Friday, December 11, 2009

The Other Side of the Submit Button

This was an exciting week at USD.  We just mailed the first 1200 early action admit letters and hopefully these students will get the good news before the holiday.  We still have over 2300 early action decisions to still make and send out, but we are off to a great start.  For many families, especially the students, one of the most stressful times of the whole process is the waiting. From the time they hit that submit button from home until the time a decision arrives in the mail (or by email, depending on the school) seems like an eternity.  An awful lot happens on the other end during that time and depending on the size of the institution, it is an amazing process that to outsider might look like chaos.

At the University of San Diego, we receive over 11,000 applications for the freshman class.  When an application arrives at our office, usually electronically, it goes through an assembly-line like process that ensures that the information is recorded in our computer system, documents such as transcripts and letters of recommendation that might have come in separately are matched up, and a complete application is made available to the readers as soon as possible. Sounds pretty simple, but think about 11,000 applications and add to that at least 11,000 transcripts and test scores. Most students send at least two letters of recommendation and an essay. Many students use the Common Application and we have a one page supplement that goes with that. Add all that up and it means that almost 100,000 pieces of paper will pass through our office in approximately four months. While much of it is handled electronically, and at the University of San Diego we use scanning technology which creates an electronic image of all that paper, it still requires a lot of organization and time, not to mention an army of student workers to make it all happen. Imagine what that looks like at schools that get even more applications!

The reason I share that with you is to help you understand the realities behind the scenes and why it seems to take so long to make a decision.  Sometimes we can't always tell you whether the application is complete or not, and while we know that is frustrating, it is a very fluid process and a single piece of paper may take awhile to get where it belongs. Our staff and those of universities across the country, eventually get it all matched up and then we can start reviewing your student's credentials.

The evaluation process works differently at each school, but at USD, this is a very personal process. Each of our counselors has a specific territory and they read the applications from that area. If you want to find your counselor, visit

Because we are selective, the first thing we do is review the academic record by carefully evaluating the high school transcript. Because so many schools calculate grades differently, it is often necessary to recalculate a grade point average. We look at the type of classes the student took and whether they were able to take advantage of honors or advanced placement courses. Each high school also provides us with information about what courses are offered, the percentage of students that attend four-year colleges, and other background information that helps our staff provide a local context to the grade point average. Again, this is helpful because students come from such different high school environments.

In addition to the high school transcript, we are looking at the standardized test scores, the letters of recommendation and the writing sample, or essay the student submitted. At USD, we are also looking at the application and trying to determine what other personal qualities a student may be contributing to our campus. We try and measure those qualities by focusing on a students' involvement in activities, community service, leadership, and special talents. These are gleaned from the questions asked on the application, information provided by the student, and through comments made on the letters of recommendation. This is a thorough review that every applicant goes through and the counselors are spending many of their waking hours on this process. In order to get through the large number of applications we have, it is a common practice that our counselors often read at home during these peak months and are not in the office for three or four days a week. We began to review our early action applications in November and the staff will continue to review files until we are done - hopefully by the middle of March. It is a long process, but we try and ensure that everyone gets a fair and thorough evaluation.

Once that evaluation is complete, files are typically passed on for a final decision. Some students are what we would consider "clearly admissible" based on their academic record and the counselor review and are admitted. Others we find are not prepared to handle the work they can expect at USD and are denied admission. For the majority of our applicants, they fall somewhere in the middle, and applications are then reviewed by at least one other person and I am personally involved in many of these decisions.

Once all of that is done, and we are ready to send out our decisions, we have to manually enter those into our student data base and generate the letters.  We choose not to send these electronically but to convey this very important decision through the mail, and we take great care to make sure the correct letter ends up in the right envelope (admissions nightmare!).  This week, I personally hand-signed those 1200 Early Action letters and they are carefully brought to the mail room where they make their way to students all across the world.

So, as you anxiously wait for the mail each day, please know that at USD, and admission offices across the country, hard working staffs are busy pouring through documents, thoroughly reading all those pieces of paper you sent, and doing our best to make sure you get your decision in as timely a way as possible.

More on the decisions we make next time.  Until then, I hope the mail arrives with good news, and I wish all of you a very happy holiday.


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