How College Applications Are Evaluated
Want personalized (and free) advice while applying to college?
We’re building a free college guidance platform for high school students like you! This means we’ll let you know exactly what and when you should be focusing on things like extracurriculars, college essays, standardized tests, and more. Sign up now to get early access to our platform and get guidance applying to college!
There are many factors that go into college admissions decisions. In order to set your application apart, developing a narrative theme to weave into each aspect of your application, from the essays to the letters of recommendation, can work wonders.
This theme is indirect and should never be outwardly mentioned at all. Instead, a strong story that conveys the who, what, where, when and why for the point you are at now should naturally radiate from your application, allowing admissions officers to paint a clear picture of your developed sense of purpose. This will take time to develop, but will certainly take your application to the next level when evaluated against other strong applicants.
(Note: Not every school views each aspect of evaluation the same; this should only be viewed as a typical standard.)
Grades are the most important factor in admissions officers’ eyes. Consistently high grades and a strong GPA are critical, as well as an upward trend in grade improvement. Students who steadily improve their grades over time, especially rising to the occasion in more challenging courses, are often viewed just as highly as students who have maintained consistently top grades from the start of high school. Overall, maintaining high grades convinces admissions officers that the student is ready for more rigorous college curriculum.
Standardized Test Scores
While standardized test scores are an important factor in college admissions, extremely high test scores are simply not enough to guarantee acceptance. Other aspects of the application should not be overlooked in order to relentlessly prepare for standardized tests. Elite universities view test scores just below grades as the top factor for admission, but in recent years, lesser tier schools have begun to focus much less on standardized test scores when evaluating prospective candidates. Instead, favoring more qualitative aspects of the application as a better means to judge talent, ambition and purpose has become more of the norm.
Admissions officers want to see that applicants are challenging themselves by taking the best courses offered by their school. For example, if AP or IB courses are available at your school, but you are not taking them, your course rigor is less than someone taking all Honors classes at a school that offers no AP or IB courses.
It’s also important to be challenging yourself in high school courses that align with an intended major to which you will be applying. Prospective engineering majors should be taking the most difficult math and science classes offered at their school, and prospective English majors ought to be challenging themselves in advanced literature, and even high level history courses. Not to say that you should overwhelm yourself by taking every AP or IB class that your school offers, but rather strategically pick based on your current interests and favorite subjects. A challenging yet comfortable and doable course load is ideal.
In recent years, class rank is another area that has significantly declined in importance in the eyes of admissions officers. Nonetheless, students and families still worry about it year after year.
Elite universities may compare how your GPA stacks up to that of your peers, but as long as you are doing your best academically, this should not matter. If you attend a high school where you are at the top of your class, this will only help you. If you attend a highly competitive high school where dozens of students are offered admission to top colleges every year, admissions officers will recognize that level of competitiveness and will not expect you to be at the top of the class, as long as you are performing well academically and taking a rigorous course load.
Extracurriculars are a highly important part of the admissions decision. Admissions officers love when students are genuinely involved and are making an impact, either on an organization, the school community or the greater community at large.
High school students also tend to have much more free time during the summers, so admissions officers are always curious to see how students are spending that time. Exploring interests through employment, internships, academics or volunteering are excellent ways to spend a high school summer. You will learn a ton, gain valuable experience and ideally make some sort of positive impact.
However, quality over quantity is crucial. Loading up on extracurricular activities just for the sake of adding more to your resume is the wrong move, and admissions officers will see right through that approach. You are much better off taking the time to decide on a few pursuits that you truly enjoy and genuinely want to make an impact doing. For further insight into how to approach extracurricular involvement, check out my article How Extracurriculars Can Boost Your College Application.
The essay portion of the application is another critical element that can make or break the chances of admission. Admissions officers use the essays to discover elements of the student’s persona to which they would not otherwise gain access. A transformative and provocative essay has the ability to separate a student from the pack in a way no resume or list of grades and test scores possibly could. A strong essay will not by itself warrant admission, but it can tip the scales in an applicant’s favor if combined with an otherwise strong admissions profile. For more insight into crafting a strong qualitative portion of your application, check out my article How Can I Make My College Applications Stand Out?
Two letters of recommendation are typically the amount that colleges require applicants to submit, although more from non-academic sources are often encouraged. They are the component of the application that offers insight from someone besides the applicant, and can shed light into their true character through a unique context.
It is important that students focus effort into developing strong relationships with teachers to ensure they earn compelling recommendations from those they choose to vouch for them. Similar to choices in courses, it can help admissions chances if you ask for recommendations from teachers in classes targeted towards your intended major. For instance, it would behoove a prospective engineering student to seek a letter of recommendation from one of their high level math teachers.
Aside from any of the previous evaluative components, genuine, demonstrated interest in a university and major is an often overlooked and unused aspect of college applications. Expressing your specific interest in a certain program or initiative proves to admissions officers that you have done your research, and helps give them an instant image of you making a direct impact on campus.
While the components discussed above are used by universities to evaluate countless applicants year after year, all you can really control is your own distinct voice, perspective and performance where it counts. Put in the effort, always do your best, and you will be just fine.
Need extra assistance with the college application process? We know it’s complicated and can be confusing. CollegeVine’s experienced mentors are here to help you put together compelling applications, write intriguing essays, and present a polished applicant profile. To learn more about the services we offer, visit our College Application Guidance Program on our website.
Want more college admissions tips?
We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.