College Admissions Overview

In this section we discuss what are all the parts of college admissions. You will learn what’s important and what’s not, and how admission officers evaluate your application. In the end there is a bit about how to create a good list of schools to apply to.

Overview

At some public universities, there are formulas that prospective applicants can, by inputting their GPAs and test scores, use to calculate whether they will be admitted. This leads to a straightforward route to acceptance at those colleges: if I earn good grades and do decently on that annoying standardized test, I will get in.

This is not the case at top schools. Being the smartest in your high school doesn’t guarantee you anything. Top scores are not a guarantee of anything. Students with perfect SAT scores are routinely rejected.

No individual factor can guarantee admissions. If your family donated millions and your father is the president, then sure, consider yourself a lock. But for the rest of us, admissions is holistic: every aspect of the application is considered to arrive at a decision. There’s no minimum GPA or set number of extracurriculars - everything is considered and put in context.

This is comforting but also daunting. If you have an Ivy League-or-bust mentality, lose it. You could do everything “right” and still not get in due to factors entirely outside your control. The goal is to put your best foot forward and hope for the best. And with that, let’s delve into the components of college admissions.

Transcript

The transcript is the most important part of the application. It shows how difficult your courseload was and how you did. Nobody wants a lazy genius, and your grades show that you can push yourself and exert consistent effort over a period of time.

  • How rigorous should my courseload be?

    Take a demanding courseload. In the Common App, your guidance counselor will be required to check off how hard your courseload was. The options are most demanding, very demanding, demanding, average, below average. You want most demanding, so figure out what that means for your school and take it. Online classes and community college/dual enrollment is one way to boost your courseload difficulty, but no need to go crazy.

  • What about unweighted vs. weighted GPA?

    Unweighted GPA (A=4, B=3, etc) is more important, since different schools do weighted GPA differently. In the end, they will look at specific grades in your tough courses, so that’s more important. The number is just a quick indicator. You don’t need a 4.0, but you should be near the top of your school. Most students will have all A’s with a few B’s.

  • What about class rank?

    It’s an important indicator of how hard your school is. A lower GPA but a great rank at a tough school means that you’re doing great. If your school doesn’t rank, don’t fret. Colleges will focus on your transcript, but having the rank helps.

  • What about freshman year grades /upward trends?

    An upward GPA trend is very good. Some schools like Princeton ignore freshman year grades. A strong positive trend saves a weak GPA. Nothing will save a very weak GPA (< 3.0).

  • What about C’s?

    Very few people get C’s or lower and get admitted. If you have special circumstances (illness, death in family, etc), mention that and you should be okay.

In the end, you need great grades, but not perfect ones. Push yourself in school and show that you are intellectually curious, or even better, become intellectually curious.

Test Scores

This section is focused on the SAT & ACT. There is a bit of info at the end about SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams. The quick summary is that higher scores are better but you don’t want to retake too many times. The score is like “table stakes” - a high one indicates you’re qualified but it’s not enough to get you in by itself.

  • What scores do I need to get in?

    In general, the higher the better. There’s no bottom cutoff. Schools publish the 25th-75th percentiles for scores for admitted students, so Google and see how you stack up. For “un-hooked” applicants (we’ll explain later), you want to be at the 75th percentile or higher.

    For the SAT, you should be 700+ in every section. 2100 and 2250 are considered “cutoffs”, and we really don’t know how scores are truly evaluated. We’d say that a 2300+ SAT is enough to not worry about it. Some people argue that 2350+ is actually a lot better than 2300+ or 2250+, but there isn’t enough data to validate that. What we can say is that sub-2100 puts you in a pretty tough spot.

    For Subject Tests, 750+ is great.

    For the ACT, 34+ is great.

  • Should I take/send the SAT or ACT?

    Top schools will consider either. The requirements and reporting policies change based on institution so do your homework. Some students prefer the SAT and others the ACT, so do a practice test for both and see what you like. In general, the ACT measures more of what you know while the SAT is more of a reasoning test, but they’re both pretty similar.

