While college admissions is considered a druid process steeped in mystery, most admissions officers base their decisions on a foundation of common elements. According to an annual survey by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), foremost among these are academics and admission test scores, with additional factors such as writing samples, recommendations and extracurricular activities rounding out the picture of an ideal candidate.
With 750,000 to 1 million high school students applying to U.S. universities each year, it helps to know your advantages. The following are the top factors in the admissions process according to the 2011 NACAC survey of colleges, along with some tips and statistics that can help you recognize and emphasize your assets.
Top 5 Factors in College Admissions
1. Grades & Curriculum
Grades in college preparatory courses are by far the most important consideration in college admissions. Over 84% of survey respondents ranked this “of considerable importance.”
Strength of curriculum is a close second. Admissions officers want to see that you have challenged yourself. Taking non-required courses or the full range of courses in a particular subject is a plus.
On the flip side, abandoning a core subject (such as math, science or foreign language) early is a problem, as are grades that decline, rather than improve, over time.
2. Admissions Test Scores (SAT, ACT)
The majority of colleges place great emphasis on SAT and ACT scores, with 60% calling them a top priority and 30% considering them “of moderate importance.”
Many institutions will combine their applicants’ highest verbal, math, and writing scores.
Yet it doesn’t pay to take the SAT or ACT more than twice—according to psychometrics (the study of test-taking), the bulk of the population will not improve on a test during subsequent attempts.
3. Essay or Writing Sample
While 63% of admissions staff rank the student essay as moderately or considerably important, “They do not have to be extraordinary works of art,” according to Brown University Dean of Admissions James Miller.
Avoid gimmicks (such as writing backwards or in concentric circles), and do not rely on spell-check. “We see a number of candy ‘strippers’ and ‘marital’ arts experts each year,” says Dean Miller.
Be original. Too many students write about their public service trips or their heartbreaking relationships. Also avoid topics that are too broad to be adequately addressed in a college essay.
4. Counselor & Teacher Recommendations
With 40% of colleges rating counselor or teacher recommendations as moderately important, it is wise to request these early and follow up with a thank-you note.
More is not necessarily better. If you want to send in an additional letter, be sure it puts you in a new light.
5. Student’s Demonstrated Interest & Extracurricular Activities
Admissions officers look for well-rounded students who show enthusiasm for something.
Extracurricular talents can also be important, especially if there is a need on campus. “For instance,” offers Dean Miller, “Does the pep band need a tuba player? (Yes, that does happen.)”
But don’t think joining a bunch of activities in your junior or senior year of high school is fooling anyone. Colleges desire students with depth rather than breadth.
Finally, watch your behavior on school trips…as well as on social media sites. Any one witnessing inappropriate behavior can report you to your college. It is not unheard of for an acceptance to be rescinded following a bout of bad judgment.
Most prospective college students do not know that 70% of colleges admit 70% of their applicants. While the college application process can be a long road, you will get into college.