The New Way Colleges Review Applications

"Committee-based" system -- pioneered at Penn -- changes how applicants are first judged at a growing number of competitive colleges.

June 12, 2017
 
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For generations, the image associated with admissions officers has been the folder -- with admissions professionals carrying the folders they must review. Even as the folders have been viewed online, the image has persisted. When Tina Fey played an admission officer in the 2013 film Admission, she was always carrying around (and falling behind on) her piles of folders of applicants. But what if the folders (even the digital variety), and the style of admissions review they represent, are going away?

The University of Pennsylvania started using a new approach to the first review of applications in 2013. It's called the "committee-based" system and it is designed to make it possible to review in a new way the massive numbers of applications that competitive colleges receive (at Penn the total is about 40,000).

The new system replaces the first solo review (for which all those folders were carried around) with a joint review by two admissions officers. Even having two admissions officers involved instead of one, the new system saves considerable time, in that it takes less than half of the time of a one-person review, and Penn officials believe it is assuring equally reliable decisions.

In the last two years, Bucknell, Case Western Reserve and Emory Universities and Swarthmore College have all gone to committee-based admissions, and all report that they are pleased with the system. At Bucknell, the process of reviewing applications finished a week earlier this year than in past years.

Rick Bischoff, vice president of enrollment management at Case Western, said that after two cycles using the new system, "I can't imagine going back."

How It Works

Yvonne Romero DaSilva, vice dean and director of admissions at Penn, has not only helped with the transition to the system at Penn but has studied its use at other colleges.

In the traditional system, the first review was done solo by an admissions officer, typically taking 25-30 minutes, followed by another five minutes writing a brief report for colleagues to review the recommendation.

In committee-based admissions, the first review is done in teams of two, DaSilva explained. In a private room with computer screens, all of the materials are displayed. One admissions officer focuses on academic materials (transcripts, test scores, etc.) while the other focuses on non-academic factors. The two discuss the candidate as they do their reviews and are able to make a recommendation typically within 4-10 minutes. You could have two people reviewing five applications or more in committee-based admissions in the time it would take two people to review two applications if working solo.

Context is important to colleges. DaSilva said that Penn wants to be sure it is evaluating both academic and non-academic accomplishments based on what opportunities were available to an applicant. So Penn wants to know if the high school offers every Advanced Placement or honors course possible, or none -- and all information about the applicant's high school is displayed during the review. A team will handle all of the applicants from a given high school at the same time, so that the context is clear throughout.

As in the old system, a full committee or supervisor still will review the recommendations. Also, DaSilva stressed that -- under the old system and the new one -- there are cases that have complications or difficult issues and that require more time and consideration than the typical candidate.

DaSilva said the shift is only possible because of the move to digital folders. "The restriction of having one person being able to handle the document at the time has been removed," she said.

That fact led Penn officials to think about the downside of the solo first review. It means the first impression comes from one person. Now it comes from two, with benefits from "the idea of having two people look at different components simultaneously." She added that "there are real synergies" that come from two simultaneous reviews. Typically the person who has a geographic territory does the academic review, while another one does the non-academic review, but the roles are reversed in reviewing other groups of applicants.

The new system is also ideal for training new admissions officers, she said, because a junior person can be part of a team with a senior colleague.

Clearly one benefit of the new system is time saved. When working in teams, the admissions officers do the reviews in the office (admittedly sometimes with long hours) but not with long hours at home every night and all through the weekend, which was the norm in the past.

But DaSilva said that changing the way admissions officers spend their time is also about making sure that they do all parts of their jobs, even in during the height of admissions season. She's thinking about things like building relationships with new high schools, reaching out to community groups that can identify new talent for Penn and so forth.

That work used to cease for almost half the year (considering the pressure to review applications both for early decision and regular decision). Now -- even at the busiest time for reviewing applications -- admissions officers have one day a week to do the important work that doesn't involve reviewing applications.

 

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