How We Read a File
In a previous post I walked readers through how all of our mail makes it into a complete application file. I ended with the file landing in the “Read me!” bin of my office. The question begs, then what? How does an admissions counselor actually read a file, what are we looking for, and where does it go after our initial read?
A few things to note about this post: first, I am walking you through a representation of what happens most often. There are always exceptions. This post intends to give readers a general feel for the process. Additionally, I am only one of 25 admissions counselors in the office. Every counselor develops a unique style for file reading.
With that said… here’s how I read an application file:
The very first item inside the manila folder is a summary page. This page outlines basic information concisely (name, school, GPA, testing, etc.). I briefly skim this page so I have an idea of what to look for as I proceed.
I then choose to flip to the high school transcript and School Report form. The transcript tells me in detail each course an applicant took, how much credit it was worth, and the grade received. I ask myself the question, ‘what did she do with what was available’? I’m looking for the bar (so to speak) and for students who reach higher than the bare minimum. If accelerated coursework is available (honors/AP/IB), then I hope to see a significant number of courses at that accelerated level. Your high school college counselor completes the SR form and gives me their opinion of your coursework: was it demanding? Do they recommend you to our institution? How does your coursework compare to other classmates? They also give us more details about your high school: how many APs/IBs are available? Does your school rank students, if so how?
Next I read your counselor’s letter of recommendation, followed by your teacher letters of recommendation, and finally any supplemental letters you submitted. I read these before I get to the Common App because these important people in an applicant’s life clue me in as to what is actually important to the applicant. Furthermore, the letters of recommendation often corroborate what I already know from the transcript. They indicate if a student challenges themselves and they put it into anecdotes for me so that I can understand an applicant’s academic prowess as more than just numbers.
The student’s personal essay is next for me. This is where I find out what the applicant thinks is important. As I said in previous posts, there is no one acceptable topic. In this section I’m looking for a student’s voice so that I will remember that applicant throughout the winter. The best essay I read two years ago? A high school student who desperately wanted to play hockey. Last year? A girl with a car that smelled like dirty shoes. This year? A student who loves cooking with odd ingredients. There is no recipe for a successful essay (no pun intended).
A successful application grabs me by the time I finish the transcript, letters of recommendation, and essay. The rest of the Common App fills in the details. I look at the extracurriculars list, read the short answer (which expands on one of these extracurriculars), note an applicant’s academic/career interests, and dive deeper into the student’s testing. Finally, I write short comments about everything I just read and recommend a decision for this student. The comments tell a story about the applicant and apply the applicant’s story to their potential fit at Vanderbilt.
Sometimes I recommend admit because of the way letters of recommendation rave about a student. Occasionally, it’s clear from the extracurriculars that this student is a budding engineer with a great fit for VU. Other times, I’m attracted to the prose of the essay. The X factor that causes me to recommend “admit” is different for every student. There is no one thing that “gets you in”.
After I read a file there are many routes it can take. Some will receive admission. Some, unfortunately, will not. Many of the applications I read will end up as topics of conversation in committee, where a number of individuals will discuss the file to make a final decision. I’ll talk about committee in depth later this year.
For now I’m off to read a stack of files before Thanksgiving break!