What Do Colleges Care About the Most in Your Application?

College campus gates

Colleges’ admissions processes can seem like black boxes, especially at highly selective schools. Thousands of applications go into a school’s “box,” and only a fraction come back out as acceptances or waitlist offers. Why some applications are accepted and others rejected remains a mystery to many students and parents, but this isn’t necessary; lots of information is available.

If you ask college admission offices how they evaluate applications, most will answer candidly, and this is exactly what the National Association for College Admission Counseling does each year. The NACAC surveys thousands of college admission offices about their admission processes and then complies this information into its annual State of College Admission report. Among other data, the report summarizes trends in how admission officers—the administrators responsible for admitting and rejecting applicants—evaluate applications, including which parts of the application are weighed more heavily than others in their decisions.

[pullquote]Admission officers’ foremost concern in evaluating a student is his or her ability to succeed academically in college.[/pullquote] The NACAC finds that applications can be broken down into factors of considerable importance, moderate importance, or little importance to admission decisions. Since the first two sets of factors have the greatest impact on your chances of admission, we’ll focus on how different schools use those factors in their admission processes. You can check out NACAC’s full 2013 report here for free to get all the data.

 

The ‘core four’ of your college application

Overwhelmingly, four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. primarily consider the following factors, in order of importance, in making admission decisions:

  • Grades in college preparatory courses
  • Strength of curriculum
  • Admission test scores
  • Overall GPA

Admission officers’ foremost concern in evaluating a student is his or her ability to succeed academically in college. Your performance in college prep courses such as AP, IB, or dual enrollment classes gives the best indication of how you’ll do in actual college courses. As the NACAC states, “participation in a college prep curriculum and performance in the courses can indicate to college admission officers both motivation and ability to succeed in postsecondary education.”

How many college prep courses you take (in the context of the number your school offers) also matters. Research shows that students who complete a challenging high school curriculum are more likely to complete a degree after enrolling in college than students who take a less demanding high school curriculum. This doesn’t mean that colleges expect you to take an entire schedule of AP courses in order to get admitted; however, they do want to see that you’re challenging yourself.

Admission test scores, though slightly less important than your performance in a college prep curriculum and the strength of your schedule, provide another measure of your readiness for college. The type and quality of classes offered at high schools vary widely across the U.S., which can make comparisons among students difficult, but SAT and ACT scores give admission officers a standardized measurement that means the same thing no matter where students attend high school.

Your GPA provides a wider view of your academic performance in high school than just your ability to excel in college prep courses. But, again, making comparisons based on GPA can be problematic, as schools calculate GPAs in a variety of ways, and some calculations do not take into account the strength of your class schedule. That’s why your GPA is less important than your grades in specific college prep courses.

 

 

Important but secondary factors

Though they’re not as critical as the ‘core four,’ the follow factors still weigh heavily in many colleges’ and universities’ admission processes, especially at small, private, or highly selective schools. The factors, listed in order of importance, are:

  • Admission application essay
  • Student’s demonstrated interest
  • Counselor and teacher recommendations
  • Class rank
  • Extracurricular activities

Except for class rank, these factors lend more qualitative information about an applicant than GPAs and test scores can offer. They give admission officers a sense of your personality, character, interests, and voice, helping to “fill out” your application beyond academics; this can indicate your likely participation in nonacademic aspects of college life. They also demonstrate how much you know about a school, which can indicate how likely it is that you would attend the school if accepted. As we’ll explain below, these factors play a larger role in the decision processes of some types of schools than in others.

 

How different types of colleges and universities evaluate applications

As a general trend, public colleges and larger universities rely more heavily on the core four factors above in admission decisions and attribute less importance to the secondary factors than do small, private, or highly selective colleges. This latter group of schools takes a more “holistic” approach to admission decisions: core four factors still drive many of their decisions, but secondary factors add important context that often has great influence.

[pullquote]because applicants to the most selective institutions often have similarly high grades and test scores, these colleges need more information with which to evaluate each applicant.[/pullquote]The reasons for these differences among schools are multifold. Large colleges and universities, which include many public institutions, receive tens of thousands of applications that their respective staffs must process. Grades, curricula, and test scores help admission officers evaluate a high volume of applicants more methodically. Small colleges, including many private schools, receive fewer applications than their larger peers, and therefore have more freedom to compare applicants on the basis of individual secondary factors as well as the core four.

Highly selective schools embrace a holistic approach to admissions in order to make decisions among similarly qualified applicants. As reported by the NACAC, “because applicants to the most selective institutions often have similarly high grades and test scores, these colleges need more information with which to evaluate each applicant.” Admission officers draw on secondary factors, such as the essay, recommendations, and extracurricular activities, to decide among applicants with similar academic prowess.

 

Takeaways

While you shouldn’t discount any part of your college application, NACAC’s findings stress the importance of your academic choices and performance in high school. To have the best shot at being admitted to any school, challenge yourself with tough college preparatory classes or consider dual-enrollment at a local college if your high school doesn’t offer college prep courses. However, if you’re already a senior and haven’t taken a challenging course load or have poor grades, a high SAT or ACT score can help mitigate other weaknesses in your core four.

If you plan to apply to a small, private, or selective college or university, you cannot ignore the secondary factors of your application. For many large and/or public schools, a solid core four is enough to get you accepted, but small, private, or selective schools will likely pay close attention to the other elements of your application. You’ll want to make sure that your essay is as good as it can be, that you ask for recommendations from counselors and teachers who can speak enthusiastically of your strengths, and that you’re able to express clearly why you believe you’d be a good fit at the school. So when picking courses or an SAT prep schedule, remember that the choices you make with respect to college admissions should be based mostly on what kind of school you think you’ll want to call home for the next four years.