By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF

Most college admissions essays aren’t going to make anybody forget about War and Peace. Some of them may in fact remind admissions officers of War and Peace, and not in a nice way. Count Tolstoy’s immortal doorstop runs well over a thousand pages, and quite a few admissions essays probably seem to the reader like they do, even if they top out at 500 words.

We alluded, in Getting to Know You: the College Admissions Essay (June 8, 2018) to the fact that admissions officers have a heavy reading load, especially at peak times of year, and that they can become tired and jaded. “[R]emember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter,” Rachel Toor wrote in The New York Times. “Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.”

Any writer needs to take the audience into consideration. Who, exactly, are these people whose verdicts on essays and other application materials shape the destinies of countless teenagers each year? What sort of person is it who consigns you to studying automobile body repair in the vo-tech school at Overfor U, instead of human body repair at UAB, because of an awkward confession or an errant fat joke, because you were LOL-ing when you ought to have been STEM-ing?


“Applicants love to imagine some old men, wearing tweed, gathered in a smoke-filled room deciding who gets into college,” says Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment at Augustana College in Illinois. “In most admissions offices, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

For one thing, tweedy people are no longer the norm in academic life. As a more advanced student said to me shortly after I arrived at graduate school, “You have to give Dr. [name redacted] a chance. It takes some getting used to when he takes off his shoes and cleans his toes in class.” My friend was right, and I came to appreciate that Dr. Name Redacted A) wore shoes and B) cared whether his toes were clean or not.

And of course admissions officers are as likely to be female as male, and they are not at all likely to be old. Most colleges long ago fell hopelessly in love with the questionable assumption that only young adults can relate to still younger adults and adolescents. It’s also possible that the pace of life for admissions staffers could be a factor in the youth movement, as we shall see shortly.

Whatever their age, admissions officers who smoke must do so outside nowadays, of course. But how did they gain a place in that smoke-free office to begin with?

“My only qualification for this job was having graduated from college myself.”

Kathleen Kingsbury of The Daily Beast reports that most admissions officers enter the field more or less by accident, starting off as campus tour guides at their almae matres, becoming application readers, and staying on as admissions staffers. Those from other backgrounds might have qualifications that appear irrelevant to college admissions work:

One associate director of admissions was previously a designer of knitting patterns, having decided against an engineering career despite her degree from MIT. She began interviewing applicants as an alumna volunteer and went from there. Another admissions officer was a wilderness firefighter, perhaps a more appropriate preparation for admissions work than Kingsbury realized, especially since he has a philosophy degree. The executive director of undergraduate admissions at a leading public university is a former military intelligence officer, while the dean of admissions at a prominent Jesuit college was once the receptionist and bookkeeper for a hair-styling salon in Oxford, England.

An unnamed officer at an elite Northeastern college speaks of being “humbled to think that my only qualification for this job was having graduated from college myself,” but if you think about it a little bit you might conclude that there could be a sort of weird occult wisdom in the match between backgrounds and admissions positions. At least the profession is not characterized by a rigid credentialism. Not yet, anyway.

The trend is toward increasing professionalization, and almost all schools now send new admissions officers to outside training programs, or have internal mentoring systems. One former dean of admissions–who became an admissions officer after serving as personal bartender to a college president–calls training a matter of “taking good, raw material to begin with and putting them through boot camp.” Only in management positions are advanced degrees common.

To be sure, there is a place for specialized knowledge among admissions personnel. As Josh Clark explains for howstuffworks, officers are often assigned to a particular school or division within a university, which “allows the officer to become a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the particular tranche of the college they represent.” That said, specialization in admissions counseling is less of a factor at the undergraduate level than at the graduate school or professional school level, where the applicants themselves are pursuing specialization.

“They have to be able to see the silver lining in someone else’s story.”

Barnds, who advocates for enhanced professionalism in the admissions field, says that more people are actually choosing it as a career now, instead of merely falling into it. Just as admissions officers rely heavily on instinct in rendering their verdicts on students’ applications, deans of admissions rely on gut feelings in making hires.

“You know it when you see it,” Barnds says, citing an extremely high energy level and a capacity for empathy and objectivity as being crucial. “They have to be able to see the silver lining in someone else’s story.”

The job is not for the faint of heart. Admissions officers, far from being office-bound, spend much of their time visiting secondary schools, where they give presentations, field questions, and extol the merits of the institutions that employ them. They schedule campus visits, conduct tours, and conduct interviews. Back at the office, inquiries from students, parents, counselors, and teachers consume much of an admissions officer’s time and energy. Familiarity with the financial aid picture is important. And of course admissions officers are heavily involved in evaluating applications.

