Which college admissions factors are the most important? Which criteria make the biggest difference in getting a college prep kid actually admitted to a great college?
For the past twenty years, the three most important factors for college admission decisions have remained consistent. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, these three factors are grades, high school curriculum, and test scores.
Top College Admissions Factor #1: Grades in High School
The grade point average remains a very important bit of information. Colleges use this as a measure of how well an applicant “does school.” Regardless of the grading scale used to report the GPA (grade point average), colleges want to know the top score possible, and where the applicant’s grade falls under that.
I occasionally have students make some pretty interesting excuses about their grades and GPA. Some have told me that they make their best grades in the “important” classes, and they trust a college to notice the difference in their performance. Other students claimed that “junior year is hard for everyone,” so they were sure that a college would understand the big dip in their grades that year.
I say to those students what I tell every student: Your GPA shows what kind of student you are. Are you motivated, consistent, resilient, and persistent? Are you prepared for college? An average of many grades over several years illustrates what kind of student someone has been – and helps predict what kind of student they will be in the future.
Top College Admissions Factor #2: Classes Taken
Good grades are impressive, but what were the courses associated with those grades? Did the student dodge tough classes to opt for the basic classes, just to get by? Or did they purposely enter more advanced courses, and work hard?
College is full of tough classes, and admissions folks are looking for students prepared for the challenge. Rigorous, competitive colleges know what to look for in a student they want to enroll. They will choose applicants who demonstrate the desire both to tackle a demanding curriculum and to make a sustained effort until they are successful in those classes. How your college-bound kid performs in a strong high school curriculum will be noticed.
College Prep Parents, remind your student that colleges don’t expect them to know everything. They just expect them to make a great effort to take demanding classes and to learn what they are being taught. (Read more about choosing classes in high school.)
Top College Admissions Factor #3: Standardized Test Scores
Some colleges have chosen to make their admissions process “test optional.” But standardized testing through the ACT and the SAT remains the choice for hundreds of colleges to compare the college readiness of students from varied high school programs. The high school academic experience of someone applying to college may be vastly different from another applicant. A standardized test attempts to find a common point of comparison. It may be only one piece of the puzzle, one clue to a student’s academic ability, but many colleges still say it is one of the top factors they consider.
(Read more about which standardized test your student should take.)
But That’s Not All
Grades, strength of curriculum, and test scores are ranked as “most important” by many colleges. However, many of those same colleges classify other college admissions factors as still quite important. These factors include:
The college admissions essay
Many college applications require at least one essay. Essays are used to let an applicant “introduce” themselves as a person, as a student, and as a communicator. Regardless of the suggested topic or question presented, an essay provides a window into the personality of the student.
A student’s demonstrated interest in the school
Colleges have an investment in the students they enroll. They want them to graduate. And unsurprisingly, students who really want to go to a certain school have a higher probability of graduating than accepted students who have little enthusiasm for that particular school. Because of this, some colleges look at a student’s demonstrated interest level when they consider an applicant. Activities like a formal campus visit, sitting in on a class or two, making contact with reps when they visit the high school or at a college fair, or attending anything sponsored by the admissions office can all “demonstrate interest.”
Guidance counselor and teacher recommendations
Colleges that include guidance counselor and teacher recommendations as a college admissions factor value the insight these people can provide. The best recommendations are the ones that help the admissions staff see a student in a way that they couldn’t before. A teacher or a counselor has a unique opportunity to “illustrate” a student through their personal observations.
High schools that rank their students are not as common as they once were, but a ranking provides a college a clue as to how academically competitive an applicant might be. Particularly in a large senior class, some college admissions staff feel that an applicant’s rank helps give some context to a high school student’s academic experience. Alongside other college admissions factors, class rank indicates something about a student’s academic abilities.
What a student does with their time outside of class can show their interests, energy, and motivation. It can also give clues as to their character. The activities a student has engaged in – particularly those done frequently and with a noticeable depth of involvement – help an admissions rep to “get to know” an applicant in a special way. A well-crafted high school resume, showing the extracurricular life of the student, can be an important addition to an application and a very useful college admissions factor.