The future of college admissions does not have to be bleak

It is no secret that United States university admissions processes are rather opaque. Institutions are often and understandably hesitant – perhaps now more than ever – to share specific details on how applicants will be evaluated by staff.

Many institutions will simply note on their websites that reviews happen holistically, meaning that a number of factors are considered during evaluation. What they may not note, though, is that reviews might be conducted by individuals hundreds of miles away from the campus to which applicants are seeking to gain access.

I am a former seasonal application reader (sometimes called an ‘outside’ or ‘external’ reader), having read thousands of applications for four institutions and two scholarship organisations that support university students.

This part-time work began first at my alma mater and then continued at different institutions in the following admissions cycles. Interestingly, due to the remote nature of file reading, most of my roles have been at institutions where I have never physically stepped foot on campus.

Most students (and families) that I have consulted with are shocked after they learn that seemingly random people, like me, are deciding the fate of their educational futures. While the initial concern is understandable, from my prior experience, it seems that institutions that use external readers do a sufficiently thorough job of training and overseeing seasonal staff. But could the process be improved?

Why transparency matters

In my view, seasonal application reading is ultimately a good and fair practice so long as institutions are transparent about using outside readers and are clearer about their role in the selection process.

In the aftermath of the Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal in the US, it is important to strive for transparency and rebuild trust with the public so students and families know that offices are making considered decisions. With colleges struggling to fill places this fall, any opportunity for transparency and trust-building is more important now than ever before.

Students and families should be mindful that the university to which they are applying may use application readers and perhaps they will not share that openly on their website. That is okay – application readers go through training on campus culture, scoring and bias.

As part of the onboarding process, readers review sample files to ensure calibration. Students applying to universities should remember that there is likely to be some sort of rubric being used on the other side, tallying up points to determine potential fit.

Application readers, generally speaking, are responsible for being the first set of eyes on an application, performing a holistic review before sending the materials on for a second read, most likely by someone on the full-time staff. Importantly, students and families should know and remember that application readers are not making final decisions.

Seasonal readers have little concern for questions like: how much is this potential student willing and able to pay? Those conversations happen later, in the committee room. It is the outside reader’s job to review the application, keep biases in check, write notes and make scores accordingly. This part of the selection process perhaps feels most fair since readers make their scores solely based on the rubric and information available in the application.

Outside reading also brings additional, fresh and diverse perspectives into the conversation, which is surely good. Looking ahead, universities could continue looking for ways to include even more voices in the admissions process. For example, the College of the Atlantic includes both faculty and current students in their committee review.

Implications for international applicants

It would be a good idea for universities to ensure that careful hiring of their outside readers is happening. Given the inconsistent, seasonal timeline of the work, it seems that people from certain backgrounds might be shut out of this special work opportunity.

In my experience, this line of work regularly attracts graduate students, retirees and other professionals with only the most flexible work schedules. Payment for readers also varies wildly: some institutions pay readers around minimum wage, while others pay closer to US$30/hour or more.

I have a particular concern in the evaluation process regarding international students, who will be heavily affected by the recent Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action.

Competition for places will likely become steeper for international students, especially for those who are first-generation and bilingual – students who bring rich experiences to campuses but already face significant barriers when it comes to university access.

To help alleviate these concerns, the diversification of staff should certainly extend beyond the full-time team. Universities should reassess the demands of their reading processes and payment structures so professionals with different backgrounds – including international backgrounds – are more encouraged to join as seasonal readers.

For example, to promote diverse hiring, institutions could be more flexible in the method they use to assess applications. While some institutions allow readers to remotely review completely on their own time, others require that readers log on during specific hours, reviewing applications alongside full-time staff members. The latter method is likely to prevent candidates who have the required skills and experience – but do not have the flexibility – from applying.

It is also incredibly important for universities not only to hire diverse outside readers but also ones with the aptitude to decipher transcripts and materials from different education systems all around the globe.

This combination of work experience is certainly specific and might be difficult to recruit, hire and train for, but this approach in admissions could be just one additional and crucial way to keep university values regarding diversity, equity and inclusion centred considering the recent Supreme Court decision.

The future of US university admissions, and international admissions in particular, does not have to be bleak. However, careful attention to admission processes and the way they are communicated to the public will be quite important for long-term success. Seasonal application reading is just one piece of the larger puzzle.

John Anderson is an assistant director of admissions and financial aid at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA. E-mail: john.anderson@tufts.edu.