What Matters Most to Colleges

Ever wonder how colleges select students? It may seem top secret, but many admissions officers are perfectly willing to report how they decide. Find out which admissions factors typically count highly!

While every college is different in the way it admits students, admissions officers typically look at the same group of factors as highly important. Individual colleges, however, do vary in the weight they give other factors. For example, some colleges consider the essay very important, while others do not even require one. Read on to learn more about these factors and how to research their importance to your colleges.

Top Admission Factors Considered by Colleges

The following admission factors are typically considered important by colleges according to The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). The order of the factors reflects how often the factor was rated "Considerably Important" or "Moderately Important."

Top Factors Ranked "Considerably Important"

College prep course grades. Most colleges will consider your performance in college prep, honors, or Advanced Placement (AP) courses one of the strongest signs of your ability to do well in college. Even if you struggled early in high school, colleges will look favorably upon a strong improvement in your college prep grades and course load during subsequent years.

Strength of high school curriculum. Colleges will notice whether you took the most challenging courses available to you or whether you opted for an easier route. Strong performance in a demanding academic environment shows that you can handle college-level work. If your high school offers only a few college prep courses, admissions officers will take this into account.

Standardized test scores. Your SAT and/or ACT scores usually count highly if the college requires them. All colleges accept both tests. Scores from SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams may also be important, especially to more selective colleges.

Overall grade point average. Your overall GPA also serves as an indicator of your academic success in high school. The college may also look over your transcript, which lists every class that you have taken in high school and the grade you received in each class.

Top Factors Ranked "Moderately Important"

The admissions essay. Many colleges will ask you to submit an essay or personal statement. Here is your opportunity to put your personality into your application. A well-written essay can tip a decision in your favor.

Letters of recommendation. Some colleges require that you ask a few teachers, your high school counselor, and possibly your principal to complete and submit recommendation forms. Colleges want an honest professional opinion of your abilities and personality. For recommendations from teachers, look for those with whom you've had a good experience in an academic subject, who know you well, and who can vouch for your likelihood of academic success.

Demonstrated interest. Going on a college visit, talking with admission officers, or doing an enthusiastic interview can call attention to how much you really want to attend. Applying for an early decision may also make a good impression.

Class rank. Class rank shows where you place numerically in your class, based on your GPA. Colleges that use this factor want to see how much competition you had to face to achieve your rank. However, fewer and fewer colleges are giving class rank much importance. In fact, fewer than half of high schools now track class rank.

Extracurricular commitment. What counts most to colleges is not how many extracurricular activities you list. What is impressive is how long and how deeply you have been committed to one or two interests, how much time you allot to them each week, what leadership roles you have undertaken, and what you have accomplished.

Admissions at Highly Selective Colleges

At highly selective schools (those that admit under a third of their applicants), admissions officers typically make final choices from a pool of students who are outstanding in the "considerably important" admission factors. To make their decisions, they may look for a consistent picture across the application. Do a student's recommendations, test scores, and grades highlight the same strengths? They may look for evidence of intellectual drive in the essay, extracurricular activities, interview, and any communication the student has had with the college. The best way to find out how such colleges evaluate applications is to simply ask an admissions officer what they look for beyond grades and scores.

Admission Factors at Your Colleges

While all of these admissions factors are generally important, it is up to each college to determine which ones are the most important to them. Using College Data's College Match tool, you can look up the specific admissions criteria for the colleges that interest you. Select the Admission tab to see which factors the college rates as Very Important, Important, Considered, or Not Considered. To see the credentials of students applying to your target colleges, visit College Data's Admissions Tracker.

As you firm up your college list and start to tackle your applications, take the time to understand how each of your colleges evaluates candidates for admission. If grades and test scores are vitally important, take a hard look at your own stats. Do they make you a well-qualified candidate? If your essay is a key factor, put in the extra time and effort it takes to produce a compelling statement. The more you know about the admissions factors a college values most highly, the more you are able to make good choices about where to apply and make your best impression when you do apply.

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