The case before the admissions panel holed up in a small room at Lehigh University was complex.
The applicant had scored 1300 on the verbal and math portions of the SAT, on the low end for the highly selective, private research university in Bethlehem. He had taken only one of the 14 advanced placement courses offered at his high school in New England - not as rigorous of a schedule as Lehigh likes to see. And though he had a strong grade-point average, he received a couple of Cs.
"This is where it gets rough," admissions staffer Neil F. Gogno told his 16 colleagues, while a summary of the applicant projected on a screen.
The teen, Gogno said, was a victim of a hazing incident, the details of which drew gasps from those in the room.
"Oh my God," one of the staffers said. The room momentarily fell silent.
The teen's application was one of about 100 the committee considered that late February day - crunch time in college admissions. Lehigh received more than 12,560 applications, and staff agreed on the fate of the vast majority on first read. It's the cases in dispute that come before the team where they are reviewed and voted on. Simple majority rules.
Deciding cases on the bubble is an age-old part of the process, one playing out on campuses across the nation as colleges craft their incoming freshman classes for fall 2013. Most colleges will have announced admission decisions by Monday.
During the last month, on two occasions, The Inquirer has spent a total of about eight hours in the room with Lehigh staff members as they made sometimes difficult and agonizing decisions. It was a window into a highly competitive, emotionally charged process, often kept secret. The Inquirer agreed not to identify applicants.
From their candid conversations, several things became clear:
Getting bad grades in senior year, even with a stellar record previously and sky-high SATs, could sabotage a student.
A student with a perfect SAT score could find himself on the bubble if he hasn't visited campus or shown other real interest.
Having a parent, grandparent, or sibling who attended Lehigh - known as a legacy - can help, but it's no guarantee of admission.
The student's high school can have a major influence on admission chances, depending on the rigor of the curriculum and whether a student took the intensive courses.
With so much competition, students must distinguish themselves, whether it's in the essay, in the interview with a staffer, or through an entrepreneurial activity.
Sometimes pure geography plays a role.
At Lehigh, the 15-member admissions team is a vibrant bunch: About half are age 30 or under, and that's by design, according to J. Leon Washington, dean of admissions and financial aid, because they relate exceptionally well with high school students. But the staff also includes several seasoned members, including Washington, who has more than 40 years in the business, and Bruce Bunnick, director of admissions, a veteran of more than 20 years. Six have received one or more degrees from Lehigh. Each is responsible for certain regions of the state, the country, and the world, as Lehigh over the last decade has extended its reach in becoming a national university.
Admission officers spent last fall fanning out across their geographic area, meeting with prospective applicants and their families. Since November, they have been reviewing the just over 1,000 applications that came in for early decision, a process in which a student applies only to Lehigh and promises to attend if admitted. More than half of early-decision applicants were accepted for the incoming freshman class, targeted at 1,200. That left about 680 open spots for regular-decision applicants.
Lehigh accepts 25 to 29 percent of applicants, making it much more selective than the national average of about 64 percent at four-year, nonprofit colleges.
The table was filled with water and soda bottles and an array of snacks, as the team prepared to tackle some of the toughest decisions of the season.
"We're here at this venue to make a decision one way or another," Washington said.
Wait-list the valedictorian?
The Montgomery County teen had won over the staff. He was strong by all measures, including a 1540 out of a possible 1600 on his math and reading SAT. But on a recent report card, he got two Cs and a D with no real explanation.
"Oh boy, cats and dogs!" Washington said.
That applicant wasn't the only one to see his preliminary offer turn to a rejection. Another fell off after getting an F on a midyear calculus exam.
High school performance is one of the most important factors in the eyes of the admissions staff because it has proven a clear indicator of potential success at Lehigh.
"We tell students out on the road, 'You cannot coast in your senior year,'" Washington said.
Outstanding performance conversely can help a student overcome other problems.
The team debated the case of a student with an SAT of 1220 but who had the distinction of being class valedictorian.
When the committee appeared to be wavering, one member cautioned: "I just want to be mindful of the message we're sending if we wait-list the valedictorian." It would leave other students at the school with no hope.
The team unanimously agreed to admit the student. Washington was pleased he didn't have to raise the issue: "I've got good people around the table."