college admissions process

Admissions, Penn Style

Ever wonder how admission officers at the most selective universities read applications? In the latest episode of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation, host Elizabeth Heaton launched the second installment in the series looking at how admissions decisions are made at a variety of institutions. To help her discuss admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, Beth welcomed her former Penn colleague, College Coach expert Sai Somboon. Together they discussed how applications are read at Penn, helping listeners understand the process a bit better.

So what was the first document that Sai always turned to when reading an application? Without question, he stated it was the academic information. While the admissions process is a holistic one, Beth and Sai both agreed that all the academic factors (grades, standardized test scores, and the secondary school report) are always most important. Beth and Sai both stressed the importance of reviewing the student’s record in the context of their high school, in order to determine how well the student maximized the opportunities at their high school.

In the reading process, every element of the application is considered:  the rigor of the coursework and the grades, the extracurricular profile, letters of recommendation, and the essay. Sai and Beth touched on each element in the process, discussing how extracurricular activities can help admission readers evaluate the student’s contributions to their school or community, how recommendations are considered, and how essays are crucial to the process in painting a clear picture of who the student is.

In reading an application at Penn, each of these elements received a rating or a score, which was then brought forth to the wider admissions committee. Sai and Beth noted that the process is comprehensive—that it’s never just one person making the final decision. This is true whether the applicant is the most qualified or the least qualified; every application is read fully, and usually goes through multiple reads before being presented to the admissions committee.  Beth closed this segment on a positive note—reassuring listeners that, as admissions officers read applications, they are looking for reasons to admit students, not to deny them.

Listener Questions

For the rest of the show, Beth welcomed back Finance expert Kathy Ruby, and the two fielded a plethora of admissions and finance questions sent in by listeners. So many great questions were discussed, divided between admissions and finance topics.

Admissions:

  1. How do I appeal an admissions decision if the school doesn’t have a formal appeal process?
  2. I’ve been Waitlisted at five schools. How many waitlists should I stay on? Is there anything I can do to improve my chances?
  3. Does applying via early action or early decision increase one’s chances for admission?
  4. How important are AP classes in high school? What’s the right number of AP classes admissions officers want to see?
  5. What additional activities are Ivy League schools looking for in an application?
  6. When are you supposed to make appointments to visit colleges? How do you make the most of an out of state college visit?

Finance:

  1. Is it true that cash in the student’s name, and cash in checking and savings accounts work against you more than any other family funds in getting aid? Any suggestions for which accounts need to be lowest?
  2. I’m planning on borrowing a PLUS loan to pay for my daughter’s college. Can my ex-husband also borrow even though my name is the only name on the FAFSA?
  3. Do I have to take the health insurance that the college offers if my student is already covered under my policy?
  4. My son just decided that he is going to graduate school. What happens to the loans he borrowed in undergrad? Does he have to start paying them now?
  5. We’re visiting a bunch of colleges over Spring Break. Are there any financial questions we can ask while touring colleges?

For the answers to all of these great questions, tune in to the show!  And we definitely want to hear from you—have a question you’d like to see answered in a future episode? Submit it here.

And don’t forget to mark your calendar for our next week’s show, when host Ian Fisher covers some great topics, including understanding loan options, why applying to more highly selective schools doesn’t increase your odds of getting in, and ‘gaming the system’—what that means, and what we think about students who try to do it.

Getting-In-CTA

Written by Julia Jones
Julia Jones is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Julia previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Brandeis University and was the director of admissions at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School.