File reading season is just around the corner. And no matter the size of your committee or number of readers, it’s important to put some practices in place to ensure everyone on your committee is well-trained, reading with the end goal in mind, and able to read files whether on campus or remote. 

As we prepare for this next phase of the process, we wanted to share some best practices for evaluating applications and ways SchoolAdmin can help make your file reading process a breeze (a welcome change to how the past year has felt!).

Evaluating Applications in a New World

Many schools have experienced wild changes to the admissions process this year. Maybe you’ve made a transition to rolling admission instead of hard and fast deadlines, or you’ve dropped the requirement of test scores for your applicants. Maybe last spring you weren’t sure what was going to happen and admitted a few students who weren’t the best fit for your schools…we’ve had to make lemonade out of this past year and I continue to be impressed (though not surprised!) at the ingenuity of admissions professionals. 

But, now that we saw how the spring played out, you’ll definitely want to think twice about the risk of admitting a student who is not exactly what your school is looking for. Not only do you run the risk of having a detractor down the line, but it’s unfair to the student. And I know none of us want to set a student up to be anything but successful. If they aren’t mission-fit it’s not in anyone’s best interest, and it’s also going to leave a sour taste in the family’s mouth. The best we can offer applicants in this strange time is a fair process and we can do that by ensuring we’re following a few best practices this reading season. 

Best Practices for File Reading & Student Evaluations 

“File reading should be focused on a student’s admissibility.”

Once you have your committee assembled, encourage readers to read with that one goal in mind: to see if the student is a best fit or match for your school. Ultimately the director of admission and/or financial aid and even sometimes your Head of School, in more sensitive cases, should be the ones to take any extra layers into account and make the final decisions to craft the next class. But as a committee, you’ve got to be focused on the same goal. 

Here are a few best practices around different aspects of student evaluations and file reading: 

1. Start with the right framework

Prior to the start of your reading season, try an exercise where you ask everyone on your committee to describe a successful student or the profile of a student who does well at your school and write down characteristics you expect to see. Then look for those things when you’re reading files. It won’t just be one profile, there are likely lots of kids that fit well at your school, but use the exercise to focus your attention on best-fit characteristics. 

2. Avoid bias and find best-fit students

“Training your committee is an important step to take, but as the admissions director you should be involved in the learning too —this should be collaborative.”

Even if you’ve been in the business for years, it’s important to regularly check yourself too. Share articles that help you and your team understand your biases and blind spots. Provide time to talk about them and encourage colleagues to help one another learn, understand, and engage in the important conversations around implicit bias. Be mindful in your committee to reduce groupthink and make sure that it’s not always just the loudest voices being heard. 

You may also want to consider how your readers read. Does it make sense for you to have your readers read blind — meaning they don’t see anyone else’s notes or ratings until the committee meets afterward to discuss? Doing this can help eliminate any thoughts or biases of the prior readers from influencing subsequent readers’ comments or thoughts about the candidate. You may also remove sensitive pieces of information that could sway a reader’s decision — things like financial aid information or a family’s address. If readers see a town where an applicant lives and know it is or isn’t a wealthy town, might they make some assumptions that cloud their evaluation?

We all have implicit biases. It’s easy to assume things about candidates, particularly when not reading carefully, but that doesn’t make it right. Make sure readers keep the focus on identifying students that embody the characteristics that you know find success at your school. 


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3. Use test scores and test-optional practices appropriately

If you use standardized testing as a part of your admissions process, make sure that everyone understands how to interpret them. It’s easy to assume your readers know what they are looking at but I would encourage you not to do that. Make sure everyone, including yourself, is trained on how to properly read and interpret test scores and offer a quick refresher each year. Explain the different test scores you accept and make sure everyone understands what each one means so they can read more accurately. If you accept multiple types of tests, know that they aren’t apples to apples, and be sure you know what each one offers you.

If you have decided to become test-optional for the first time this year, how will you weigh test scores in your decision-making process? Will a student who submits strong test scores have an advantage over a student who doesn’t submit anything? Will seeing a test score sway your readers in one direction or another? You also need to be sure that students understand the impact of submitting or not submitting scores so as to not disadvantage students who are unaware of how you’ll really use them. 

4. Be wary of burnout

“You want everyone on your committee to feel appreciated. Thoughtful file reading is time-consuming, especially if you don’t have online applications and an online reading process. Make sure you’re caring for your readers and be mindful of their schedules at this busy time of year.”

The biggest thing is to make sure you’re giving your committee enough time to read thoughtfully. This year, a lot of schools are seeing applications coming in later than in a “typical” year and committee members may likely be doing file reading and interviewing at the same time this year. Create clear expectations about what is expected, taking into account the workload and the division of work for your committee so that you can plan accordingly.

5. Get everyone involved in sharing the news

At my last school, I called every family personally when their decision was not favorable. We wanted to let them know how much we valued their application and the time they put into our process even if we couldn’t admit them. I stand by the belief that how you say “no” is as important to your school’s reputation as anything else you can do.

I invited my team to call the families we admitted, particularly those they may have worked closely with or those who were recipients of special scholarships. This simple phone call and the joy in families’ voices were incredibly rewarding after a long reading season. Once we made our decisions, mailed or emailed them out, and called the families, we sent thank you notes to any file readers who weren’t part of the admissions office. We made sure to share the final decisions on the class we admitted. You want them to know how much you valued their evaluations and their time in helping to build your next class. 

6. Evaluate your past decisions

“My biggest piece of advice to admissions committees and directors is to go back a year later and look at how students who were admitted and enrolled in the previous season are doing. How does their experience at your school compare to what you anticipated when you rated or evaluated them? Doing this kind of reflection will help you understand where you or your readers may have missed something in the file.”

Take time to self-evaluate past decisions particularly for students who are now struggling. Revisit the file to see if there was anything that might have tipped you off to a struggle down the line and search for red flags that you might have missed (maybe they didn’t seem red at the time!). This will help you and your committee to be better readers moving forward. You can also use this evaluation process to affirm positive decisions and make more of them moving forward. 

If there’s a disconnect between the kind of student your admissions committee is looking for and the kind of student your faculty can work with — you’ve got to figure that out ASAP. You don’t want to end up with larger attrition and enrollment management issues. 

Make File Reading and Student Evaluations Easier With SchoolAdmin

One great way to help reduce the workload for your readers and you as the admissions leader is to transition to an online evaluation process. The ability for readers to review files from anywhere, and at the same time, will allow you the flexibility to move faster. Giving your readers more flexibility to review students when and where it works for them can be a game-changer, though don’t neglect some training and perhaps some policies around accessing files. You may want to set up a few rules or expectations for online file reading to make sure readers understand the sensitive nature of the documents and don’t leave themselves logged in when they aren’t reading files.  file reading in SchoolAdmin

In a student enrollment management system like SchoolAdmin, you can also ensure that readers are reading blind. Readers won’t see the comments or ratings of any prior readers so they always read with fresh eyes. You can also create a rating rubric to consistently and fairly measure the characteristics that are important to your school.  The key is balance. Putting hard data alongside any of those “gut feelings” can provide a well-rounded review. This year we’ve launched the ability to have weighted ratings as well. You can assign weights to certain criteria according to the importance it should have in your process.

Learn more about the ways SchoolAdmin’s Enrollment Management Platform can help you simplify your admission process, build your strongest class yet, and crush your enrollment goals (even when you can’t be on campus).