“Shrouded in mystery, the college admissions process often leaves students and parents puzzled as to why some gain admittance while others receive the dreaded rejection letter.” – Time Magazine
At Yale University, one of the most selective colleges in the world, admissions decisions are actually pretty straightforward, says Angela Kanali, Yale’s Associate Dean of Admissions.

“People think it’s some grand, mysterious process, but honestly it’s not. It’s just GPA, test scores, clown masks and defibrillators.” -- Yale admissions officer.

“We winnow down the same way our competitors do – GPA, test scores, extracurriculars,” Kanali explains. “Of course, being Yale, we’re still left with thousands of impressive applicants, so our secret is, we make the final cut based on the student essay. Over the three days before we announce, we have our admissions officers read the final candidates’ essays aloud, one at a time. While one officer reads, the rest of us wear clown masks and shock the reader with defibrillators. We base our decisions solely on whether the reader is able to finish the essay. Usually they can’t, so most applicants are rejected. That’s why we only admit about 8 percent of applicants.

“People think it’s some grand, mysterious process, but honestly it’s not,” she adds. “It’s just GPA, test scores, clown masks and defibrillators.”


Each year, most Duke admissions officers do the work you’d expect, sifting through thousands of applications to assemble the right freshman class. In fact, only one of the officers, a female, is annually selected for the ritual known as anguis orare (roughly translated: snake divination).

With the entire admissions department gathered around, the divinatress bites the heads off a series of live snakes, then screams out random numbers as blood and scales drip down her chin until, just 30 minutes later, 100 decapitated snakes lay writhing on the floor.

“The numbers she yells out aren’t really random,” says Duke’s Associate Admissions Director, Randall Turner. “They’re actually inspired by the spirit of the dead snakes and the massive amount of peyote the divinatress takes before biting their heads off.”

The numbers correspond to applicant files, and indicate whom the college will accept — at least this year.

“Some years the numbers are the kids who get in, sometimes they’re the kids we reject,” says Turner. “That doesn’t matter. What’s important is, we have a process.”


At the University of Wisconsin, 30 admissions officers diligently sort through more than 29,000 applications and, after months and months of hard work, winnow them down to 14,000 solid candidates. Then the real work begins.
University of Wisconsin admissions officers

Just two days before notices are sent out, the officers gather, late at night, on the 50-yard-line of Randall Stadium. Robed in purple, their feet bare and toenails painted alternately in the colors of anguish and elation, they stand in a solemn circle, each officer holding a list of with the names of 500 acceptable students – 14,000 names in all. In the circle’s center is a gigantic block of white cheddar cheese studded with kindling. The Dean of Admissions, dressed as school mascot Bucky the Badger, takes a red candle and lights the kindling. As the fire comes to life, the group begins to sing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” After the last refrain, Dean Bucky shouts, “Teachers, leave them kids alone!” and the admissions officers throw their lists onto the fire. In moments, all the names are aflame and acheesed.

How do they know who’s admitted?

“Actually, we don’t,” concedes one admissions officer. “They’re all burned up in the fire. But that’s why we have the ceremony two days in advance. Right after the ceremony, we all run back to our offices and start going through all the folders again. In the end, it’s mostly just us randomly admitting and rejecting people in order to make the deadline.”

But wouldn’t it be more effective if they just didn’t burn the lists?

“No, we tried that once,” the officer says. “Instead of burning the list of names, we burned all the applicant files. That was worse. We didn’t admit anybody that year.”


“We don’t rely on rituals or costumes or any of that nonsense,” says Virginia Tech admissions officer Jacquela Dennison. “We look exclusively at test scores, outside activities, and high school GPA. Especially we look at your 10th grade geometry grade; particularly the pop quiz on angle bisection you took during the sixth week of class; specifically you needed to get an 87. Without doing the extra credit question. You needed to leave that blank.”


One of the largest universities in the country, the University of Texas is inundated with applications. Like Virginia Tech, they don’t rely on some unfathomable, arcane ritual to pick their freshman class. Instead, they plow through mountains of forms to choose those who meet their standards for grades, scores, and activities. As for how they manage this Herculean task, admissions officer Kevin Blaney explains:

“We get 35,000 applications a year,” Blaney says. “Obviously we say we look at all of them, but then again, obviously, that’s not physically possible. We don’t have the manpower. But what we do have is bull testicles. Not personally. What I mean is, we have access to a collection of bull testicles, acquired over the years from our Longhorn mascots. The admissions officers at the University of Texas themselves do not have bull testicles. I don’t know how that rumor got started.
The secret of UT's admissions process

“Anyway, the bull testicles have magic powers, enabling us to each do the work of 10 men, or women, and get the job done. All we have to do is, at the beginning of the admissions process, in early Fall, we all get together and rub the bull testicles on our foreheads. Naked. We also have to be naked when we do this, that’s according to our admissions director, Mr. Hartswell, who is well versed in these things. So, we all gather naked in the pool – did I mention we stand at the shallow end of an Olympic swimming pool filled with crude oil? – and we rub the bull testicles on our heads, and then the strobe lights come on. That’s part of the magic. And then Mr. Hartswell, who’s sitting up in the lifeguard chair, pushes a button and 7,000 pounds of chicken feathers floats down on us.

“And right then, the magic is released, and for the next six months we’re each able to do incredible work and get through all the applications.”

Is it possible that your admissions director is just messing with you about the bull testicles, that you could do the work anyway?

“I really resent that implication,” says Blaney. “Fortunately for you, I have the restraint of 10 men thanks to my Longhorn balls.”


“We just admit everyone and hope some of them enroll by accident,” says a woman who answers the phone in the admissions department.
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