, but a lot of kids have open Twitter profiles. It rarely paints a good picture. You’ll see kids being really mean and disrespectful. Occasionally, there’s a picture of them drinking or flipping off the camera. Or they’ll be using bad language. It just comes off as immature. It’s a turn-off.

As told to Hillary Reinsberg.

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