    As for which score to send, look at SAT-ACT Concordance.

    Finally, some schools allow SAT Score Choice. This allows you to send your best SAT score instead of all your scores. You can’t pick sub-sections, only exam dates. Some schools super-score (take your best score for each section, even across test dates), so you may want to send more than 1 exam date. Look at the requirements for the schools you’re applying to and device how/which scores to send.

  • What about writing?

    At this point most schools look at the Writing section. Check with your school’s website to see their stance.

  • Should I retake?

    If you think you can boost a section score by 100+ points reliably, then retake it. If you’re in the low 700s in a section and trying to get to the high 700s, it’s probably not worth it. For example, to go from 740 in Math to 800 could be as easy as answering two questions correctly. But given all the exam day factors, can you bet on that?

    There’s also fatigue and opportunity cost. You may be tired of testing, and even if you’re not, what else could you be doing with the time spent studying? Exams are good to show that you’re capable, but don’t fall into the trap of micro-optimization.

  • What subject tests should I take?

    Schools can require 0-3 subject tests - as always, check with the school’s website. Take ones in different areas i.e. Math Level 2, one science (Physics, Chem, Bio), one social science (US History, World History), or a language. Don’t pick a language that’s your native language.

    Try to get 750+ in a subject test, but different tests have different score distributions. For example, 750 in Literature is 92nd percentile but 750 in Math Level 2 is 68th percentile, which is far less impressive. See SAT Subject Test Percentile Ranks. for the distributions.

  • What about AP scores?

    Not as important as SAT/ACT and Subject Test scores. Since they’re self reported and largely influenced by the quality of your high school, colleges don’t give them much weight. However, if you have all A’s in AP classes but 3-4’s in your AP exams, that indicates grade inflation.

    Finally, self-studying for an exam is a good way to show interest in a subject. Don’t go overboard - use this option if you’re truly interested.

  • What about PSAT scores?

    Mostly irrelevant. Being a National Merit Semifinalist is nice but lots of kids have that.

Extracurriculars

Extracurriculars are things you do outside the classroom. You’ll need at least one to have a good shot at getting into a top school. Remember, quality over quantity. These don’t have to be after-school clubs either - you can do things in your community, or start your own stuff.

It’s much better to dedicate a lot of time to a few quality activities then to do a little in everything. Years of participation and leadership positions are all indicative of this.

  • What about my ‘passions’?

    Every college admissions officer will tell you to be passionate and show your passions. The truth is that most people, high school, college, or otherwise, are not really passionate about anything. The goal of your extracurriculars should be to explore things that you may be interested in. The more unique your ECs are, the better. Don’t do math club just because you saw someone online doing it. If you don’t really care, it’ll be hard to be exceptional, and if your ECs are average, then that won’t help you much for admissions.

  • Where does volunteering fit in?

    Volunteering is great. Find an org you care for, or start your own, and spend a lot of time. If you can innovate and make things better beyond just putting in the time, that’s even better.

  • What about summer?

    Summer is a great time to do fun stuff and learn a lot. Volunteer, join or start a club, just do something. Don’t stay at home and play video games. If you have to work at the family store or have other commitments, those are extracurriculars too. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade and then write an essay about it ;)

Essays

The essay is an incredible tool for you to showcase your personality. Many applicants have great scores, grades, and extracurriculars, but the essay can either kill their chances or really set them apart. Admissions officers care a lot about students’ essays, and they tend to feel very confident about their ability to accurately assess applicants’ personalities based on those essays.

There are two key pieces of advice we have for essays:

  1. Read a lot of college essay books. See what’s cliche and what’s not. Absolutely avoid cliche topics. Some good books are [1,2,3]
  2. Keep it simple. Don’t throw in SAT words that don’t flow. Just tell your story. Have others read it and ask them to give a one paragraph description of you based on what they read. It’s great if you can get strangers to do this. That’s basically what the admissions officer is doing and it’ll help you understand how you come off.

