How colleges evaluate applicants
How do colleges make their admissions decisions? What goes on beyond those closed collegiate doors? While there’s a lot we don’t know, for the most part, the admissions process is rational. Decisions are based on two basic sets of student qualifications: objective and subjective criteria.
- The most important factor is “rigor of coursework.” Colleges want to know that students challenged themselves sufficiently. Colleges see a student’s full transcript. That means even though they don’t see senior-year grades they are aware of course selection. Be sure not to load the senior year with lightweight classes, thinking colleges won’t find out or won’t care.
- Grade point average (GPA) and rank in class (RIC) and your high school profile: Have you excelled in your classes? Has there been improvement from freshman to sophomore year and sophomore to junior year? How do you compare with other students from your own school? How does your school compare with others?
- Standardized testing: What are your best ACT and/or SAT scores? Are your scores competitive with the college’s pool of applicants?
This is the category where students are able to set themselves apart from other applicants.
- Extracurricular activities: Colleges want to know what you have been doing when you aren’t in school. How have you made a contribution? Have you moved from participating in a club or group to a leadership role?
- Essays: Make sure the essay is substantive and relevant. Follow directions and proofread. Be authentic — Could a friend or relative read it and know that you wrote it?
- Letters of recommendation: Does the writer really know you? Give the recommender plenty of time. Ask people that you are confident are strong writers. Be sure to send them thank-you notes.
- Anything that allows an applicant to stand out: This category includes special activities, community service, travel, honors, awards, athletics, talents, etc. In sharing these activities, always be sure to bring the focus back to how you were affected. All too often, college admissions officers receive essays about mission trips where students do nothing more than share a laundry list of what they did day by day. Share your insights, changed ideas and new perceptions.
- “Real-world experiences”: This includes paid or volunteer work. Internships are particularly attractive to colleges because they not only demonstrate initiative but also a career interest. Creating your own job-shadowing opportunity can be a very valuable activity.
- Interview: Due in large part to the increase in the number of applications, most colleges no longer recommend or even offer interviews. Smaller colleges are most receptive. Consider arranging an interview if you are particularly interested in a college and if, with an unbiased assessment, you are confident about your interviewing skills. Do your homework, come prepared with your own questions and have a solid knowledge of the college’s academic offerings such as study abroad, majors and internships.
We may not know exactly how each school evaluates students, but if you believe in the “80-20 rule,” which states that 20 percent of something is responsible for 80 percent of the results, then acting on some of these tips should prove worthwhile.