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College cheating scandal: Two ex-admissions officers explain the behind-the-scenes process

"The college process is so huge, with so many different moving parts, so I have no expectation that it's going to be purely meritocratic," said a former admissions officer at MIT.

The college bribery scheme announced by federal prosecutors this week has raised questions about the influence of money, power and celebrity on the admissions process. It has also stoked curiosity about the inner-workings of admissions offices at elite colleges and universities nationwide. NBC News spoke with former admissions officers at two of the most prestigious schools in the country to learn about what goes on behind closed doors.

It doesn't necessarily take admissions officers long to figure out if an applicant has a fighting chance at getting into one of the country's top schools, according to one former officer.

"We see so many transcripts that, in about a third of a second, we can tell what type of trajectory the student is on," said McGreggor Crowley, the former director of undergraduate selection at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That's not to say admissions officers generally make snap judgments. In interviews this week, the ex-admissions officers said their former colleagues comb through stacks of applications, pore over essays, scrutinize GPAs and try to help campuses winnow a vast pool of applicants to a select few.

They are the gatekeepers of what has become a deeply competitive — and, for many, a deeply unequal — process for high school students. The most esteemed schools extend invitations to only a tiny fraction of applicants — sometimes the admit rate is in the single digits or low teens — and some privileged families shell out thousands for test prep services, essay editors and private counselors.

The federal case brought this week against 50 people, including CEOs and Hollywood stars, suggests that some rich and powerful families use their wealth to illegally subvert the process and gain an advantage. The defendants, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, are charged in a sweeping scheme to purchase slots at Yale, Stanford and other prestigious institutions.

"The college process is so huge, with so many different moving parts, so I have no expectation that it's going to be purely meritocratic," said Crowley, who now works for the counseling service IvyWise. "If something is done that exposes that the process isn't meritocratic, I'm not surprised."

But by and large, mid-level admissions officers strive to consider applicants in good faith and on the basis of their academic records, the ex-officers said. "When universities are in possession of all the facts, I think they can make judicious and thoughtful decisions," said Eric Sherman, a former admissions officer at Columbia University.

"The bottom line is that the most selective schools deny the vast majority of students that apply, even if they were academically qualified to attend," Sherman added.

Crowley and Sherman gave NBC News a broad overview of the behind-the-scenes application review process, which varies from school to school and sometimes includes more than one reader.

The application

The review process usually begins with a just-the-facts "snapshot" of a student's academic profile — where they went to high school, how they scored on the SAT or ACT, and so on.

From there, admissions officers dive into the Common Application, a standardized form that is accepted by hundreds of colleges, including Ivy League universities like Harvard and Princeton. The application opens with prompts for biographical information, but most schools don't ask about family incomes, according to Crowley.

That's followed by a list of up to 10 activities, including summer internships. There's no successful formula in this section, according to Crowley. What matters, he said, is whether the student participates significantly in activities. "Did they start an organization, lead an organization, launch a nonprofit, serve as president of a club for multiple years?"

Sherman, who also now works at IvyWise, said most schools "don't care what you do, they care why you do it," adding that many admissions officers are wary of what he described as "résumé padding."

The next major component is the essay, also known as the personal statement. "It's a chance for a student to show they're interesting and introspective, and also convey their intellect," Crowley said.

Readers are generally more focused on substance than style, but writing technique matters, too. And so does word count: Applicants have room for 650 words, so a student who turns in far fewer is effectively showing they're "not a serious applicant," Crowley said.

Applicants should use the essay to "tell the reader something about themselves that wasn't covered elsewhere in the application," said Sherman.

In the next phase of the review process, officers take a close look at the student's transcript, which Crowley said accounts for roughly "50 percent of the weight of an application." They do the same for standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, optional supplemental essays and portfolios.

Money and status

As for the children of prominent campus donors, Crowley said a college's development office might reach out to the dean of admissions to say, "Hey, just so you know, Lisa's dad has been very generous to us in the past, or something."

In his years as a college admissions officer, Crowley never read an application in which the student had touted his family's financial contributions to the school. Usually, that kind of information is relayed to the most senior officials in an admissions office.

"If a student put on their application that their grandpa donated a building, that could lead to a rejection — or at least it would leave a really bad taste," Crowley said.