Applications are surging at the University of Florida and other flagships. Here's how they handle it.

Century Tower at the University of Florida in Gainesville. [Wikimedia Commons]
Century Tower at the University of Florida in Gainesville. [Wikimedia Commons]
Published Dec. 27, 2017

The University of Florida makes a promise to its applicants: All essays they submit will be read at least twice.

Every year, that becomes more challenging. About 35,000 prospective studentsapplied to the state's flagship school in Gainesville during the fall 2017 admission cycle. That was up more than half compared to fall 2006.

To get through so many files takes discipline. "Right now, it is all hands on deck," Rick Bryant, director of admissions operations for the university, said this month. His goal is to release decisions by Feb. 9 for those who applied by the Nov. 15 deadline. His mantra: "Okay everybody, let's make sure we stay focused, stay on pace."

The admission rate at the University of Florida is 46 percent, just ahead of the University of Maryland (48 percent).

Prominent public universities nationwide are swamped every year withmore and more applications, making the job of admissions teams ever more difficult. A Washington Post analysis of the latest available federal admissions data found more than 1.3 million applications for freshman admission were filed to the 50 state flagships for fall 2016. That was up 79 percent compared to 10 years earlier.

There is no sign the trend is abating. More than 89,000 students have applied this year to enter the University of California at Berkeley in fall 2018 as freshmen. A staggering 113,409 applied to the California flagship's sister campus in Los Angeles. When the Los Angeles Times asked UCLA's enrollment chief, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, how she would make it through the admissions review season, Copeland-Morgan answered: "Joyfully."

How universities screen all those applicants varies from state to state. At the universities of Florida, Maryland, Virginia and others, the process is known as "holistic review." That means they take into consideration transcripts, test scores, recommendations, essays and other information to glean a full picture of the personal and academic qualifications of each student.

In Gainesville, UF's first step is to separate the essays from the rest of the applications. They are distributed among admissions officers and other experts (sometimes faculty) for what Bryant calls a "blind read." UF doesn't want the reader who is evaluating anessay to be influenced by factors other than the essay. "The point is to ensure that our readers are not biased," Bryant said. "As it comes through, the reader has no idea what the academic background is." No transcripts are seen at this point. No names, no test scores.

Next,the essay is sent to a second reader for the same purpose: an independent evaluation.

Then, the applications (including essay ratings) are considered as a whole. The admissions team looks at high schools the applicants attended and uses internal committees to develop recommendations on admission. "Those discussions can be very robust," Bryant said. Top officials sign off on final decisions. Sometimes, an essay will get read four or even five times, Bryant said. There are no hourly or daily quotas for processing applications. "If you fall behind, I don't want this rushed," Bryant said. "A holistic review cannot be rushed."

Florida has not always used holistic review, Bryant said. In previous eras, he said, the university relied more on numerical academic benchmarks to fill its classes. Holistic review is labor intensive, Bryant said. "But I also think it's more positive." The process enables the university to find more talent from among students who have overcome difficulties in life. Perhaps they grew up in foster care, or come from immigrant families. Perhaps their parents did not go to college. Perhaps the students themselves are holding down two or three jobs to help their families. (Race and ethnicity are not factors in Florida's review.)

"Many students have stories that are very compelling and very difficult," Bryant said. That can lead to strong internal debates over who gets in and who doesn't. "There's no right or wrong answer," he said. "It's a passionate discussion."