What are my chances of getting into School X? You might start comparing yourself to a college’s class profile, ask your college counselor, or read forum threads online to try to gauge your chances. Or you might wonder who you’re competing with in the first place—if you know what you’re stacked up against, you might be able to better understand your position in the applicant pool. Colleges are often vague when it comes to telling applicants who they’re competing against—perhaps because there isn’t one definitive answer for all schools. Despite that, there are some commonalities between most schools when it comes to segmenting their applicants into groups in which applicants will be compared, and the following will shed some light on those common practices.

Colleges compare applicants with similar backgrounds to each other:

The admissions committee knows that their applicants come from an incredible variety of backgrounds. Not all backgrounds are equally easy for applicants to thrive in, so admission officers take care to group applicants based on their background to level the playing field. The logic is that it wouldn’t be fair to compare an applicant from a wealthy family who went to a prestigious private school, engaged in exclusive extracurriculars, and traveled the world to gain unique experiences, to an applicant who goes to a run-down high school that offers no AP classes, whose family is struggling to make it day by day—someone who simply can’t engage in as many activities or have the same experiences as the previous applicant due to his or her living situation. All students will be in more or less the same environment in college, so the admissions committee wants to evaluate how fully an applicant has made use of his or her resources in a given environment. In light of this, colleges have a variety of categories they use to make the application process fairer. The categories include race, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation, which are fairly self-explanatory, as well as some others that could use some more explanation, like an applicant’s high school, living environment, and location:

  • High School. Admissions committees compare applicants from a high school to each other because students that go to the same school tend to have similar access to classes, clubs, sports, and resources specific to their school. This is a useful platform to compare applicants on, as admission officers can see how an applicant does relative to other applicants who had similar opportunities and resources. This might seem to imply that elite colleges simply select the top one or two students from each high school, but this is not the case. Admissions committees also take into account each high school’s high school profile as well as their reputations—students from a school well known for having high quality applicants will be seen as different than students from a less well-regarded school. How much of a difference does it make? It depends on the college. It’s one of the more ambiguous parts of their vaguely named “holistic review” which takes into account a variety of factors.
  • Environment. Applicants also grow up in a wide range of environments. Some applicants come from families that are doing extremely well, and thus they can simply focus on school and their extracurriculars, making their profile as attractive as possible to colleges. Other applicants can have day-to-day worries like whether there will be food on the table or not—naturally, those applicants can’t put as much time into perfecting their college application profile. Again, admissions committees strive to accept applicants that they think will flourish in their college’s environment, so they don’t count growing up in a more difficult environment against applicants. Thus, to keep things fair, admissions committees try to compare applicants who grew up in similar environments when making admissions decisions.
  • Location. Applicants come from all over the world, and each country or city has its own unique characteristics. The opportunities available for students can depend on where they live—someone living in New York City has a different set of opportunities and resources than someone living in the Philippines. As a result, admissions committees also evaluate applicants against other applicants from the same region.

Ultimately, every college’s admissions committee has its own methods for evaluating applications; however, most top colleges operate under the guiding principle of evaluating how applicants do given their circumstances.

Applicants who fit a college’s institutional needs are put into separate categories:

Many top colleges have institutional needs, and to fill those needs, they prioritize acceptance of certain types of applicants. A school’s institutional needs can be for a variety of applicant categories, including (but not limited to): top athletes, international students, legacies, extremely accomplished musicians, artists, students interested in a particular program or school within the college, and even applicants of one gender or the other (for example, male-heavy tech schools that are striving to have a more balanced male-to-female ratio). Applicants that are in one of these special categories are considered “hooked” applicants.

One point to note is that hooked applicants don’t compete will all other hooked applicants; rather, they only compete with other hooked applicants in their specific category. One way to think about how colleges treat hooked applicants is to imagine the college as an orchestra and its institutional needs as openings. If an orchestra needs violists and drummers, it will select sufficient violists from the violists that apply and drummers from the drummers that apply to fill all the openings. In other words, if you’re apply as a hooked applicant—say, as an accomplished pianist for a school that needs pianists—you will not be competing against the entire applicant pool nor the entire hooked applicant pool; you will just be competing with the other pianist applicants. This is usually advantageous, as it narrows the number of people you’re competing against, but it is still no guarantee for admission.

Ultimately, knowing who you’re up against in the college admissions process won’t do anything to boost your admission chances; however, it may help demystify the college application evaluation process. Unfortunately, admissions committees always seem to be vague when asked about their decisions process, citing holistic review to explain most questions regarding decisions, leaving many applicants with their hands up in the air. Hopefully this post has made that often secretive process clearer and make waiting for decisions in March just a bit easier.


Andrew Liu

Andrew Liu

Andrew is a Mathematical Data Science and Economics double major at Dartmouth College. In his spare time, if he’s not in the kitchen perfecting French macarons or butter-poaching halibut, he can likely be found near a piano, practicing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Ravel. He enjoys spending time with his cat.
Andrew Liu