NPR logo

How Admissions Officers Pick Students

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Admissions Officers Pick Students


How Admissions Officers Pick Students

How Admissions Officers Pick Students

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

College admissions officers are weeding through a record number of applications this year. Kathleen Kingsbury, an education reporter for the Daily Beast, spent time inside the room with admissions officers as they sift through applications. Kingsbury discusses what makes a student stand apart.


Well, whether an applicant sends a video or something more traditional, it's impossible to know just what will resonate with an admissions officer. Or is it?

Few people penetrate the rarified world of college admissions. Kathleen Kingsbury is an exception. She's an education reporter for The Daily Beast, and she spent a lot of time getting to some of these gatekeepers, trying to understand what exactly they're looking for in an applicant. And she joins us now.

Ms. KATHLEEN KINGSBURY (Education Reporter, Oh, thank you for having me.

NORRIS: First of all, how many applications does the average admissions officer read in a given year?

Ms. KINGSBURY: It really ranges. At more public universities, they can read, you know, up to 500 applications every year. Other smaller, private schools, the admissions officers will read only a few hundred.

NORRIS: The admissions officers often talk about how they're looking not just for good grades or strong character, but that something special, that spark that a student has that might indicate that they would add to the student community and go off and do great things in the world. What do they look for when they're trying to assess that something special?

Ms. KINGSBURY: I think that the rise of Tufts videos, for example, is exactly that pressure that students and parents feel to set themselves apart. I would say that the most important thing is to be yourself in the application process. Trying to be something that you're not is one thing that actually turns a lot of admissions officers off.

NORRIS: And they can spot that.


NORRIS: Are they looking for the personal story, something that tells them something about the student's character or the road that they've traveled in life?

Ms. KINGSBURY: I think that that is the case. A lot of admissions officers talk about walking away from reading their application and feeling as though they know them as a person, that they have a sense of the strong character of an applicant versus, you know, looking at an SAT score or a grade, that's something that will tell them about an applicant's past, about their high school experience, but it won't tell them about their future potential.

NORRIS: Is every application read by more than one person? I'm asking because you noted that it's really more of an art than a science. It's quite subjective.

Ms. KINGSBURY: I would say in most cases applications are read by at least two people. That's something that might change this particular year because there is such a flood of applications. We're talking about a record number of applicants. So, for example, the University of Chicago saw a 42 percent spike this year in the number of applications that it received. And Duke University has said that they've had to hire extra help in order to get through their application piles this year.

So, one thing - and especially at public universities that I've heard from admissions officers this particular year, is that scores and grades are going to matter more than probably ever before, as they just are flooded by applications.

NORRIS: Take me inside the room. What is this process like? 'Cause you've actually been where few have been - inside the room where they're making these decisions.

Ms. KINGSBURY: The process is one that's pretty exhausting. You talk to a lot of admissions officers and most are underpaid and overworked. They read applications for several weeks, then they meet in committee and choose their class. Finally, they have to deal with the parents and the students who have either made it on their waitlist or have been rejected, and also, at the same time, making sure that they're recruiting the students that they've accepted. That's particularly one thing this year that more and more schools are going to be concerned with.

For example, the University of California for the first time is going to have a waiting list. As well as other more elite schools, like Harvard, have said that they also anticipate they're going to have to take more students off the waitlist as they expect some students to actually say no and to choose other schools either because they're going to get more financial aid, because something clicks for those elite students at another school.

NORRIS: Kathleen Kingsbury, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Ms. KINGSBURY: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Kathleen Kingsbury is an education reporter for The Daily Beast Web site.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.