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Key College Admission Factors

Volume of applications for top tier universities soared from 313,981 in 2018 to 376,065 in 2022 – that’s an increase of nearly 20%. While number of applicants steadily increase, class sizes hold steady. What this means is that the admissions landscape only gets more competitive every year. You’ve probably already figured this out, but good grades and a long list of extracurricular activities no longer cut it.

In order to have the highest chance of gaining admittance to your top choice college, you must arm yourself with comprehensive and accurate information on how committees make decisions. Colleges have a system for ranking or indexing applicants in order to ensure quality and diversity in their student body. While this system varies from college to college, top universities consider very similar criteria in evaluating applications. Keep in mind that the review process is holistic, which means these criteria while distinct, are deeply interrelated.

Our counselors have leveraged their years of experience to break down the key aspects of what makes up a competitive application, along with tips on how to evaluate where you stand in each area.

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Rigor of Curriculum

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Rigor of Curriculum refers to the number and level of high school courses completed in the five core subject areas (Math, Science, English, Social Studies and Foreign Language) and academic electives. All selective colleges value students that are not afraid to challenge themselves.

In fact, exposure to a rigorous curriculum in high school is a strong predictor of academic success in college. If available this may include Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and other college level courses, but it is important to keep in mind that your goals, performance, developing interests, and strategic choices, both in and out of the classroom, should influence the rigor of the curriculum you choose to pursue. 

Generally, colleges like to see students progress from regular level (i.e. College Placement/Prep) courses to Honors and to Advanced Placement courses when the student is succeeding at each of the preceding levels. However, it is critical to understand that choosing your curriculum is about finding the right balance between your academic and extracurricular endeavors.  In other words, you should challenge and push yourself as far as your capacity will allow without compromising your grades or your key activities outside of the classroom.

Where do I stand?
Although selective colleges will evaluate your curriculum relative to all applicants, particularly to peers at your high school, they will most importantly evaluate the transcript in the context of your specific circumstances and how much you have challenged yourself relative to the curriculum that your school offers. 
02

Grade Point Average

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Because high schools have vastly different ways they weight your GPA, colleges often have a system to recalculate your GPA that involves unweighting your grades and removing non-core courses to create a standardized GPA scale. It should go without saying that colleges value those students who maintain a high core GPA, but they are also interested in your grade trend. This means that while 11th grade is paramount, keeping grades up throughout senior year is equally important as colleges have deferred record numbers of early applicants!

It also means that a student can recover from a less-than-ideal start in 9th grade (some colleges do not even consider 9th grade in their evaluations; e.g. University of California system) by showing a continuous upwards trend in grades throughout the balance of high school.

Where do I stand?
The most cliché dilemma students continue to ask about: “Is it better to get an A in a less challenging course or a B in a more rigorous one?”. The easy answer, only half joking, is its best to get an A in the more rigorous course. More frustrating, the real answer is--it depends. Generally, if you are earning an A in the subject area you should consider stepping up to the next level even if you feel it may mean bringing the possibility of earning a B. However, if the more challenging course(s) eats away an undue amount of time, causing grades to dip in other courses, compromising your ability to participate in extracurricular activities or sacrificing an untenable amount of sleep, it may not be wise. 
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SAT/ACT

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One important aspect of standardized testing is that colleges use scores to compare applicants from different high schools where rigor and grading may vary. Additionally, there are some colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT, but may use them to help award merit based scholarships.  In most cases, colleges that are not requiring an SAT or ACT are awarding merit scholarships without considering SAT or ACT scores.

With so many canceled test dates, colleges and universities have taken the stance to relax their testing requirements and, as of this writing, more than 1,500 colleges and universities around the U.S. are currently test optional. Many will remain that way for at least the next few years and possibly beyond. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, prior to the pandemic, more than 1,000 colleges and universities were already test optional but another 500 U.S. colleges and universities have joined the ranks of test optional schools and currently more than 200 of them are in the top tiers of schools in their respective categories. Additionally, the College Board has now announced that the SAT optional essay will no longer be offered. It is likely the ACT will follow at some point.

Although they have recently been made more similar, the SAT and ACT remain different tests and some students score significantly better on one or the other. Taking a well-designed and calibrated SAT/ACT diagnostic test can help you fully understand their differences and evaluate which test you are best suited for. Because all colleges accept both tests, choosing to study for one or the other will greatly streamline the preparation process. We do not recommend submitting both tests to colleges.