Proofread your essays thoroughly. Small typos won’t hurt you but they show carelessness.

Recommendations

These can be crucial, but usually aren’t. Most teachers will just heap some accoldates without delving into your character that much, so they’re not a big plus or minus. Ask your teachers to describe their impression of your character or things that were truly exceptional about you and that should give you a boost. Build those teacher relationships early.

Interviews

These are usually slightly positive. It’s rare to have an exceptionally good or bad interview. Interviews are used to find red flags but won’t be a big part of your application.

Location (international students)

Getting in as an international student is much tougher, especially if you’re from England, China, or India. Many such candidates have international awards.

In the US, being from an under represented state i.e. South Dakota may be slightly helpful. Overall geography is not that big of a deal.

Hooks

A ‘hook’ is something about the applicant that makes their app really compelling. Below are a few hooks:

  • National/International awards

    This could involve competing for your state/country at the highest levels of some activity.

  • First generation applicant

    Be the first person in your person to go to college.

  • Legacy

    Have one of your parents attend the college you’re applying to.

  • Developmental admit

    Your parents have donated millions to the school.

  • Recruited athlete

    If a coach officially recruits you, then you’re basically in.

  • Under Represented Minority (URM)

    A URM is a Hispanic, African American, or Native American person. Colleges want diversity, and individuals in these categories tend to get a boost. Nonetheless, you still need to have a great application because competition is just that high.

If you’re “hooked”, you have a better chance of getting in. It’s still pretty low though, so don’t count on anything.

Likely Letters

Likely letters are usually given to recruited athletes a couple months before official decisions come out. Some colleges also give them out to students for academic reasons in rare cases. If you receive a likely letter, you will be accepted unless you mess up big before decisions are released.

Applying Early

There are three types of early application programs (all of which usually require that applications be in by around November 1; notification is typically by December 15):

  • Early Action

    Applicants may apply to as many early action (EA) schools as they wish, as long as they only apply to EA schools. There is usually no advantage in applying EA. In fact, it is usually more difficult to get accepted early; colleges will accept only the slam-dunk applicants and defer most others. The relatively high acceptance rates for EA are largely the result of self-selection among early applicants.

  • Single-Choice Early Action

    Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) is sometimes referred to as Restrictive Early Action (REA). With a few exceptions, applicants who apply SCEA may not apply early to any other schools. However, students may apply early to in-state public universities and can apply to rolling decisions schools (consult each school’s Web sites for details on exceptions). There seems to be no admissions boost in applying SCEA.

  • Early Decision

    Early Decision (ED) requires that students attend the college if they are accepted (if you are deferred, the binding agreement is waived). The only way that you can be relieved from this is if the college accepts a petition that your financial aid is not sufficient to allow your attendance. Nonetheless, you should not apply ED to a school if you need financial aid, nor should you apply ED if the school is not your first choice. ED does generally afford an admissions advantage, though.

College Selection

You want to select one or two safety schools that you’re guaranteed to get into. You should pick 1-3 “match” schools where your scores are in the 75th percentile or above, so you know you have a good shot of getting in and would be happy to attend. Otherwise select a bunch of “reach” schools like the Ivy League colleges where you’re unlikely to get in (because everyone is), but are qualified to attend and would like to go.

Common Application

The Common Application is widely used for admissions. You write one main Common Application essay (on a topic of your choice) and send this to every school to which you apply via the Common Application. Colleges also have a supplemental part, in which they will ask some additional information and sometimes request a school-specific essay or two.

What Are My Chances?

CollegeConfidential and a few other websites have tools that try to estimate your chances of getting in. These are fine for your local public university but for the top places nobody can tell you. If you’re a lock, you wouldn’t be asking. And if you’re not, then don’t stress over it. Build the best application you can and go for it.

What Now?

So we’ve gone over all the components of the college application. A lot of this stuff must be personalized for you - your extracurriculars, your teacher experiences, essays, etc. One thing that’s pretty standard, however, is exam preparation, which we’ll delve into next.