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How does someone in college admissions read your application?

by Will Geiger, on Jul 22, 2021 11:49:03 AM

The person who reads your application in a college admissions office might be a dedicated admissions officer, a faculty member, or a student or part-time essay reader. They are reading your essay in the context of your application overall.

“We read applications holistically.” I said that  hundreds of times per year in presentations to students, parents, and guidance counselors. “Holistic admissions” was our way of saying that admissions decisions were made in an extremely nuanced way, where we aimed to look at each student individually.

In this post, I am going to break down exactly how I read student applications when I was an admissions officer, which will give you a sense of how the process works at selective colleges. Here are the areas that I was thinking about (if you want to skip ahead):

  1. Academics
  2. Context
  3. Extracurriculars 
  4. Essays
  5. Recommendations
  6. What happens after the review?

Note that every college is going to review applications a little differently, but 95% of it is going to be the same! By the end of this post, you will have a solid understanding of what's going through the admissions reader's mind as they are reviewing your application!


College is, first and foremost, a place for learning. As an admissions officer, we want to make sure that you have the academic “chops” to be a successful student. When I began reading a student’s application, I would first click on the student’s transcript. When reviewing the student's courses and grades, there were four things I was thinking about:

Achievement | How successful has this student been in the classroom? 

Challenge | Has the student challenged themselves in the context of their high school? If there were AP and honors classes offered, did they take them?

Breadth | Was the student pushing themselves across the entire academic curriculum? Generally, colleges like to see that students are taking classes in the “big 5” of math, science, social science, English, and foreign language.

Trends | Did the student improve each year in the classroom or did their grades decline?

This review process is done in the context of your high school. Every high school has something called a “school profile” which your guidance counselor will submit to colleges with your application. The school profile gives the admissions officer information about your high school curriculum and the types of opportunities offered at your high school. This helps the admissions officer understand whether you have made the most of those opportunities.

Lastly, I would also consider test scores under the broad umbrella of “academics.” For the colleges that consider testing, it is certainly an important part of their process. However, if you feel like your test scores don’t accurately reflect your potential, have no fear and read this post!

Takeaway for students | There is no time like the present to focus on schoolwork. Eleventh and twelfth grade are particularly important as they give students the opportunity to show a positive “upward trend” in their grades. If there was anything outside of your control that impacted your grades (such as an illness or a difficult family situation), you can explain that in the Additional Information section of the Common App. Here's more info about that. And for more info about the Common App, check out our Ultimate Guide to the Common App.


After perusing your transcript, I would go back to the beginning of the application to get a deeper understanding of the student’s personal, family, and school context. This is why all applications will ask you about the different places you have lived, where your parents work, the educational backgrounds of your parents and siblings, the languages spoken in your home, and what race or ethnicity you identify as.

For instance, will you be the first in your family to go to college or do both of your parents have advanced degrees? Is English the primary language spoken in your home or is it something else? 

Takeaway for students | Context helps admissions officers make sense of you as both a person and a student. Additionally, college admissions officers work to build a class of students, so they are interested in all the ways you will contribute to the community. They are looking for students with different academic and extracurricular interests as well as different life experiences, so make sure to show them who you are. 


College is a community experience as well as an academic experience. This means that college admissions officers also care about the type of community member a student will be. 

After reading through the first few pages of the application, I would turn to the activity section to see what the student was up to outside of the classroom. There is no magic formula to this--I was interested in whether the student was active and making an impact in their high school or community. If they were, I knew that they could be counted on to make an impact on our campus.

Takeaway for students | Whether you are working a part-time job, taking care of your siblings, volunteering, playing sports, making art, or something else, how you spend your time outside the classroom is important. 


For most admissions officers, the essays are the most interesting part of the application. This is one of the few opportunities where the admissions officer gets to hear directly from the student. The best essays are based on the student's unique life experience and point of view. Essays don’t have to be about the fancy (or expensive) programs or opportunities. Often, students write great essays about important everyday things. Strong essays reveal the student’s authentic voice and unique world perspective through storytelling!

At Story2, we have a ton of resources related to the essay writing process, including our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform. Sign up free today!

Takeaway for students | After grades and test scores, your essays are generally the most important part of the application. Make sure that you start your essays early and give yourself plenty of time to revise and proofread!


Last but not least are the teacher recommendations. These letters help admissions officers learn about what you are like in the classroom. Recommendations can carry a lot of weight, so choose your recommender wisely. Generally, students should ask for recommendations from two teachers as well as their college counselor. Teacher recommendations should be from eleventh or twelfth grade teachers.

Takeaway for students | Think about the teachers who know you really well, not necessarily the ones who gave you the best grades. The best recommendations will tell the admissions officer a story about what students are like in the classroom. 

What happens after the review?

After reading the application, the admissions officer will write up a summary of the file and include a recommendation for the applicant. Depending on the college, a second admissions reader may also evaluate the application.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Will Geiger is co-founder of A graduate of Wake Forest and Penn, Will was previously Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed over 10,000 admissions applications and essays and oversaw the merit aid program; Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut; and Marketing Manager at Story2.

Topics:college admissionscommon app