Whenever I meet with a new family, one of the first questions they ask is: "What are colleges looking for?" The process seems so opaque that most people think that college admission is a crap shoot, a dark hole that applications are dropped into and whether someone gets accepted or not is completely arbitrary. The truth is a bit different and with a little information, it is possible to determine the most important factors in the college admissions process.
Did you know that:
- 77% of colleges polled state that grades are the number one criterion for admission
That's grades in ALL courses, not just AP and Honors
That is not to say that curriculum isn't important (we'll get to that in a minute), but it IS saying that colleges look at ALL the courses a student has on his or her transcript, so every grade that makes up the GPA matters.
The next most important factor:
- 54% of colleges still state that standardized test scores (SAT, ACT) are considerably important in admissions decisions
In spite of the rising number of colleges that have become test optional, most colleges still look at test scores. It is very important that time is taken to prep for and take these tests to achieve the best results.
Most colleges still care about the courses that you take:
- 52% of colleges said strength of curriculum was of considerable importance
Every year somebody always asks: "Is it better to get an 'A' in a regular course or a 'B' in an Honors or AP course?" There is really an argument for both, but based on the data, I think the real answer is slightly more nuanced. If your course load is heavily weighted with Honors and AP courses, colleges will not want to see mostly 'B's on your transcript. If you are taking one AP course, then a 'B' is fine.
The next set of factors is, in my opinion, surprisingly less important:
- 19% said the essay was of considerable importance (compared to 36% who said it was moderately important)
- 15% said the counselor recommendation was very important
- 14% said student demonstrated interest was very important
- 11% said teacher recommendations are considerably important
- 8% said extracurricular activities are very important
I think we can infer from these numbers that nothing outweighs the objective information supplied by high schools and testing companies. I still believe, however, that a great essay can make the difference in getting accepted or not when there are multiple candidates with similar GPAs and test scores.
The bottom line? There are many factors that can help a student get into college, but it is pretty clear what colleges care about most.
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