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How Admissions Committee at Vanderbilt Works

Posted by on Thursday, March 19, 2009 in Admissions Committee, File Reading Explained, Waitlist.


There are things in this world that are perceived to be more fascinating than they really are: haggis, turkey bowling, Dancing with the Stars, that game where you spin around on a bat 10 times and wobble toward the finish line – oh, and admissions committees.  For the past two weeks I, along with my fellow Associate Director and Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt, have reviewed the decisions of hundreds of individual students all across the country.  Think of a meeting that lasts 80+ hours long.  Yes, it is that fascinating.

Here’s how it works:

  • Each officer brings in a bundle of applications, which at this point have been first read and second read.  Nearly all of them have already been “decisioned” (as we’ve talked before on this blog) and the officer is proposing a decision change.
  • In the picture above you see a laptop connected to a monitor.  It displays all 19,300 applications we have received this year, broken out by high school (all 928 pages of them).  It is useful as we progress through each region to view a student presented in committee in the broader context of his or her high school.  The computer is also clutch for hunting down mundane yet (in the moment) pressing matters such as checking the lyrics to Billy Joel’s Allentown in between Eastern PA apps.   Or “How do you pronounce Nacogdoches (TX) and how is it different than Natchitoches (LA)?”   By the way, it’s Knack-a-Doe-Shuss and Knack-a-Tesh respectively.  Ahh Google.
  • When there is an individual applicant that needs discussing, the officer presenting in committee will place a summary sheet of that applicant’s grades, test scores (and a ton more)  in the middle of the committee table and begins describing the applicant.  The officer keeps the rest of the file (as you see in the picture) drawing out snippets of the essay, the eca’s, the recs, etc.
  • Most of our conversations center along the faultlines between an admit and a waitlist, although we sometimes discuss when it would be best to waitlist a student or simply let them go.  We do not want to be placing students on a waitlist who would never stand a chance of coming off of it.  After the conversation/debate ensues, a decision is rendered.

Today is the final day of committee and decision checking started yesterday.  Decision checking is where we check each file to make sure the decision is recorded in our system correctly.  Letter checking then takes place to make sure that Tim from Toledo doesn’t get Tina from Tacoma’s decision letter.  If all goes like we think it will, letters will be in the mail a week from today.  Stay tuned.

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  • Sylvia

    March 20th, 2009

    So what about the issue of super scoring? You say everyone at the committee sees a print out of everything about an applicant, including their test scores. Will the committee only take into consideration their best score/super score or will they take into consideration the low ones as well? My daughter took the SAT twice and only managed to do good-not-great, but she did do better than her highest SAT both times she took the ACT. Will she be hurt by this, since you will see her not-so-steller SAT in addition to her good ACT scores?

  • Thom

    March 20th, 2009


    Sorry for the longer answer here, but as with anything standardized testing related, the explanation is long. First, a background: on the summary sheet we will see a listing of all of the test scores a student has reported to Vanderbilt. That print out will also show us a superscored SAT (highest math, critical reading, and writing sections), as well as an average (although we really do not use this as much). For the ACT, we note the highest composite score (i.e., we do not superscore the ACT) but we do draw out individual ACT sub-scores in our review (just not mathematically). In other words, we will see that your daughter did better on the English section of the ACT, but we will not mathematically average all of her ACT English scores (if she took the ACT multiple times for example). The superscored SAT, or highest ACT Composite becomes what we call the primary score, which means that is carries a lot more weight in our review process than the rest of your daughter’s testing.

    During this year’s admission cycle, while we will put more weight on a student’s primary test score, we will note and factor into our decision any lower SAT Reasoning and/or ACT scores that have been submitted. I, of course must insert the usual disclaimer that we believe students are much more than a test score, and we read their applications as such. Your daughter’s test scores, while important, are considered in the full context of her application in a holistic manner.

    Sometime after mailing day, I am planning to provide everyone some information about Vanderbilt’s position on the The College Board’s new “Score Choice” which will alter our policy for next year’s class, so be sure to look for that. Thanks for reading and posting!

  • Jeressia

    March 20th, 2009

    I am so excited and nervous right now! Hopefully, I can apply to become a Vandy Blogger next year. =]

  • Hillary

    March 21st, 2009

    Does this process you describe only apply to those applicants who have admissions officers wanting to change decisions? Or does this process apply to every applicant?

  • Patient Applicant

    March 21st, 2009

    I know I am reading into this too much…but I thought the committee was used primarily to decide on applicants that were neither accepted/rejected/wait-listed by initial readers, or at least that is what the Vandy website said if my memory serves me right (but it is entirely plausible that my memory has served me wrong in this occasion, however). Has this process been already completed with this year’s applicant pool, or does the committee primarily work on files that have been “decisioned”? Sorry if this question was already brought up.


    Patient Applicant

  • Thom

    March 21st, 2009

    The committee works almost exclusively with “decisioned” files, although it sometimes sees files that need new decisions. These decision designations are tentative, and remain so until the mail truck carries our letters away. A territory manager will bring all the applications for which he or she thinks a decision change is needed (based on a range of reasons). Not every applicant can go through committee from a time standpoint.

