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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

I requested my admissions documents — here’s what I found out

We have heard that Notre Dame conducts a “holistic review” of applicants, but I have always wondered what that actually looks like. How can we really try to understand an entire person based off a couple scores, a letter or two and some short essays?

This past October, I requested my admissions documents through FERPA. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act allows for students ages 18 and older to request their educational and admissions related documents from their university. While schools are under no obligation to maintain records to a certain level, they are required to comply with a request within 45 days. After submitting my request in an office of the Main Building, I received a call that my documents were prepared and I could come and view them.

I was not allowed to keep my admissions records or take any photographs. However, I was allowed to take as many notes as I wanted and the coordinator was very helpful in answering any questions I had.

The real substance of my file was the “decision sheet,” which distilled my application into the key elements that were considered by the committee and then rated those elements. The two admissions officers who reviewed my file gave me a numerical score in each of the following categories: academic record, non-academic record, leadership rating, talent rating, commitment to Notre Dame and an excitement rating, which was explained to me as the admissions officer’s personal understanding of an applicant.

According to the FERPA coordinator I reviewed my documents with, the range for numerical ratings in these categories change every year. One year, a 1 may be the high score and the next a 10 may be the high score. Thus, I was unable to really understand what my ratings in each of these categories meant. I reached out to the admissions office twice last week to understand the ratings for my 2015-2016 cycle when I was admitted. However, they are currently in the rush of reading early applications and I have yet to hear back.

In addition to these numerical ratings, there were four separate boxes on the decision sheet which had clearly been previously filled in with comments, but they had been deleted. They included a box for my academic review, non-academic review, read summary and the Director’s comments. I was told that they are typically erased a year after the admissions cycle is completed. However, the decision sheet is clearly a digital file that had been printed out for me so I find the erasure of these comments an interesting effort to undertake.

The decision sheet is much more comprehensive than the singular numerical ratings process. Before rating me as a candidate, my application had been distilled into several categories.

The first section of the sheet was dedicated to my biographical and demographic information, including my religion. From there, there were separate sections dedicated to my academic information, including my intended major, my high school’s classification and my GPA and test scores.

One especially interesting section of the decision sheet included specialized special interest codes. These interest codes indicate student interest in certain activities and student attributes. For example, I had a code designating my interest in journalism and The Observer, my engagement in high school student government and my participation in the Summer Scholars Program. Included in these special interest codes is a code which designates a Notre Dame relation, which I have taken to mean that a parent or immediate family member attended previously. There was an additional code which directly referenced the fact that I was an “alumni daughter.”

Following the special interest code section was a distilled understanding of my application file, called “file reviews.” In this section, the admissions committee noted how many years of foreign language I took in high school, the fact that I hadn’t taken calculus and how many AP classes I took. There was also a section where the committee was able to designate special qualities like an exceptional essay, personal note, economic hardship, life story or merit scholar status.

There were two other main elements of my application file besides the decision sheet: my high school transcript and application essays (horrifying to read) and a profile of my high school. I attended a public high school in the northern Chicago suburbs. My high school was classified on the decision sheet as a “P2,” although I am not sure what this means. Additionally, my application included a profile of my school, which listed all courses that were available to me during my time there. It seemed that this was likely provided by my high school for the admissions committee to gain a better understanding of our available academic rigor.

Bottom line: it’s clear to me that our process has its benefits and drawbacks. I am sure if I had been able to view the comments that had been made on my application, I would have been able to gain a better understanding of the key considerations for the admissions committee. However, it’s obvious that a numerical rating system, while standardizing review of all candidates, fundamentally distills a student’s personal attributes to a number.

The decision sheet did outline important characteristics about students which would contribute to the educational and experiential diversity of our student body, including racial and ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, parental relationships and a special designation for a compelling life story. Of course, it is unclear to what extent these characteristics are valued in admissions committee decisions.

There are clear arguments to be made against our emphasis on legacy status. Within my personal profile of the decision sheet, there was a “UND Member Page” which noted my local parish and all previous contacts I had with the University. However, it also included any family member who had attended Notre Dame, with their degree and graduation year. While Notre Dame’s status as a “family school” can generate great alumni contacts and collegiality, it also perpetuates systems of oppression and systems of privilege which have operated for centuries. There is no way to know how heavily the admissions committee valued legacy status in my application, but it was considered.

The honest truth of the process is that there really is no way to predict how successful a student will be in college. I was finally “admitted with reservation” off the waitlist in late May, probably one of the last students admitted to the University of Notre Dame Class of 2020. I don’t think the admissions committee was able to predict my success as a part of the Notre Dame student body, but it’s evident that they’re trying.

Jackie O'Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she's not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul's Drag Race. She can be reached at or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.