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What Colleges Are Looking For

Updated 5/28/2024

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2020-21, there were 2637 four-year colleges in the United States. Given the tremendous variation in size, mission, and level of selectivity across this spectrum, it stands to reason that there would be a broad range of admission procedures. Parents who crave a thorough analysis of all of them will have no difficulty finding numerous tomes on the subject. But for those who just wanted to spend a few minutes on the topic while microwaving a frozen pizza, I’ve tried to fashion a succinct overview.

A short article on an old College Board website provided a convenient way of conceptualizing the admissions procedures of colleges based on the selectivity of the institutions. According to this framework, the first category of colleges is open door colleges, those that accept all applicants who meet basic standards - like high school graduation. Most community colleges utilize this admissions procedure, because it supports their mission to provide widespread access to higher education.

The next category, selective colleges, encompasses the largest number of institutions. These schools set a higher academic bar, but accept most students who meet it. However, at colleges in the third category – very selective schools that accept only a small fraction of applicants - students who meet the academic standards of a typical enrolled student are by no means assured admission. The key characteristic of a very selective (also referred to in this website as competitive) college is that there are far more highly qualified applicants than there are places in the freshman class. Consequently, qualified applicants must compete with each other for limited spots.

How do colleges evaluate students?

As you might guess, it varies. Evaluation processes range along a continuum. At one extreme is a fairly algorithmic approach that selects students largely on the basis of courses taken, grade point averages and test scores, if required (the majority of colleges no longer do so). At the opposite pole is an extensive, holistic review of a candidate’s academic and personal qualities. In general, the more competitive a college is (i.e. the lower the acceptance rate), the more holistic and subjective is its evaluation process.

There are six admission factors that colleges commonly evaluate, and these fall into two categories; academic factors and personal quality factors.

Academic Factors:
• Courses Taken – (Strength of curriculum)
• Grades, GPA, and Class Rank  (Achievement in course work)
• Standardized Testing (if a student submits scores)

Personal Quality Factors:
• Recommendations
• Extracurricular Activities
• Essay

A final determinant is a student’s “demonstrated interest” in the college, gauged by such things as visits to the school, contacts with admissions staff, and participation in early application or early decision programs. A 2019 survey of colleges by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that 68% of admissions offices assigned some importance to a student's demonstrated interest, with 16% assigning it considerable importance and another 24% assigning it moderate importance. 

Each of these factors is explored in a separate article in this section. Before proceeding to those, however, I strongly recommend reading the articles on Ultracompetitive and Less Competitive Colleges to learn how the major issues facing Ivy-League aspirants differ from those facing students bound for less selective schools.

Next article:

Ultracompetitive Admissions or Less Competitive Admissions



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