Dr. LaScala responds:
You make a good point. I have been behind the scenes at several colleges and know something about what happens to the student's application after submission. And there are a few novels written on the "insider's view" of college admission that you might find interesting. Unfortunately, I cannot cite these as that may be viewed as an endorsement.
As you correctly point out, the process differs based on the type of college. The University of California (UC) is different than the California State University (CSU) and a large public university differs from a small liberal arts college. Still, there are some generalizations that can be made. Like all generalities, they will be somewhat oversimplified, but they should give a flavor for the process and point in the direction for further research.
Essentially, the regional admission officers usually get to read an application first (applications submitted by students in their designated region of the state); but that is not always the case. Sometimes, an individual from another region does the first review in order to offer more "objective" input. The thinking here is that the regional admission officer has some interest in admitting kids that apply from his/her assigned areas; I think for the most part that represents sound reasoning. After all, the point in making these assignments: is for representatives to get to know the schools and the students from those schools in meaningful ways. After the initial read, applications that meet certain criteria, some combination of academic, extracurricular activities, and other benchmarks, move forward in the process. They go to a second set of readers and then into various committees for final review and acceptance, deferral or denial. These committees are well informed about the needs of different departments, the numbers of students they can accommodate, whether new programs are being developed and so on. These factors are important because the university is seeking to put together a well-balanced freshman classone that preserves and builds upon the mission of the institution and its future plans.
Certainly, students with special talents and abilities that are coveted by schools are singled out for special review. One of these "hooks" is a legacy, especially in a situation where the legacy applicant has parents who have been generous over the years. And, of course, top athletes are flagged for special consideration, which is no secret at all.
The UCs have a comprehensive review process based on 14 admission criteria and a point system--the admission decision is based on the number of points scored. Each UC uses the same admissions criteria but a different scoring system. These are open to public review and can be found by searching the website of the UC in question. It is called "comprehensive review" and it is quite transparent. It also offers some insight into how private colleges and universities handle applications. I think it is informative and should go a long way toward answering your question. Since the UC does not ask for teacher or counselor letters of recommendation, these are not factored into the review process.
Your question refers to "dirty secrets" and I am not certain if I agree that these processes are particularly dirty or secretive in nature. For the most part, they seem to be out there for everyone to comment on and critique. However, I understand parents are concerned about whether the admission process discriminates against their children in some way. I think it is important to realize that colleges are businesses and when they behave like businesses we may experience discomfort and concern. It sometimes helps to remind our children to try not to take the admission decision personally, although I know that is difficult to do.
There are always scandals and things of that sort and when they come to light I like to think it is because they are relatively rare, rather than the norm. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic but I do tend to believe the old cliché that "a few bad apples should not spoil the whole bunch."
Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admission advisor. Her goal is to help freshman applicants as well as transfer students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org