Where do I stand?
To be in the top 25% for Ivy League schools, you’ll need a minimum SAT score of 1590/1600, or ACT score of 35/36. On the flip side, if you have anything lower than a 1470 for SAT and 31 for ACT, you have some work to do. To reemphasize, your test scores are not everything, and these numbers are designed to help you understand what you should be shooting for.
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AP Exams

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It used to be that SAT Subject Tests, in areas that closely align with your academic interests, could reinforce high grades and demonstrate commitment. However, SAT subjects are no longer offered.

Now, AP exam scores have taken on more significance in admissions decisions at selective colleges.AP and IB Exams correspond to core subject areas and sometimes specific courses within core subject areas. They provide a mechanism for colleges to assess a students readiness for college level work because they give colleges the ability to compare students on an "apples to apples" basis within their peer groups at their own high schools and around the world. It is more difficult to do that with a students grades because teaching from school to school can vary. In other words, similar to the SAT and ACT, colleges consider these tests to account for differences in rigor and grading at different high schools.

Where do I stand?
Similar to the SAT and ACT, colleges consider these tests to account for differences in rigor and grading at different high schools. Selective colleges like to see at least 4's, but 5's will help you compete at the most selective colleges.
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Extracurricular Resume

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Selective colleges seek an intellectually curious, socially conscious and active student body. Because they are interested in a well-rounded class they prefer students who develop a serious commitment to a few areas of activity rather than dabble in many. They look for commitment over time and growth into leadership (although it is not always necessary) and achievement. 

Your choice of extracurricular activities should be a reflection of your interests and goals – a development of your spike. It is your opportunity to prove that you have the potential to someday make a deep impact within your field, and you can’t do that by merely dabbling in different areas. Instead, decide on an area of focus, and build on that.

Because colleges are looking to build a diverse incoming class of attitudes and interests, they are not concerned with how impressive an activity sounds on a resume. Rather, because students have a wide range of interests, they care much more what you make of the activities that you choose to pursue. As a rough guide, strong resumes include leadership, achievement and impact or recognition at the local level, very strong at the state level and exceptionally strong at the national level.

Where do I stand?
Students should strategically prioritize interests and activities for the upcoming school years and summer, which does not mean trying to “look good for college”; it means planning to take advantage of opportunities to explore and develop interests within the limited resource of time. Don’t underestimate the importance of developing activities doing things that you enjoy. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to sustain the level of commitment necessary to develop meaningful depth in any activity if you do not.
06

Application Essay

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Colleges place hefty importance on your personal essay. It’s one of their main points of reference to get to know your character and writing ability. You will typically be asked to write about a meaningful experience through the lens of you as a storyteller. This essay is incredibly important to colleges because it is a representation of your character, perspective, writing ability and indicator of potential that helps admissions committees form that holistic picture of who you are and how you would fit in on their campus. A common mindset here is, how you write is how you think, which makes this a great opportunity to showcase that you have what it takes to succeed at your college of choice.  

To write a compelling personal essay you want to tell a story that illustrates traits central to your identity. Identifying 3-5 character strengths that best describe you can be a good starting point.

In addition to the personal essay, most top colleges require one or more supplemental essays. Supplemental college specific essay questions can be just as important as your personal essay and because prompts can be similar or overlap at different colleges, as soon as your college list is finalized you should create a strategic roadmap for completing all required essays that allows material formed for one essay to be used for multiple application prompts with appropriate customization.

Where do I stand?
These essays are definitely not something you can rush the night before the deadline, or even the week before. Competitive applicants begin the writing process 9 or 10 months in advance. You might think that essay writing is a skill you either have or you don’t, but any student who embraces the process is capable of creating a great essay if you put in the time and effort. Every great essay went through multiple rounds of rewrites and revisions, so don’t rush the process, start early.
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Letters of Recommendation

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Something often overlooked here is that just like everything else, letters of recommendation are not stand-alone materials in your application. It is important to think about how these letters will strengthen the rest of your application. They should come from teachers or counselors who know you well enough to create a personalized statement of you and your abilities.

Applicants to most selective colleges typically are submitting three different kinds of recommendations. These letters of recommendation are important to colleges because they personalize applicants from an outside perspective beyond the classroom.

Almost all schools require a guidance or college counselor recommendation. The most important question to ask yourself is how well does your counselor know you? Your job is to build a relationship with your counselor over time and help her get to know you both in and out of the classroom. The earlier you start in your high school career, the better.  

Your teacher letters should come from two or three of your 11th grade teachers. If possible, colleges want current perspectives rather than the opinions of a teacher you had one or two years earlier. Typically, you want to make sure you have one humanities and one STEM teacher.