  • Alex

    March 22nd, 2009

    Hi Thom. You wrote, “the officer presenting in committee will place a summary sheet of that applicant’s grades, test scores (and a ton more)”

    I’m just curious as to what exactly this “and a ton more” consists of.

  • Thom

    March 22nd, 2009

    Good question Alex. While I can’t tell you everything that’s on there (some of it is internal OUA stuff that would make my laptop smolder and combust if I tried to type it here), I can give you most of what’s on there:

    -The biggest chunk of the page deals with your course selections and grades. It provides a run down, year by year, grade by grade of your courses, with special notations to delineate honors, AP, or IB courses. It then totals the number of units taken in high school, and how many of those were AP, Honors, or IB
    -Your full testing profile, all SAT’s, ACT’s, AP’s (if you have sent them), TOEFL/EP, and SAT Subject (if you have sent them)
    -Your high school reported GPA (weighted if available) as well as an unweighted GPA we create from your academic courses (i.e., not gym and driver’s ed) :)
    -The VU school(s) you have listed as your first and alternate choices (if you had one)
    -It tells us if you had an alumni interview
    -Gives information about your high school (size of your graduating class, etc)
    -A basic summary of the first and second reads of your application (which conveys academically how strong you have done overall, as well as an assessment of your personal intangibles, your fit with VU and the academic environment here).

  • Brad

    March 23rd, 2009

    Anyone else think it’s weird that the photo of committee looks sort of similar to the diner painting in the background?

    Also, I’d like to point out that Thom has left out the part about “the snack drawer” which our wonderful friend Claudia keeps stocked with Oreos, Nutter Butters, Granola Bars, ritz peanut butter sandwich bites, nuts, trail mix, candy, and cereal bars. Admissions counselors are only allowed to dig into the drawer while presenting.

  • Bill

    March 26th, 2009

    I’m an applicant awaiting decision and I know that decisions have been made but I’m concerned that the high school I came from isn’t being taken into account. AP courses aren’t offered really, and the high school puts no focus on the already “talented” students they believe that “We’re smart and can take care of ourselves”, my point is that I’m afraid this attitude is common among small public school and that coming from a small public school and achiving what I, and i’m sure many others, have achived isn’t considered as high of an accomplishment as it should be. Just something to consider next year. Something that could be done is upping test score in the application process from students from public schools with a graduating class of less than a hundred. Like a 30 becomes more like a 32 for example. I feel like if i had lived in Des Moines, Iowa instead of Eldora that opportunities there would have enabled me to learn more and get a higher test score. But I’m still the same person despite having a 30 instead of a 32. You probably already factor that in. I’m probably just a little worried because I’m 0 for 3 so far on schools i want to go to. I just hope you come through for me. Honestly you can probably disregard that whole little rant I’m just upset becuase I’ll probably have to go to Iowa with half of my grade lol. so sorry for probably wasting your time but I really hope I can be in nashville this time next year, not Iowa city
    Thanks for letting me rant

  • Thom

    March 26th, 2009


    Thanks so much for posting that. I appreciate you sharing your perspective and for being a reader. A couple of reactions to what you write here:

    1) The small town/small school and big city/big school issue you identify is certainly something we think about and discuss in our office. We believe in the concept of blooming where you are planted, meaning that we expect you to have engaged the opportnities available to you, no more and no less. The issue you raise about standardized testing being related to economic and cultural backgrounds has some research supporting that.

    2) Please know that you are absolutely more than any test score could ever convey – whether you got a 32, 30 or a 20. I can tell that you are a thoughtful guy from your post, and I am sure you will do well, whether it is in Nashville or Iowa City. And by the way, not like you want to hear this, but having been friends with a several Iowa grads, I can tell you that it’s a great school. You’ll be fine, however it all turns out.

  • Hal

    March 28th, 2009

    What about those on the waitlist? How does it work? Can you tell us how many people made the wait list? And what percent you think might still get it? It would be helpful to have a realistic perception of our chances…like are there thousands or just hundreds on the wait list? And are wait list people evaluated within the context of their high schools? And what do we tell our second choice schools while we are waiting?

  • Caitlin

    March 29th, 2009

    If someone fits into the middle 50% of those accepted, what are some possible reasons they would be waitlisted?

  • Kristina

    April 13th, 2010

    I understand completely about the small town thing. My school is fairly small and we just made the 100 people graduating mark with 169. My school just started to offer AP classes this year (my senior year) and I jumped at the opportunity. The problem here is though that my school doesn’t weight classes. So someone can make a 100 in regular English while I make a 92 in AP English and the other person will end up in the top 10 percent. No, it’s not fair and people have tried to change it to no avail. To give Vanderbilt credit, they must be looking beyond the grades because I had the same mindset of thinking I’d never being accepted because, on the surface, it seemed as though everyone and their mother was doing that much better than I. I did get accepted and I am really grateful for those who take the time to look at the person behind the grade. :-)