After reading Dean Badger's very interesting post about how he reads files in sets of six, it occurred to me that my method is quite different, and I thought I would share my routine in our ongoing effort to demystify the admissions process.
I receive a box of files every week or so, and it generally sits in the corner for a day or two. It then lands by my desk, and I try to read files periodically during the day when my other obligations seem manageable. The box is ordered alphabetically, so I am assured of a healthy variety of applicants in each box.
I try to read in bursts because it keeps things interesting and allows me to work on other projects during the day. A burst may be two files, it may be ten, but the important thing is to make progress!
When reading files, I always start with the Personal Statement. This (hopefully) gives me a sense of the person, their character, and helps inform the other parts of the file. After the Personal Statement, I review the resume to give a sense of what the applicant has been up to both academically and professionally, and then I look at the LSAC report to look in-depth at the academic performance, grade trends, performance against their peers, and LSAT score. I next turn the page and look at the transcripts to see what classes they took over their four (or more) years, which I find fascinating and revealing, it's amazing the intellectual variety students are exposed to in college. I look closely at their last two semesters of school, as that is usually their toughest and most relevant academic work. I last turn to their recommendations to see what their profs and/or bosses have to say, which hopefully is enthusiastic, specific, and positive. I then review any other materials in the file, such as addenda. One warning: Don't over-addenda us!!
As I review the different parts of the application, I keep a red pen and post-it pad close by to write notes, questions, or comments for the committee. I usually comment if something is really impressive (such as 'wonderful Recs' or 'amazing grades Jr. year') or I also point out any glaring deficiencies that I notice (like 'PS full of typos' or 'Bad 2nd rec') so that when the file is subsequently reviewed or discussed, I can convey my thoughts and explain my decision. I also note mitigating factors ('sick jr. year, but all A's otherwise') or hidden weaknesses ('good grades but intro classes and lots of P/F'). I will sometimes offer a short summary on the post-it ('great candidate, uneven grades but amazing recs').
Once I've finished my initial review, I may go back and look at something again, like check a grade mentioned by a recommender, or re-read the resume to see if a job or extracurriculars explain any grade trends or weak semesters. Sometimes I will ask another member of the admissions committee to look at the file for feedback on things like a foreign university, a strange personal statement or a confusing letter of recommendation. I frequently find myself asking students general questions about things I read in files, like the eating clubs at Princeton, the grading scale at West Point, or the infamous UVA honor code.
At that point, I make my decision. Sometimes I flag a file to revisit once the whole box is done, but usually I am comfortable with a decision. Occasionally I will revisit a file several times, and change my decision after some reflection. My main problem is that I want to admit everybody, but sadly we don't have the classroom space to accommodate all 5000 applicants!