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Twelve Most Important Factors in College Admissions

Some of the stress students and parents often feel about the college admission process is rooted in not knowing what College Admission Officers (CAOs) actually seek in applicants. Understanding the most important factors in college admissions can lead to strategic choices that can increase a student’s chances for admission.

Challenging High School Curriculum. College Admissions Officers (CAOs) look for curriculum rigor and how the applicant has taken advantage of what is offered (e.g., AP, IB, AICE classes) in his or her high school environment. Course offerings and other important information about an applicant’s high school opportunities are found in the school’s profile, which typically accompanies the transcript. Surveys of CAOs consistently show rigor of high school curriculum to be one of the most important factors.

Strong performance, especially in college preparatory coursework. College Admission Officers (CAOs) look for strength over time with an upward trend in both rigor and grades. CAOs often look at AP exam scores, which students typically have the opportunity to self-report. Earning slightly lower grades in rigorous classes is preferred to all A’s in less challenging coursework.  Most colleges recalculate GPAs based on core subjects (English, math, science, social science, foreign language) with additional weight given to more rigorous coursework. Academically-ambitious students should take at least five core courses concurrently throughout high school.

Solid entrance exam scores consistent with high school grades. While some colleges are test-optional (or flexible), many schools require or encourage applicants to submit some or all SAT and/or ACT test scores.  High entrance exam scores do not compensate for low grades.

  • Since colleges do not have a preference, Admission By Design often advises students to take a timed, full-length practice test of each type to help decide which test(s) to take. Factors such as how the student handles time pressure, what types of questions you find most challenging, and the potential desire to delete unwanted test scores can help determine which test is a better fit.  
  • Admission by Design frequently advises students to take the June ACT at the end of their sophomore year as a baseline and to order a Test Information Release (TIR) with original test questions, the student’s answers, and the answer key used to grade the multiple-choice section.  The TIR can be helpful for assessing the exam’s fit for the student and streamlining the preparation process.

Context. College Admission Officers (CAOs) gain perspective from each candidate’s high school profile and background information provided in the student’s application.  Academically qualified first-generation students (first in the immediate family to attend college) may receive preference over applicants whose parents are professionals with graduate degrees.  Candidates from very challenging high schools may receive some leniency for slightly lower grades or class rank. CAOs may look for additional evidence of college readiness in applicants from schools where a relatively low percentage of graduates attend four-year colleges.

Special Talents, Passions, and Experiences. Most selective schools seek students who contribute to an accomplished, interesting, well-rounded, and intellectually stimulating college community instead of a collection of well-rounded students. College Admission Officers (CAOs) watch for students with unique and interesting talents and experiences. Many colleges provide a process for students to share evidence of certain extraordinary talents and achievements. Researchers, performing artists, visual artists, writers, composers, and makers (engineers and creators) should consider these opportunities.  

Quality Involvement in Activities. Depth, not breadth, is valued most, as well as passion, initiative, grit, creativity, impact, team building, and leadership. Substantive commitment to a few activities or passion project(s) is preferable to widespread participation. College Admission Officers (CAOs) look for students who have made an impact in their high school, city, community, or beyond. Students who have identified an area of interest and accomplished something meaningful in that field can be particularly impressive. Examples: launched a business; initiated a charitable drive that raised and donated a sizeable amount of money to a worthy cause; taught himself or herself an impressive skill and then put it to use to benefit the community; engaged in significant research or advocacy work, summer activities, work, internships, or volunteer service that reflects commitment, responsibility, dedication, personal promise, and pursuit of interests.

Intellectual Curiosity can be demonstrated through reading, coursework, extracurriculars, summer activities, research, enrichment, MOOCs, self-study, TED Talks, etc.

Well-Conceived and Well-Constructed Application Essays are ones that that portray a student in a likable manner and provide insight into personality, values, motivations, aspirations, and potential to be a good fit.

Strong Recommendations.  Many colleges require or accept teacher and counselor recommendations. College Admission Officers (CAOs) look for confirmation and additional insight from teacher, counselor, and others (when allowed) in these recommendations.  Recommendations typically come from junior-year academic subject teachers and school guidance counselors with anecdotal evidence of student’s intellectual curiosity, abilities, positive character traits, leadership, and ability to bring out the best in others. Extra recommendation(s) from a coach, supervisor, advisor, or someone who knows the student well can help when allowed and shed new light on the applicant.


Interviews that support the student’s strengths, good character, and interest in attending can be pivotal — whether the interview is evaluative or informational. Some colleges allow applicants to upload a short personal video, often in place of an interview. A decreasing number of colleges require or offer applicant interviews. Many of those have a specific process for securing a spot. Applicants should carefully check each college’s website to understand the policy and process. 

BLWP (1)

Demonstrated Interest and Personal Fit with the college’s mission and programs are important. Interest is conveyed through targeted campus visits and other interactions, smart inquiries, interviews, and well-researched, heartfelt responses to supplemental questions on college applications. Demonstrated interest plays an increasingly important role in today’s competitive admissions environment. The qualified student who makes a compelling presentation of the match between self and the college stands a higher chance of admission.

BLWP (2)

Fit with the College’s Strategic Priorities. CAOs are responsible for creating a freshman class of “valued” students that will further the university’s goals — multifaceted objectives of the institution could include:

  • Promoting diversity by enrolling more sought-after minorities, students from underrepresented areas, first-generation, and international students.
  • Advancing school spirit and sports team performance with athletic recruiting and preferential admission for athletes.
  • Fostering alumni pride, family tradition, school spirit, fundraising, and volunteerism by giving legacies an admissions advantage.
  • Furthering fundraising efforts by giving “development” (donor-affiliated) candidates extra consideration.
  • Garnering publicity by enrolling famous people’s kids.
  • Creating a more balanced and interesting community by enrolling musicians, artists, performers, females in STEM majors, makers, entrepreneurs, and others with desired attributes.
  • Balancing the budget by recruiting and enrolling more full-pay students.
  • Raising rankings position by encouraging more applications, rejecting more applicants, and attracting high achievers. (Combination of marketing, scholarship enticements, and early application plans.)
  • Bragging rights with ISEF, Siemens, Google Science Fair, National Speech and Debate, Math/Science Olympiad winners; National Merit Scholars; TASP and RSI participants; Jeopardy champions; math enthusiasts who scored high on the AIME or AIC.
  • Enhancing student life and the college community with accomplished volunteers, leaders, entrepreneurs, advocates, role models, and those with interesting backgrounds and experiences.