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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Pay No Attention to that File Behind the Curtain

One writer walks us through the anticlimactic process of viewing his admissions file and the insights he gleaned on along the way.


Like many, I was often frustrated during my senior year of high school by the swirling mystery encapsulating my college admissions fate. Would Dartmouth prefer if I highlighted my volunteer hours, or should I instead save my precious humble-bragging essay space to discuss some vague, appealing concept like character? I hated how much the college admissions process reduced my passions to a cold, calculated maximization problem, wherein my only constraints were sleep hours and maintaining some level of humanity. Even worse was the Lovecraftian, existential horror of it all: No matter how much effort I managed, my fate was equivalent to that of a Bingo ball bouncing around in the cage — that is, totally, unconscionably random. College admissions, no matter how hard one could try to game the system, had all the agency of a blinded swing at the pinata. 

And so, I had been resigned to a sorry state, attending the College on the Hill without knowing what had happened that got me here. Given this particularly devastating situation, my moping, as you may well imagine, knew no bounds. At last, I heard whisperings of the chance to look behind the curtain: Some told of a process through the admissions office where you could receive your actual admissions file, and view the comments, ratings and evaluations that got us in. Of course, I had to investigate, out of a personal curiosity and a high-minded journalistic sense of virtue: The people had to know the truth.

My excitement was immediately tempered by the admissions office’s response to my email inquiry: The process would be put in motion, which would mean my file would be ready to be viewed in a few months time. This is an important facet of the process to note: It does not lend itself to moments of spontaneity, and thus, no one should expect to stumble into McNutt Hall at midnight to immediately see just how far you’ve digressed from your high school self. You would have to wait a few months for that moment. The process is highly official, highly austere, highly confidential and not necessarily a fun Sunday activity.  

But at last, after spending my fall term and winter break thinking of nothing except for my admissions file, I received an email that I could set up a Zoom meeting to view the artifact. And set up a zoom meeting I did; I was ready to venture deep into muddy, FERPA-y waters.

At this point I should break the obviously building tension by mentioning that the Zoom call was incredibly anticlimactic. I hope I’ve included this disclaimer at a point early enough in the article that I’ve discouraged anyone from trying the same process. What I had expected was not quite the holy PDF my very helpful zoom proctor screen-shared with me. Missing were the highly personalized comments, emotional ratings of individual essays, thrilling discussions of my extracurricular activities and exact qualifying of the particular characteristics of my application I had dreamt of. I would have even settled for mean, defeating comments as opposed to the total lack of information I received. The file was a series of mostly empty charts, with scant and unclear information. For example, I learned that my IQ rating was a 3. I was fairly confident that this did not correspond to my intelligence quotient, and ventured to ask my proctor what IQ stood for in this context. Of course, and as I should have expected, I was not privy to such an enlightenment. I can think of a few guesses as to what some of the ratings meant, but for now, I will stick with my hope that it refers to my ice quirks. 

It was also amusing to see how easily and fully I was described. In addition to a couple of numbers with meanings I am not allowed to know, I was summarized as “busy, well rounded, lots of leadership” — reduced by the sheer volume of applications to six fairly accurate words. Along the same lines were the (very) quick descriptions of my extracurricular activities. I was described as ‘Debate C,’ ‘NHS P,’ along with a few equally-brief others. Throughout the whole application process, I was aware of the sheer mass of numbers vying for the same few spots in the Class of 2025, but only in viewing this file did I fully grasp just how many identical Connor Allens must have applied to Dartmouth. So many that spelling out the word captain would be a waste of time. 

I was given 30 minutes to view the file, the first three of which were spent viewing the scant actual information on the PDF — heaven forbid I leave a single electronic device on in the room during the Zoom call, as I might be trying to record or copy the file. I was able to use the rest of my time to copy down exactly what was on the PDF, with no resistance from my succinct yet polite proctor. I didn’t really understand that logic, but I was thankful for it nonetheless. Ultimately, the process of viewing my admissions file was not what I had expected, but I couldn’t blame anyone; of course, with all the pesky educational records rights, much of the information would have to be concealed or blocked. So, the fact that I was able to see anything at all is not at all worth disregarding.