Here’s What Top Colleges Are Looking For When Evaluating Applications
There are a lot of misconceptions about what colleges are ‘looking for’ when evaluating college applications. Is it a well-rounded student? A well-rounded class? Students with only high SAT scores? Or students just in the top 10% of their class? Every college’s priorities are different, but here’s some insight into the factors that are important to most colleges based on a survey of college admissions officers themselves.
Every year the National Association for College Admission Counselors (NACAC) conducts a survey of admissions officers at colleges across the country, called the State of College Admission Report, to find out what admissions trends are developing, how colleges are responding to certain admissions concerns, and what they look for when evaluating applicants. Below is the list of what factors, in order based on the most current report, that college admissions officers consider most important when reading applications.
- Grades in College Prep Courses
- Strength of Curriculum
- Test Scores
- Grades in All Courses
- Demonstrated Interest
- Counselor Recommendation
- Class Rank
- Teacher Recommendation
- Extracurricular Activities
- Subject Test Scores (AP,IB)
- SAT II Scores
- State Graduation Exam Scores
Why Grades and Curriculum Are Most Important
Colleges aren’t just looking for smart students – they want students who are ready for the rigors of a college education, can perform well in class, and graduate in four years. Grades are a good indicator of how a student performs day-in and day-out in the classroom – they’re the best indicator of how academically consistent a student is. But colleges aren’t just looking at grades – they’re looking at what classes those grades are in. Are they in college prep courses? Rigorous AP or IB courses? They’re looking for good grades in difficult courses that best simulate college courses or, at the very least, are a stepping-stone to more rigorous college-level work.
This is why planning a challenging course load is so important from day one in high school. Students should aim to take the most rigorous courses available to them, keeping in mind the student’s abilities and readiness to take on challenging classes. Students’ course loads should increase in difficulty each year, with their most difficult curriculum their senior year. Students need to perform well in those courses to show that they’re ready academically for college. Students need to maintain As or strive for an upward grade trend. If a student is struggling, he or she should seek help immediately. Grades and course selection are a critical part of a student’s applicant profile, and it’s a component that students should work on from their first day of high school.
Why Test Scores Are Still Important
Over the past few years the test-optional movement has been gaining momentum, with some big-name colleges announcing they won’t require some or all applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores in order to be considered for admission. There is evidence that high test scores doesn’t necessarily predict college success or readiness, however, they are still a critical part of the college admissions process, especially at highly-selective institutions. For those looking to gain admission to a particularly selective college, test scores alone won’t get them in, but they could definitely keep them out. As the NACAC report points out, test scores are still an extremely important factor in the admissions process. It’s just one piece of the admissions puzzle that helps colleges build well-rounded classes. Test scores are also important for colleges because they’re necessary in order to be considered for some college rankings list – which can be an important marketing component for colleges.
It’s important for students to strive for goal scores that meet the admission standards of their best-fit colleges. If students are struggling with test scores, consider a test prep plan, or look into test-optional colleges. IvyWise can help students with this critical component with either expert ACT or SAT test-prep or college counseling to help students choose the best-fit colleges to apply to.
‘Soft Factors’ Carry Considerable Weight
Other factors that are less quantifiable, like essays, recommendations, demonstrated interest, and more, are still of considerable importance. These factors allow colleges to evaluate students holistically and gain insight that numbers like grades and test scores can’t offer. Students should be smart about who they approach for teacher recommendation letters, do their research in order to craft compelling supplemental essays, take time to write an authentic personal statement, and participate in extracurricular activities that they're really passionate about. Remember, who students are outside of the classroom matters to colleges just as much as their academic abilities.
When applying to college it’s important to remember that students need to showcase the best version of themselves, and effectively articulate why they think they’re a good fit for that college. It’s important to start early when preparing for the college admissions process, and IvyWise can help get students on track with tools like our college planning checklists, international guide for students outside of the US, and various articles on our blog! For more information on our more comprehensive college counseling services, contact us today.