Who decides? And how? Does a committee sit around a table and debate an applicant's merits? Is the decision based on a perfunctory glance at SAT scores?
What exactly happens to an application once it leaves a student's hands and enters what may seem like a black hole?
At Colby, an application's journey toward the "accept" or "deny" pile starts in the basement mailroom of Lunder House. Application materials (teacher recommendations leading the way) start arriving in trickles in October and build to nine mail buckets-worth and hundreds of online applications a day before the January 1 regular admissions deadline (the deadline for Early Decision round one is November 15).
From December 28 to January 3 the mailroom's fax machine runs continuously, primarily for international applications. Every application and its components are sorted, stamped by date and put in a color-coded folderred for domestic applicants, yellow for international and purple for transfers. Online applications, accounting for 38 percent of this year's total, are downloaded, printed and added to the queue.
Stiff competition? More than 4,000 applications are processed annually by the admissions staff.
"It's all organization," Carol-lyn Greaves, admissions mail coordinator, said of the process and numerous people who keep straight thousands of very important pieces of paper and the occasional same-named students.
While applicants wait and wonder, the decision making begins, with every application, recommendation and test score carefully considered. "We actually do read the applications, contrary to what some might believe," said K.C. Hammond, associate director of admissions and financial aid and the one who makes sure her fellow readers stick to their 18-folders-a-day quota during the nine-week reading season.
In fact, every Colby application is read three times. Two admissions officers separately read and rate applications on a five-point scale for academic and for non-academic qualities. The officers circle the recommended action at the bottom of the application and write down comments to explain their choice.
Applications are sorted into file boxes labeled with the readers' recommendationsaccept, reject, wait list, split decision or "swim" (still in the applicant pool, but no decision yet). The boxes are kept outside the second-floor office of Parker Beverage, Colby's dean of admissions and financial aid. It is Beverage who pulls every application from the boxes, reviews each one (regularly taking home batches to read) and occasionally consults with admissions readers about their recommendation.
It is Beverage who signs off on each candidate. Every one.
Beverage's hands-on approach "is stupefying if you consider that we'll receive 4,000-plus applications a year," said Michael Montgomery '96, associate director of admissions and financial aid. "And he actually remembers these kids when he's signing their letters of acceptance." In fact he remembers details about many applications for years to come.
Beverage, a tall, earnest man with more than 25 years experience in admissions, the last 19 at Colby, says that personal touch is necessary. "As you're building the class you look at how you're doing with Maine kids, with musicians, diversity and academic quality," he said. "Someone has to have that oversight of how the class is coming together."
The process that ends with Beverage's yea or nay begins with an evaluation of a student's academic record. At Colby the academic rating reflects a student's demonstrated ability and achievement through evidence like class rank, GPA and test scores. An academic 1-rated applicant might be in the top 1 percent of her class with a 4.0 and have SAT scores above 1400, while a 5 might fall below the top quarter, have a 3.0 GPA and SAT scores below 1000.
Some assume high or perfect SAT scores are enough to clinch an acceptance letter. But Montgomery says standardized test scores aren't the only thing. "Each year I've been in admissions I've recommended that we not accept [some] students with test scores of 1500 and higher," he said. "In the end their classroom performance wasn't very strong or they weren't very active in the school or community or something else that mattered more to us."