It's one of the most important decisions teenagers and their parents will make, and it will likely have lifelong implications.
Even though it will set them back tens of thousands of dollars, a student's decision about which college to attend is not entirely theirs to make.
The college application process, until now, has remained largely a mystery, at least when it comes to what goes on behind the closed doors of the admissions department.
Butler University opened its doors for RTV6 to a process that very few have the privilege of witnessing, RTV6's Todd Connor
This year, 10,000 high school seniors will send their applications to Butler, with most arriving electronically by the early action deadline of Nov. 1.
For those early applicants, admissions decisions are made during a six-week period from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, an intense process in which long days turn into longer nights in the admissions department.
Counselors filter through stacks of applications in a process similar to students cramming for finals, only someone else's future is on the line.
"This is my vision for it, that they sit around and they read, and they go around in a circle and they read one application," said high school senior Kylie Broton, one of several students RTV6 followed over the last six months. "Then another person will read another application, and then another person, and they'll say, 'Yes, no, yes, no,' but I have no idea."
For students, what goes on behind the closed doors of a college admissions department is a stressful guessing game.
"It's a combination of excitement and nervousness about whether I'm going to get in, how we're going to afford it," said Jordy Long, another prospective Butler student.
The decision might be out of a student's control, but it helps to know what the admissions staff is looking for.
The National Association of College Admissions Counseling lists the top factors considered in a student's application as grades in college prep courses, curriculum strength, SAT and ACT scores and GPA.
After that, colleges look at essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank and the student's interest in attending that college.
"A lot of it is that people just don't know what it's all about," said Tom Weede, vice president for enrollment management at Butler. "It seems so secretive, and a lot of it is because you do what you can, but ultimately, the decision is out of your control."
Typically, simple applications pass through at least five or six people, more if there's a red flag.
"If it's a student who's on the bubble, you're probably talking anywhere between
six to 12 people who will get involved," said Aimée Scheuermann, director of admissions at Butler.
A review committee of counselors and managers dissects entire applications line-by-line, year-by-year, letter grade-by-letter grade. Nothing gets past them.
"In his junior year, F, F, D, D, D," said Chris Potts, associate director of admissions, explaining an application to the review committee. "No explanation anywhere, nothing -- straight As, and then just bites it junior year."
A bad semester in which a student struggles doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of the line for that applicant. The admissions staff wants to know why it happened.
"His dad dropped dead. It's him and his mother, and he was suddenly left without a father and having to support his mother," Scheuermann said. "That was not in the application anywhere."
No applicant is spared scrutiny, including those with high GPAs and test scores. A valedictorian's application for the pre-pharmacy program was among those that were reviewed because she took just four advanced placement courses.
"She has four (advanced placement courses). She's a valedictorian and she has four APs," said Scott Ham, dean of admissions at Butler.
"I expect more. I have seen stronger schedules come out of this high school," Scheuermann said.
The committee often gets into disagreements over the merits of students.
"That's the advantage of going to committee is that you get to hear other people's perspectives," Ham said.
Each member's perspectives often lead to spirited, yet civil discussions. While essays are far from the most important component of an application, they are often the focal point of the admissions staff because they offer insight into a student's potential, something that can't always be uncovered by looking at a grade-point average.
Admissions counselors spent quite a bit of time debating an application that included an essay about killing a police officer.
"I have to pause when a student chooses to submit that type of piece of writing," Scheuermann said.
Essays are a great place to let counselors get to know a student and to explain a drop in grades or a disciplinary issue.
Part two of this series takes a closer look at a special talent can influence the admissions decision and what a school is looking for in an application, as well as Butlers very unusual sendoff for the decision envelopes.
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