What Do College Admissions Offices Look for in Applicants?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

In your college search, wouldn’t it be nice to have a better idea of what a college is looking for from its applicants before you apply?  As far as overall industry-wide information, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) publishes a yearly State of College Admission report.  In their 2012 report, they polled colleges across the country on the factors that influence admission decisions.  I found the results to be quite enlightening.  Over 50% of colleges surveyed agreed that the following were the top factors:

  • Grades in College Prep Courses – 84.3%
  • Strength of Curriculum – 67.7%
  • SAT/ACT Scores – 59.2%
  • Grades in All Courses – 51.9%

A student, along with his or her parents and counselors, should start working on these four things from the point of signing up for freshman-year high school classes.  By the time a student gets to the point in the college search of filling out applications, these four things are pretty well out of his or her control, except for senior-year grades and possibly one more shot at the SAT or ACT test.   However, you can assess the chance of getting into a particular school by assessing the student’s grades, curriculum and SAT/ACT scores against the school’s statistics.  It should be fairly easy to find these on the school’s website.  If you fall at the high end of the ranges your chances of getting in, all other things being equal are excellent.  If you fall comfortably in the middle, your chances are good.  If you fall on the lower end of the ranges, your chances could be a little iffy, but admission is definitely achievable.  If you fall below the low end of the ranges, you are going to have to work really hard to impress the school based on other criteria.

After the top four factors listed above, there are several factors that are considered to be of limited to moderate importance.  These include:  essay or writing sample, student’s demonstrated interest, counselor recommendation, class rank, teacher recommendation, and extracurricular activities.  When applying to colleges, the factors that are most in the student’s control are the essay/writing sample, recommendations and student’s demonstrated interest.  I will devote my next post to the subject of the essay.  As far as recommendations go, it is important to pick your recommenders wisely.  Think about strongest subjects and favorite teachers, but also think about who is most likely to complete the recommendation form quickly and be very detailed.

There are so many variables in the college admissions process.  Try not to get too stressed out about applications.  Focus on the things that can be controlled, choose schools to apply to based on the student’s fit with the colleges statistics, maybe throw in one or two “reach” schools and then try to be patient waiting for responses.  The wait can be the hardest part, but it is sure fun to see those big envelopes come in the mail!