With a huge sigh of relief and a little trepidation, you press <submit> and send your first college application.  The testing services have been notified to send your official SAT/ACT/AP scores. Your high school guidance, teaching and administrative staff will work in concert to send transcripts (including mid-year and year-end), counselor recommendations and teacher recommendations. Now the hardest part…the waiting…starts.

The application is starting a journey toward either the ‘Admit,’ ‘Deny,’ ‘Defer’ or ‘Wait List’ pile. While each college has its own procedure with slight variations, many parts of the process are consistent from school to school.

Here is a snapshot of what that journey actually looks like:

Step #1:  Is it Complete?

Regardless of who–you, your guidance counselor or your bio teacher–sends it, the first electronic form or piece of paper that your prospective college receives is the beginning of your application file. Until all of a college’s required forms have been received the file remains in limbo. Only after the file is complete will it move either physically or electronically to the first admissions officer or admissions reader.

Step #2/#3:  The First, Second and/or Third Reads

Because colleges differ in size, academic focus, level of competitiveness, and so forth, this step differs from school to school.  The first application read is often done by a regional admissions officer who is familiar with the student’s high school and who may have even met the student at his or her school or at a college fair. The first application read may even be done by a (non-admissions officer) reader who helps to cull the workload for a college that gets tens of thousands of applications. If the first admissions officer or admissions reader believes the application does not meet the standard for any number of reasons (academics, test scores, a sub-par essay, disciplinary issues, weak extracurricular involvement, unaddressed “red flags”) the process is likely to end.

Other colleges may require a number of reads before the application is firmly added to the deny pile. The deny decision is not final however until the notification to the student is actually sent. Factors such as a student’s location, field of study, musical prowess, athletic ability or alumni connections can all impact the final decision. While applicants may envision an admissions officer spending hours reading and re-reading, applications are often read in minutes.

If the admissions officer has a strong positive response to the application, another reader or two typically weighs in on the application as well. Many “second” and “third” admissions officers insist on reading applications and making their own comments without previewing the prior admissions officer’s comments. They avoid being influenced so they can build their own picture of the applicant before the application is put in the “accept” pile. Reading previous admissions officers’ comments such as, “This student’s commitment to XYZ Club is a clear display of his intellectual curiosity,” will blur subsequent admissions officers’ objectivity. Again, an admit decision can also be impacted by the student’s location, field of study, athletic or artistic achievements, race, gender or alumni connections.

Step #4:   Split Decisions

When a decision is split, treatment of applications varies. Some schools discuss them as a committee while others may seek out a student’s high school guidance department for more information. Some may set up an interview with the student while other colleges leave it to the director of admissions to break a tie vote and earmark an application for the admit, deny, wait list or defer pile.

The admissions committee works hard to determine if the student in question will be successful at their school. Again, external factors such as geography, male-to-female ratio, citizenship and racial background may also come into play.

Step #5:  What About Deferral and Waitlist?

While “admits” and “denies” are clear-cut, a deferral or wait list decision can come for a variety of reasons. For instance, a school’s admissions officers may really want a student, but feel they already have too many Californians. The college may need more information about the student’s academic trend and wants to wait for the mid-year or end-of-year grades. There may be politics afoot–the college may be lukewarm about the student, but will accept him or her to appease alumni or enhance its relationship with a high school. Like the total number of applicants, the number of students that a college admits from its waiting list differs each year.

What one hears around campus–or from well-meaning acquaintances–about the application process and what actually happens can be very different. That’s why many applicants turn to services such as Admissions Checkup to have former admissions officers “check” their application and give specific feedback before it is submitted.

No one knows better what a college wants than someone who had the power to say, “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” to applicants to that school. As already noted, an application only gets minutes to be read so it must make a solid impression quickly. A former senior admissions officer can provide clear, precise, personalized feedback on how to strengthen the application’s appeal to the student’s top pick schools. The student can then hone an application that will maximize his or her chance of acceptance. This specialized, one-on-one input–directly from those who actually made those all-important decisions–is proving to be among the most effective new tools available for college applicants.

Stephanie Klein Wassink is the founder and principal of Wilton-based Winning Application, a college consulting firm, and AdmissionsCheckup.com, an online service that matches students with former admissions officers who will review and give feedback on their applications before they submit. For more information, contact her by calling 203.762.6500 or via email.