Photographer: Scott Graham | Source: Unsplash

In this informational essay, Lauren Lynch — former admissions officer and head of advising at — covers how college applications are evaluated. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

“I got a C in math my junior year!”

“I don’t test well.”

“My school is so big none of my teachers really know me.”

“I don’t have anything to help me stand out!”

“I’m not a very good writer…”

“No one from my high school has ever gotten in there.”

These are just a few of the concerns — fears, really — that we hear all the time from students as they begin the process of completing college applications. Understandably, this can be a scary time in general, especially given the lack of information and the misconceptions that permeate this process.

What are Admissions Officers looking for?

Although it may not be possible to gain complete transparency, there are some elements of the application evaluation process that are relatively consistent between schools. Based on my experience, one important truth is that Admission Officers (AO’s) genuinely try to see the best in each student, and look for reasons to include, not exclude, each applicant. Having said that, in each admission cycle, each school also makes these decisions based on internal parameters that affect what qualities, attributes, and experiences they are seeking among their pool of applicants.

Is the college application review process holistic? Yes.

Is the college application review process dependent on a student reaching certain benchmarks? Yes.

Basic Standards Determine The Quality of the Read

Typically, schools set basic standards for applicant groups to determine the quality of the read the application receives. These benchmarks may vary for candidate groups, but are generally determined by testing results, grades, and the rigor of a students curriculum: while alumni children, athletes, students of color, or first generation applicants may have slightly more generous thresholds they need to meet, other students might need to show different academic and testing results in order to be thoroughly evaluated.

The Evaluation Process

Once these thresholds are met, however, each application is thoughtfully, holistically evaluated. Typically a college application gets read very quickly — in about 10 minutes or so — but the AO is reading carefully to find out more about the student: What are their academic strengths and passions? What are the activities they have dedicated their time to? What is their family background and setting, and how has that shaped and affected the applicant? Based on the teacher and counselor recommendations, is the student motivated, intellectually curious, and actively engaged in the classroom? What personal qualities and experiences will the student bring to the college campus?

In determining this information, the AO is then in a position to make an assessment and recommendation about whether or not to offer admission.


While every college and university uses a slightly different technique, most are also very forthcoming about their internal processes and will share this information with students and families. On-campus visits may not be possible at this point, but take advantage of online resources and live webinar admission information sessions to learn more about each of the schools you may be considering.

And remember, your Admissions Expert can help you create a strong, compelling application that will capture the attention of the AO at your target schools.

This informational essay was written by Lauren Lynch, head of advising at If you want to get one-on-one advising for your college applications, register with today.