RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And for a lot of aspiring college students, the application process is a mystery. Even as they gather up transcripts, test scores, add some final touches on those personal essays, the question remains - exactly what happens after the application goes out into the unknown? From member station WGBH in Boston, Kirk Carapezza pulls back the curtain.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Behind closed doors, inside a tiny conference room at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., the 13-person admissions committee is about to make some big, life-changing decisions.
ANN MCDERMOTT: OK, any questions before we start? OK, so let's get going. There's 23 files we'll be looking at.
CARAPEZZA: The future of these 23 early-decision candidates will be decided in under an hour. Only a third of those who applied to this small, private Catholic college will get in.
MCDERMOTT: ...Talking about and then we're going to set...
CARAPEZZA: The admissions process at any school can be frustrating. Disappointed applicants complain it's a crapshoot - luck of the draw when it comes to discerning between hundreds of students who all seem to have the grades, teacher recommendations and test scores. But is there a method to the admissions madness? Well, it varies from big state universities to small private colleges. We were given access to one session at Holy Cross. In full disclosure, it's my alma mater.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Nice program, good testing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, a lot to like.
MCDERMOTT: You like him?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.
CARAPEZZA: What's most surprising is how quickly the committee reviews the candidates, spending about two minutes on each before deciding whether to accept, hold or deny. To speed things along, the committee uses a lot of jargon, like LBB - that's late blooming boy - and RJ for rejection.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I think he's just too low.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yup.
CARAPEZZA: While this may sound oversimplified, you should know before this each application gets a close look from two members of the committee and is then condensed into a single one-page profile - like the one for this student, who came off just a little bit arrogant in his essay and interview.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Academically, he has everything. I wonder if a council call might be enlightening.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I mean, honestly, it sounds like maybe he's - could work on it or be cognizant of it. I mean, I don't know. And he's strong academically. I think he's OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think his classmates will bring him down to reality.
MCDERMOTT: There is, you know, 13 people in a full committee room and 13 different perspectives, so it can go in any different way.
CARAPEZZA: Ann McDermott is director of admissions at Holy Cross, and she says there's no set formula. It's both an art and a science.
MCDERMOTT: We balance our feeling with some facts.
CARAPEZZA: Yes, she said feelings. Sometimes, the facts - like test scores and grades - just don't tell the whole story. So what tips did we pick up while watching decisions go down? For one thing, aspiring students - demonstrate your interest. Visit campus or observe a class.
MCDERMOTT: Just like a teacher in the class wants a student engaged, we want students to be engaged in the process with us. I think it makes for better discernment about what a good fit is for both them and for us.
CARAPEZZA: Tip number two - don't just phone it in. When it comes to taking time with your application, the biggest red flag is a sloppy, half-baked essay.
MCDERMOTT: ...Or overthinking the topic, so much so that it becomes just awkward and doesn't convey the student as it should.
CARAPEZZA: Tip number three - don't forget this is your college experience, so make sure you're a good fit for the school, and the school is a good fit for you.
MCDERMOTT: I think the students - if they spend a little bit of time thinking about what they liked in high school, what they didn't like, kind of who they are to process what they hope for for the next four years and not just going rushing off and looking at schools.
CARAPEZZA: The committee wraps up their work for the day.
MCDERMOTT: Good job, guys.
CARAPEZZA: But no rest for the weary - the committee of 13 still has about 7,000 more applicants to consider for just 700 lucky spots. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.
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