Ten Truths About College Admissions Decisions

By Judy Wendel, College Counselor, Improve Your English Tutoring Services

1.Because many students have good grades and test scores, such achievements do not determine admissions. In any elite private college, the number of applicants with acceptable grades and test scores exceeds the number of freshman seats by a factor of 3 or 4.

2. In the last 15 years, minor score increases simply have not made a difference in college admissions. A score above 700 is potential Ivy territory anyway, and 800's are often rejected by Ivies. Colleges look to other areas to decide among qualified applicants. Preferred factors include:

  • Teacher recommendations: How comprehensively excellent the candidate is judged intellectually, with preference given to students who excel easily in both humanities and STEM fields.
  • Extracurricular activities, as in “outside” the curriculum. This means independent accomplishment, especially long-term, in non-graded pursuits. Off-campus activities are generally regarded more highly than high-school activities are.
  • Awards: international, national, regional, local, in order of importance.

3. If an applicant is narrowly interested in (1) CalTech, (2) one of the service academies, (3) a prestigious foreign university (Oxford/Cambridge, McGill, etc.), then it could be worth the effort to increase a score by 20 points, but there is also always the risk that an essay prompt or a particular CR passage will reduce that desired score by 20 points or more anyway!

4. If a student scores above 750 in Critical Reading or Writing, she should not take an additional test. Time is better spent writing great college admissions essays, and the money is MUCH better spent actually visiting desired campuses. “Interest” has now become much more of a factor in decisions because of the Common Application. Campus visits demonstrate interest. They also make the supplemental essays more compelling.

5. The highest ranked colleges care desperately about the postgraduate success of their alumni. Every elite institution loves bragging about alumni accomplishments. Such claims keep their rankings high and application numbers strong.

6. Many years ago, the top 10 colleges began to examine correlations between extracurricular achievement before college and success in a career after college. They found a consistently close relationship between the two. That relationship has helped to drive admission priorities for the last 15 years. Extracurricular interests require independent drive in a way that grades and scores do not, and it’s the independent drive that predicts success after college. Valued accomplishments include those requiring ingenuity, creativity, or discipline (such as one — preferably more than one — performing art consistently pursued over a long period of time, or such as initiative taken and continued in a successful project conceived and led by the applicant).

7. Elite schools have always found students with special interests attractive, because in a room already full of smart people, Interesting beats Smart. What is classified as Interesting to a college is often what occurs off the high school campus.

8. In any admissions committee room, the Institutional Priorities for that year rule. The school will make a pile of all the “qualified applicants” — those with grades and scores that show the student can master the level of material at that university or college. Then they will look for what the campus needs during that admission year: a principal violist because their current one is graduating, an archer, a promising journalist for the campus newspaper, etc. After those needs are filled, they look beyond institutional goals to admitting a varied class in personal interests, majors, geographical locations, national origins, etc. The term “diversity” is very broad, encompassing much, much more than race or even economic class. A genuine interest cannot be forced, but someone who is lucky enough to be passionate about something truly unusual does have an advantage, assuming everything else about the application is outstanding as well.

9. The admissions process, especially within the top 20 schools in the nation, is not a contest of “absolutes”; it’s about degrees of attractiveness. Quantitative factors (grades and test scores) merely keep you within the pool of possible candidates; beyond that, scores and grades predict nothing. Decisions are made comparatively, which is applicants can never predict, let alone control, results. No matter how well you believe you know your local competition (such as fellow high school students), you will never know your national or international competition unless you learn it after the fact, if you are lucky enough to attend the school.

10. An admission rejection is not a statement that you are academically unqualified for that college. It’s a statement that one or more of your also-qualified competitors was more desired this particular year for any number of the above reasons. The college reps have freely admitted, for the last 10 years, that they can fill their freshman classes 3–4 times over with the qualified students who do apply.

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