How some admissions offices are tripling the amount of applications they read each day

New reading method can also root out bias, say those who use it

For college admissions staff, the traditional model of reading through applications can take 15 or even 20 minutes per file.

At many campuses, it goes something like this: one admissions officer reads one student's application. He or she reviews all the related material, writes up a detailed summary of the student, and then passes that summary on to a selection committee responsible for making the final decision.

But some admissions offices are switching to a team reading approach, which users say both speeds up processing time and helps them make smarter decisions.

What it looks like: Two admissions officers read the same application side-by-side, discussing the applicant as they go. The team then rates the applicant's relative competitiveness, recommends a decision, and passes the application onto the selection committee with a few quick notes rather than a full summary.

Colleges using the method: The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) replaced their traditional methods with team reading after 2013. Swarthmore College followed suit three years ago, when their applicant pool suddenly increased by 41%. Other schools using the strategy—or slight variations—include Bucknell University, the California Institute of Technology, Pomona College, and Emory University, among others.

Advantages: According to fans of the strategy, the team-reading method has four primary benefits:

1. It reduces reading time.

Penn admissions officers were only able to process four or five applications per hour under their previous model, but now they can process around 15 per hour. Users report similar results at Swarthmore, where two-person teams are able to review about 90 applications per day.

2. It helps reviewers catch more details.

Two sets of eyes on each application means a lower possibility that a key factor might be overlooked—such as the fact that a student is first-generation or that his school did not offer AP courses. At Penn, some teams divvy up their areas of focus in the application, one focusing on the student's test scores and grades, and the other focusing on essays and voice. Together, they get a fuller picture of each applicant. 

How can you evaluate an applicant's "grit"?

3. It roots out bias.

Previously, admissions officers might inadvertently favor a student with certain traits or interests. Having two admissions officers on each application safeguards against unfair decisions or partiality.

4. It's a training opportunity 

How productive is your admissions staff is compared with other institutions?

A solitary reading process offers little opportunity for interaction or training. But in team reading, more seasoned admissions professionals can be paired with rookie admissions officers to pass on their skills and expertise. Several institutions pair readers of different tenures so as to create mentor-mentee opportunities—which new admissions officers want more of, according to a 2014 survey.

Potential drawbacks: In the world of solo-admissions reading, staff members could read applications wherever and whenever they wanted. With team reading, they must do their reading in the office during conventional work hours. There's also the question of "how many applications is too many?" With the team system, staff can rattle through an extremely high volume of applicants—which can become "emotionally exhausting" for admissions officers, according to one official (Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/12 [1]; Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/12 [2]; Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/12 [3]).

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