The early decision and early action applications are being sent off. Suddenly students who were working very hard may find themselves with no college-related work to do, for a time. Some might rejoice, while others find it very hard to wait for an answer, and are anxious to know the status of their applications. So what actually happens in an admissions office once those Common Applications are uploaded?

The file review process varies from school to school and depends on the size and type of institution, its selectivity, and the school’s own culture. Many admissions officers would acknowledge that it’s an imperfect process that is part artistry, part science. In general, students are assessed relative to the applicant pool and to the school’s enrollment objectives. Each student is considered on his or her own merits, but also as a member of a class that reflects the demographics of society as a whole. Your student, then, is valued for how they contribute to that mix.

While larger universities typically use a formula based on standardized test scores, GPA, and other pertinent information to calculate a student’s admissibility, most schools review each and every application personally and thoroughly. Students can be assured that their application will be reviewed by a committee comprised of admissions counselors, faculty members, current students, part-time/seasonal staff, or any combination of the above. The fact that several different people representing a variety of perspectives and interests review each file reflects their effort to make the process as fair as possible.

After they review the file, admission committee members assign students a ranking, either numeric or alphabetical. Applicants with the highest scores are typically admitted and those with the lowest ranking are usually denied. It is the applications that fall in the middle that receive the greatest attention. At this point the colleges are looking to fine-tune the composition of the incoming class and each applicant is evaluated for the ways in which they might uniquely contribute to the school based on their particular strengths and talents.

Admissions offices are always interested in increasing their “yield”, or the number of admitted students who actually matriculate at their school. A student’s “demonstrated interest” can be a good indicator of their likelihood of attending, so many admissions committees note if the applicant visited their campus, met with them at a college fair, interviewed, joined the group when the college visited the student’s high school, or utilize social media to learn more about a college. Quality of the interaction counts.

Admissions officers also read letters of recommendation carefully and look specifically to see if what others have to say about the applicant supports the information the student has provided in his application. Is the student the passionate scholar he claims to be? Is she really a leader in a meaningful way or are her positions merely titular?

Finally, some students may be “on the bubble” because of their academic standing. If their grades are close, but not quite, what the admissions office would like to see, they may wait until the third quarter grades are released to make their decision. At this point no applicant really knows where they stand in the admission pool, so it is important that seniors continue to strive to get the best grades possible.

For many, this period of waiting can be stressful. Know that admissions counselors are doing their best to weigh every piece of an application to make the best and fairest decision possible. In the meantime, keep working hard, and keep your fingers crossed.