“You learn 80 percent of what you need to know in the first year or two,” says the bartender-turned-dean, “and then spend the rest of your career trying to learn the other 20 percent.” That might not leave much time, because careers in college admissions work tend to be short.

The turnover rate is high, with most officers remaining in the field only a few years. Budget cuts in higher education have kept pay at low levels, making it difficult to hire and retain what one former dean of admissions calls “that all-purpose educational counselor-cheerleader.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for admissions officers in 2016 was $38,448. That’s about what the bottom 10 percent of high school teachers make.

The admissions officer as high-performance animal…

“No one prepared me for what a high-pressure job this is,” says one Ivy League officer. Neither the travel aspect nor the office aspect provides any relief.

admissions officersPhoto by Prof. Mark A. Wilson, College of Wooster 

Donna Raczynski, former director of professional development with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, describes a typical day for a “roadrunner,” an admissions officer recruiting in the field:

“In the spring and fall, you might hit your first high school at 8 a.m. and leave around 3 p.m., and then you’ll do a college night from 7 to 9 p.m. During one tour, you could have 5,000 to 15,000 people come through.” The larger the school, and the more it tends to be a national or international draw, the more travel is required of admissions staff.

“I always tell my people that they’ve got to [become expert in] something back at the office like publications or [college] transfers, just so you’re not a roadrunner,” says an assistant vice president for enrolment for one Southern public university with an internationally prominent computer science program.

In an article for Money, former admissions officer Stephanie Klein Wassink contrasts the tweedy and grizzled popular image with the speedy and frazzled reality:

Most people like to think of a “bespectacled director of admissions, graying at the temples, [sitting] in a leather chair at his impressive desk in his walnut-paneled office. He leisurely reads your student’s application. He laughs, cries, and then immediately stamps ADMIT on the folder,” while the reality is likely “a harried admissions officer [who] sits in her car, sipping coffee, balancing her laptop precariously on the center console. She rushes to read applications between appointments. Your son or daughter’s material probably gets seven minutes of her time—tops.”

That’s understandable when you consider that the average admissions officer for a private institution reads about 350 applications per year, while officers in public colleges and universities read about 825 each.

According to Schmoop, larger or better-funded schools may require that application materials be vetted by junior officers before being handed off to the more senior personnel who evaluate essays. At MIT, for example, an essay might ascend two tiers of readers before (in the case of the lucky applicants) being referred to a committee of faculty members and senior admissions staff who pass judgment. An application that makes it into the final round may have been read by a dozen different people by the time the school reaches its decision.

The deciders are, in short, flesh-and-blood individuals whose flesh and blood are undergoing a rigorous ordeal for much of the year. However much they might wish to admit everyone, or almost everyone, they have the daunting task of separating the wheat from the chaff, and insufficient time in which to linger over their choices. It’s essential to get their attention quickly, and in the right way.

The Coaching Educator has nearly a decade of experience helping students identify suitable colleges and navigate the application and financial processes smoothly and in a manner that presents them in the best possible light. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Recommended Reading and Podcasts About College Admissions

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “Scams and Scandals in College Admissions,” The College Light Bulb podcast by The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/podcasts/

Culp, Paul. “Cleaning Up Well: Appearance, Speech, and Demeanor at College Interview Time,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/cleaning-up-well-appearance-speech-and-demeanor-at-college-interview-time/

Culp, Paul. “Getting to Know You: The College Admissions Essay,” The Coaching Educator, 8 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/08/getting-to-know-you-the-college-admissions-essay/

Culp, Paul. “How to Get the Most Out of a College Visit,” The Coaching Educator, 8 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/08/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-a-college-visit/

Culp, Paul. “Not So Fast: When Colleges Rescind Acceptances,” The Coaching Educator, 31 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/31/not-so-fast-when-colleges-rescind-acceptances/

Culp, Paul. “Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us,” The Coaching Educator, 29 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/16/scams-scandals-school-counselors-and-us/

Culp, Paul. “Technology, Intangibles, and the Brave New World of College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, 29 May 2018, http://tce.local/2018/05/29/technology-intangibles-and-the-brave-new-world-of-college-admissions/

Culp, Paul. “Under the Table and Over the Top: The Other College Admissions Scandals,” The Coaching Educator, 25 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/25/under-the-table-and-over-the-top-the-other-college-admissions-scandals/

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