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How does an admissions officer read your application?

by Will Geiger, on Jul 16, 2020 12:00:00 PM

“We read applications holistically.” I can’t recall how many times I said that as an admission officer. I probably said it 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 complicated and nuanced way.

In this post, I am going to break down exactly how I read student applications when I was an admissions officer. 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 little bit 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 officer's mind as they are reading your application!


First things first, college is an academic experience and 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 academic transcript. When reviewing the academic transcript there were four major 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 context. Every high school has something called a “school profile” which your guidance counselor will submit. The school profile will give 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 your 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 get your academics back on track. Junior and Senior year 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 part of the application.


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, what your parents do for a living, 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 something else? The same goes for your high school.

Takeaway for students | Context helps admissions officers make sense of you as a person and as a student. Additionally, college admissions officers are in the business of “crafting a class” and are interested in having a community of students with different academic and extracurricular interests as well as different life experiences.


College is a rich social experience as well as an academic experience. This means that college admissions officers care about the type of community member a student will be. Are they going to engage in the broader campus community and explore interests or are they going to keep to themselves?

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 was a magic formula to this--I was just 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 | Spending your time outside of the classroom is important! It doesn’t matter whether you are working a part-time job, taking care of your siblings, volunteering, sports, art, or something else!


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 don’t have to be about the most outlandish experience in a student’s life and can be about 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 platform.

Takeaway for students | After grades and test scores, your essays are generally the next 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 the type of student you are 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 guidance counselor. Teacher recommendations should be from junior or senior year teachers.

Takeaway for students | Think about the teachers who know you really well! The best recommendations will tell the admissions officer a story about what students are like in the classroom and are not from classes where students received the highest grades.

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.

Topics:college admission