The judges may not hold up scores to a cheering crowd, but in many ways the admissions process at America's top colleges does resemble the Olympics.
(This story is the fourth in a series of five. See links below for other stories in the series.)
At Georgetown University, which granted ABCNEWS' Nightline exclusive access to its decision-making process, high school students and their accomplishments often get ranked on a numerical scale by members of an admissions panel who each have their own ideas about what makes a perfect 10.
Like the Olympics, winning and losing can come down to a decimal point.
ABCNEWS followed the fate of three Washington, D.C.-area students as they applied to Georgetown, even sitting in on the university's admissions deliberations.
The students — Caitlin May, Elizabeth Gahl, and David Brown — opted to apply "early action," meaning that they received yea or nay verdicts on their applications in early December, unlike other students who do not receive a response until the spring.
The Selling Points
May attends Georgetown Visitation, a private Catholic school that sits next door to Georgetown. She has a 3.9 grade point average and a combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 1,430 out of 1,600. She also has been involved in many extracurricular activities, including field hockey and the school newspaper.
"I would like them to remember that I'm a pretty normal teenager … and I've put in a lot of time and effort to take on different things so that I'll be a well-rounded person," she said. "I hope to continue that in college."
A few miles away in a northern Virginia suburb, Gahl, much like May, has strong academic credentials. At Langley High School, she has a 3.9 GPA and a combined SAT score of 1,570.
"I guess it's a funny perfectionist thing I have," Gahl said. "I just have to be the best at everything I do. So I don't give myself any slack in any area."
She also has an enduring passion for ballet. Throughout high school, she debated whether to become a professional ballet dancer or go to school, ultimately choosing school.
"It's definitely been quite a juggling act," she said. "My entire high school career, ever since I was a freshman, I've been required [to follow] a special schedule where I get out of school early to train extra hours."
Brown believes, "the most important thing they're looking for, probably, is dedication and a sincere interest in higher learning and actually pursuing higher education for a purpose, and not just going to a school because you're rich or your parents went there."
A senior at Banneker High School in Washington, D.C., which is a predominantly African-American magnet school, Brown is the captain of his basketball and soccer teams, and is president of the math team. He hopes his profile as the quintessential scholar-athlete will help his application, and that his strong grades and 1,330 SAT score will be looked upon favorably by Georgetown.
What Are They Looking For?
So what exactly are the admissions officers of America's top colleges looking for when they examine applications?
"It's the personality things," said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions of Georgetown University. "Does this person come alive to me? Does this person have curiosity?"
Deacon believes Georgetown is honest with kids about who they are looking for — "essentially, academic standouts who test well and back it up with some other accomplishments."
In the end, he says there is no magic formula for getting into Georgetown and no perfect combination of academics and accomplishments that guarantees admission.
The Admissions Committee
As soon as the admissions office receives the applications, the basic information — such as name, high school, grades, SATs, extracurricular activities and ethnicity and religion, if declared — is entered into a computer.
The applications are then divided among the 14 admissions officers for a first reading. At Georgetown, all the applications from any given high school go to the same admissions officer for a first look.
"I'll pull all the files for a particular school, and I will have them in some sort of reading order," said Greg Roberts, who first read Gahl's application. "It may be either by their GPA or their class rank, although my decision isn't necessarily based on how they come down in an order."
Karen Felton is reading Banneker High School's applications, and does so for most of the other Washington, D.C., schools.
"I would typically read about 50 applications a day, give or take 10 or so," she said.
The admissions office reviewed 1,590 candidates for early admission in the fall of 2002. The admissions officers make the first cut on applications, to either admit or defer, choosing almost 80 percent of those granted early admission. The rest of the slots, the ones they are unsure about, go to one of nine committees.
"In some cases, students will be so strong across the board — academically, extracurricularly — that I am comfortable making a decision," Felton said. "With other students, there are some obvious strengths, maybe some inconsistencies, and so I'll seek the input of the admissions committee."
The Deliberation Process
For those on the committees, reading applications is time consuming. Each admissions committee consists of a faculty member, a dean, a student and a member of the admissions staff.
Hugh Cloke, an associate Dean at Georgetown, has been at it for 27 years.
"It's not only reading what's on the paper," he said. "It's trying to weigh the imagined liabilities of a student coming from a large public school, over and against the advantages of a student coming from a private school, and still trying to make some judgment about which of these students are going to take better advantage of the opportunity to be here. But it is like a novel. There's no clear plot. There's no clear moral."
The committee ranks each student according to a 10-point scale. Each member of the committee must come within a two-point range, thus eliminating the potential for discrepancy from the highest to the lowest rating. The scores for each candidate get added up. The top half of their pool will get in, and the bottom half will be deferred to be considered in the spring.
For hours, the committee members sit in session, orally ranking each student one at a time. Each member of the committee typically determines the student's rating based on SAT score, GPA and extracurricular activities and intangibles.
For Pamela Fox, an associate professor on an admissions committee, "Test scores don't mean a whole lot … because it basically reflects how well-trained you are to take tests."
The kind of high school from which a candidate comes can also come into play.
About one candidate, Cloke said, "Here is a kid who goes to a high school that has a senior class of almost 500 students. The material we get from the school is not helpful at all. The counselor doesn't really know her. The teachers don't really know her."
But, Fox responded, "Depending on where they go to school, some of the students don't get the kind of coaching that students from most affluent communities and schools get. … And, I don't want to hold that against her."
Even so, that particular candidate fell short of the early action criteria, but will get another look in the spring.
Much of what the admissions committee does while filtering through applications is speculation about how the candidate would potentially contribute to the campus community.
In reviewing Gahl's application, the officers debated her commitment to dance, and whether she could be too one-dimensional.
Mark Smith, a Georgetown student on the admissions committee, wondered, "My question is, is she going to be engaged here? … Is she just going to go to class or is she going to be involved?"
Fox said, "I think it's fine if she wants to come here and just go to her classes and do well and then spend the rest of her time in ballet. I think that should be up to her."
Deacon said, "I would like [Georgetown] to be more of a home for the student, though, than just a place where you stop off and do your grades before doing something else."
But Gahl was rated a 9, 8.3, 9 and 8.5 by committee members, for a total of 34.8, which gained her early acceptance to Georgetown.
I guess I was surprised," Gahl said. "I mean, I just didn't know what to expect. So, I'm just really happy."
Here's how it worked: When the committee finished reviewing all its applicants, an admissions officer totaled all the scores and found their mid-point — 33.8. Those with scores at and above the magic number were admitted. The rest were deferred until spring and will go through the whole process again.
Once the decisions were made, the letters were sealed and sent to the students.
"I'll try as hard on all my applications as I did for Georgetown," Gahl said. "But I still think Georgetown is my first choice."
It is Charles Deacon's fear that those students who are admitted will choose to attend other universities, but for now, he must focus on starting the admissions committee process all over with the regular-decision applicants.
Who Got In
Like Gahl, May was accepted early to Georgetown.
"I was so excited," she said. "It was the first school I'd heard from and I really wanted to get in."
But she also was accepted at Notre Dame, so she has a choice. And she also plans to apply to the University of Virginia, Duke, Wake Forest, Boston College, Villanova, the University of Richmond, and the University of Maryland.
David Brown, who was deferred admission to Georgetown, also will continue his application process.
"I didn't put enough into it," he concluded, "so I have to work harder before I submit my other applications."
ABCNEWS' Michel Martin contributed to this report.