Parents and students in the college application process want to know: what factors do college admissions officials consider in each application? How do they evaluate and judge students when picking whom to admit and whom to not?
College admissions in the United States isn’t a science. A few years ago, at an event organized by the University of California, Berkeley, admissions director Olufemi “Femi” Ogundele said the admissions process is “rational but not predictable.” That term rings true because there are many factors college admissions officials consider in deciding whom to offer a seat to, some of which are subjective.
This video, recorded some years ago in the admissions committee of Amherst College, shows how these factors inter-relate in making admissions decisions.
But there are eight decision factors most universities consider.
Eight Factors College Admissions Officials Consider
Academics: Your Course Load and Grades
Academics are the most important factor for college admissions. It is also the one most parents are unaware of in the early years of a student’s high school education. For admissions officials, the question is: Did you take challenging courses in high school and get good grades? For example, the University of California system uses a 13-point checklist in evaluating applications, and seven of them are about academics. So choose your courses strategically: it makes a big difference.
Like most other factors in the American admissions system, a student’s academic record is not evaluated on a simple scale. Depending on a student’s background, their family’s educational and financial situation, and the offerings at their school, a college will expect different levels of academic rigor and accomplishment. If a student comes from a highly educated family, is relatively well-off, and attends a school that offers many AP and honors courses, colleges expect that student to take advantage of their opportunities. Conversely, a student who hasn’t had the same privilege will not be penalized for not taking advantage of opportunities that weren’t available to them.
Standardized Test Scores
Although an increasing number of universities are now test-optional, meaning they don’t require standardized tests (and some, like the UCs, are test-blind), most selective universities still consider them. Standardized testing allows admissions officials to compare students from diverse states and districts. Even though it’s not as important as it used to be, it’s a significant admissions factor. So develop a standardized testing strategy early. As early as sophomore year, determine your approach to these tests, and be sure to get preparation help if you can.
Meaningful Letters of Recommendation
Many selective universities will ask for—or at least consider—more than one letter of recommendation. What your recommenders say about you is a crucial decision factor. While you’ll need to get one from your counselor or principal, you can get the others from teachers or coaches who know you well. Develop relationships early. Having a teacher or coach who has gotten to know you, or building a relationship with your school counselor, can make a big difference. That is because a university will give greater weight to a letter demonstrating genuine knowledge of a student’s background, abilities, and character.
Your Extracurricular Activities and Résumé
Building a meaningful portfolio of extracurriculars, sports, and community service doesn’t have to mean an overwhelmingly busy high school life. The key is to show leadership, focus on a few activities, and make a genuine difference.
For example, community service should be more than just accumulating hours. One student we worked with recently played the violin and built on that by reaching out to a local senior center and offering to play for the residents. It showed passion and leadership. And it showed that her community service was work she cared about a lot.
Find ways for your extracurriculars – origami, bird-watching, or high school sports – to demonstrate something genuine about you. If you play a sport, work hard and help your team be successful. If you conduct research, focus on an important topic and drive toward publishable results.
Your personal statement (also known as the CommonApp essay) and the answers to supplemental questions can be difference-makers when you’re up against many students with similar grades and test scores. No matter your grades and test scores, there will be others with similar scores. Writing an effective essay involves forgetting a lot of what you learn in high school English class and learning to write a thoughtfully crafted narrative. LifeLaunchr’s course on writing a meaningful personal statement can be very helpful.
In addition, you’ll need to answer colleges’ supplemental essay questions (or the University of California Personal Insight Questions) thoughtfully. Colleges design these questions to help them select candidates with their desired qualities. For example, Stanford asks about intellectual curiosity and meaningful experiences.
Character and Resilience
One reason essays matter is that they demonstrate a student’s character and ability to overcome adversity. One student we worked with had succeeded even though she had a learning disability, her brother was in prison, and her father was a recovering alcoholic. That is an extraordinary story. But many students have stories of adversity. Articulating how you persevered through that is essential. College is a major change from home life. Students who know how to seek help and grow through the process will do much better.
Passion and a Track Record in Your Chosen Field
As an admissions officer at Stanford said, many colleges are looking for students with passion and a track record, not necessarily the most “well-rounded” student. That means that if you focus your extracurricular activities— whether chess, martial arts, volleyball, or machine learning—on a few areas and devote time and attention to them, your chances are better than someone with scattershot interests and activities on their résumé.
When a college offers you admission, they are giving up something precious to them: a spot in their incoming class. They are more likely to make this offer to you if they believe you’re likely to say yes. Colleges track this by using a measure called “demonstrated interest.” That means that you’ve done things that indicate interest. Writing well-researched supplemental essays is one way to do that. Other methods include visiting the college or writing to an admissions staff member with questions and then writing a polite thank-you note. Let them know you’re interested. At many colleges, it can make a difference.
College admissions can be a complex process, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Learn what college admissions officials look for, and you can use that knowledge to build a great application.