Parents and students in the college application process always 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. At a recent 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, and some of them 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

1. Your Course Load and Grades

This is 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 Calfornia system uses a 14-point checklist in evaluating applications, and seven of them are about academics. So choose your courses strategically: it makes a big difference.

Case in point: One student we worked with just got into the University of California at Berkeley and was wait-listed at Harvard. Both schools were a stretch for him. He hadn’t expected either outcome. The biggest factor was likely that he took AP Calculus and AP Physics during his senior year. Showing that you can master tough subjects and tough classes is very important.

2. Standardized Test Scores

Although an increasing number of universities are now test-optional, meaning they don’t require standardized tests, most selective universities still require them or consider them highly. Standardized testing is still among the only ways admissions officials can compare students from diverse states and school districts. 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. It’s an important admissions factor.

3. Great Letters of Recommendation

Many top universities will ask for—or at least consider—more than one letter of recommendation. And it’s a very important 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. So 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 than demonstrates real knowledge of a student’s background, abilities, and character.

4. Your Résumé

Building a great résumé of extracurriculars, sports, and community service doesn’t have to mean an overwhelmingly busy life in high school. The key is to show leadership and focus on a few activities. For example, 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.

5. A Great Essay

Your application essay and the answers to supplemental questions can be the difference-maker when you’re up against many students who have the same grades and test scores. And no matter what your grades and test scores are, there will be others with similar scores. Writing a great essay involves forgetting a lot of what you learn in high school English class about a standard five-paragraph essay, and learning how to write a beautifully crafted narrative. Check out LifeLaunchr’s ultimate guide to a great college admissions essay to learn how to write a great essay.

The Ultimate Guide to a Great College Admissions Essay

6. Character and Resilience

One reason why essays matter is that they demonstrate a student’s character and their ability to overcome adversity. Grit and resilience are necessary for college. College is a big change from home, and students who know how to seek help and grow through the process will do much better. 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 in their lives, and being able to articulate how you persevered through that is important.

7. Passion for 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 that means chess, martial arts, volleyball, or machine learning—on a few areas and devote time and attention to it, your chances are better than someone who has a number of scattershot interests and activities on their résumé.

8. Interest

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. One way in which colleges track this is by using a measure called “demonstrated interest.” That means that you’ve done things that indicate interest. Writing good supplemental essays is one way you can do that. Other ways 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.

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