To accept or deny? How the college admissions process works


On a Thursday afternoon in late January, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Associate Director of Admission Kayla Hollins was sitting next to stacks of student welcome materials in a Smith House conference room. A horde of applicants would soon receive their acceptance letters from the North Adams institution, a "P.S." sticky note with praise from one of the school's admissions counselors attached to each.

For the counselors at the public liberal arts college, this personal touch is the final flourish of an intensive application review process, which involves roughly 10 weeks of recruitment trips and 400 prospective student reviews per counselor, as well as evaluations of every application during the review committee meetings that begin in late November and can last until August.

"Every application that gets sent gets reviewed on a few different levels," Hollins said of MCLA's method.

Technology has revolutionized the college application process. With colleges switching to paperless applications in recent years after decades of receiving mail-in packages, that approach might provoke some skepticism from students assuming that their applications simply get electronically sorted. The rise of the Common Application, aka Common App, which allows students to complete one application to be submitted to multiple member schools and has contributed to record application numbers at some institutions, hasn't helped quell students' fears of getting lost in the digital shuffle, either.

Applicants, however, can take solace in knowing that MCLA's human-based review method isn't an unusual one. Seventeen miles north in Bennington, Vt., Bennington College also uses individual and committee reviews to determine its first-year classes, and those decisions are not made lightly.

"It can be difficult to sit with," Bennington College Assistant Director of Admissions Logan Shearer said of some of the rejection calls he's had to make, adding that he appreciates the college's review system.

"I trust the committee," MCLA Assistant Director of Admission Dayne Wahl said of his institution's process.

The rating game

At MCLA, the school welcomes the use of the Common App except from July 24 through Aug. 1, during which only the MCLA Online Application is accepted.

The review process starts with one of the school's five freshman admissions counselors reviewing an application that comes from his or her recruitment "territory." A committee consisting of the MCLA's freshman admissions counselors subsequently reviews the material, looking at each student's high school transcript, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and essay, which is not required but highly recommended.

"I think it does give us an insight into who they are if we never were able to meet them on the road or at an event," Wahl said.

Sitting around a table at MCLA's Office of Admission, the counselors each share their list of students. To put grades and scores in context, staffers often use charts to show a particular high school's median GPA and test scores. The group doesn't look at class rank.

Demonstrated interest in the school is also a significant factor. School visits and phone or in-person interviews can boost applicants' chances. For example, during an interview, if a student with low test scores and grades demonstrates passion, creativity and a desire to seek out diverse perspectives and endeavors, that can help, according to Wahl.

Article Continues After These Ads

Eventually, the presenting counselor asks the rest of the committee for an opinion.

"The outcome from there can be accept, reject, interview, wait for more grades, talk to the school counselor," Hollins said.

For fall 2017, MCLA, a public liberal arts school, received 1,946 first-time freshmen applications, accepting 1,494, or 76.8 percent of applicants, and enrolling 289 students, or about 19.3 percent of accepted applicants. Admissions office administrators generate both acceptance and rejection letters from templates, with the "P.S." note added by counselors to acceptances. Rejected students are encouraged to attend community colleges and later apply to MCLA as transfer students.

On interviews and the 'Dimensional App'

Bennington College, a private liberal arts school, is more selective than MCLA and has a slightly different human approach. To start, two admissions counselors are assigned to every application, both reading approximately 250-300 applications twice; one of the counselors often recruits in the applicant's territory.

Obvious acceptances and rejections are noted and rejected applications are removed from a committee review that consists of the school's nine admissions counselors. According to Shearer, standout applications often include straight As, strong writing skills and exemplary levels of creativity and community involvement. Disappointing applications typically feature multiple Cs and Ds and poor writing skills.

"There's really no student that's questionable that doesn't go by the entire committee," Shearer said.

Bennington College accepts two different types of applications. Many students apply via the Common App, but others can submit what's known as the school's Dimensional Application.

"The Dimensional App is really just an alternative for students who feel like the Common App might not paint the whole picture of them," Shearer said. "Through the Dimensional App, students can essentially curate their own application, so they'll submit any materials that they feel are helpful. Sometimes that includes test scores. We will require a transcript. Typically they'll submit something that might look like a portfolio but is a little bit more extensive and curated."

Strong writing is essential in both application types; counselors use an internal rating system to assess it, which Shearer said is common among colleges.

"At the end of the day, our evaluation is the same, which is: Do we feel the student has shown the academic preparedness and the intellectual ability, the writing ability, to be successful in a broad liberal arts curriculum?" Bennington Vice President of Enrollment Tony Cabasco said.

Interviews are vital, as is fit at a school that admitted 57 percent of its 1,494 applicants for fall 2018 and enrolled 24 percent of those admitted.

"At the end of the day, we're not just trying to enroll first-year students. We're trying to enroll alumni," Cabasco said. "We're trying to enroll students who will come here, benefit from this education, but also contribute to it and become part of our community."

Benjamin Cassidy is a reporter with The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.