Depending on the college, they may allow between zero and five other recommenders. The job of an ‘Other Recommender’ is to discuss the nature of their experience with you, demonstrate your character strengths through specific examples and discuss why you would make a great addition to your desired campus community.

Where do I stand?
Letters of recommendation should bring to light examples of academic achievement and potential. This covers even details such as level of classroom participation and respect for and from others. Key points here include discipline, maturity, motivation, leadership, integrity, reaction to setbacks, social consciousness, and self-confidence. It’s tempting to want to read these letters before they are submitted to colleges, but waiving your right to view them can pay off. Admission officers tend to trust them more if they know you were confident enough to have the letters go straight to them.
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Admissions Interview

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While the interview is not going to make or break your application, your interviewer’s report can reinforce or contradict the rest of your application. It is also yet another opportunity for you to show interest and to let your personality show through off paper.

Few colleges require or offer admissions interviews, so do your research early on whether or not you’ll need to go through the process. Selective colleges want students that are interested in them specifically. We recommend taking advantage of interview opportunities whenever possible.

And if you do, make sure to prepare well. Do research on the college, the program you’re interested in, and look up commonly-asked questions. Also be prepared with answers that bring to focus facets of your personality that you want the interviewer to pick up on. During the interview itself, be professional and mature – dress appropriately, be polite and on time, stay engaged, and be confident, not arrogant.

Where do I stand?
You’ll want your interview to come off more like a conversation than a traditional question and answer session. Interviewers can always tell if you’re taking it seriously, and if you don’t prepare in advance, you’ll run the risk of giving the impression that you just didn’t care enough. Interviewers may be impressed when you ask questions during the interview that cannot be easily looked up on the college’s website including questions about their own college experience, so come prepared with such questions.
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Timing of Application (Demonstrated Interest)

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Selective colleges seek to admit students that are highly interested in attending their college partly because their “ranking” is based on how many admitted students accept their offer. Most colleges have three “times of application.” Early Decision, Early Action, or Regular Decision.

Early Decision (ED) means you apply by early fall of 12th grade and receive an admissions decision the same fall. Students may apply ED to only 1 college. To apply ED applicants are required to sign a binding contract that obligates them to attend the college if admitted. Early Action (EA) means students apply early in the fall of 12th grade and receive an admission decision the same fall. Lastly, Regular Decision (RD) means students apply by late fall or early winter of 12th grade and receive an admissions decision in spring.

Where do I stand?
Which application timing you decide on is dependent on a few factors. Applying ED is the ultimate way to demonstrate interest, however, given that you can only do so for one college, be sure to do your due diligence before deciding on which college. You’ll also want to apply EA to as many colleges on your final list as possible to avoid last minute stress and months of anxiety which requires early planning and work. Having said that, there are some students that may be better off in RD if they need to show an upward grade or standardized test trend.
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Socioeconomics

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Much importance is placed on diversity in building out a student body. From an educational standpoint, it has been proven to create stimulating learning environments. From a business standpoint, we live in a time where colleges that ignore diversity run the risk of damaging their reputations. In addition to race colleges may consider levels of parental education, occupations, geographical location and almost every other aspect of a student’s socioeconomic background.

Where do I stand?
While many people consider this something that just is, we look at it as an opportunity for students to dig deep into their identity and begin to articulate the impact their circumstances have played in their development. The key is to break out of the inadequacy of the checkbox and assumptions that may accompany it. Think beyond the color of your skin or what’s written on your identification papers. Diversity takes many different shapes and forms. Remember that colleges are not just looking for diversity on paper, but also diversity in interests, attitudes and thought.
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VIP Status

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There are some students that are considered VIPs in the college admission process. VIPs may include celebrities, children of major donors, winners of elite academic contests, successful authors and founders of successful businesses. While the previous groups of applicants are extremely rare, colleges also consider athletes recruited to play a varsity sport VIPs.

Where do I stand?
Those of you who are athletes may want to keep in mind that many of the most selective colleges recruit athletes of more modest skill levels than you might think.
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The key takeaway here is that gone are the days where your 4.0 GPA and fancy valedictorian title were enough to land you admissions into top tier colleges. Admissions officers have to sift through more and more applications every year, and hence become more selective. What this means for you is that your application needs to cover the key criteria committees look at in a way that highlights your authentic personality and strengths. For a deeper dive into these deciding criteria, download our Insider’s Guide to Selective College Applications.

Get The Insider’s Guide to Selective College Admissions