What matters the most in college admissions?
The single most important piece of your child's college application is his or her grades. That means when admissions committees consider an application, they’ll prioritize GPA over other things like extracurricular activities, college essays, recommendations, and yes, even test scores.
SAT and ACT scores are a close second and they combine with GPA to make up the objective portion of your child’s college application. Not subject to the attitudes or whims of an admissions committee, standardized test scores help admissions committees compare large pools of applicants. And in most cases, SAT or ACT scores work together with GPA to significantly affect an applicant's chances of getting into college. Here's how:
The graph below from Cappex shows self-reported data of students who applied to Boston University in 2016. The yellow dots represent students who were waitlisted, the red dots represent students who were denied admission, and the blue and green dots represent students who were accepted to BU.
The vertical axis shows the GPA of students who applied. The horizontal axis shows the average ACT and equivalent SAT score of students who applied.
If you look right around the SAT score of 1100, you’ll see a general shift from applicants who were accepted to those who were denied. To the right of this orange line, most of the dots are green and blue. To the left of this orange line, most of the dots are red.
1100 represents Boston University’s floor for a minimum acceptable test score. Applicants who don't score at least 1100 on the SAT or the equivalent of 23 on the ACT, even with a GPA in the three- to four-point range, are less likely to be accepted to Boston University.
If you switch focus to the vertical axis, you’ll notice a similar trend at the GPA of 3.0. Applicants with a GPA below 3.0 were, for the most part, denied admission to BU.
Here's the takeaway: applicants with the best chances of getting into BU fell in the upper-right quadrant of this scattergram, with a GPA above 3.0 and an SAT score above 1100.
This isn't unique to BU. GPA and test scores are the most dominant factors in the decision-making process for most admissions committees.
This isn’t to say that your child’s chances of getting into college can be pinpointed on a chart. And it certainly isn’t to say that your child’s candidacy can be appreciated in just two numbers. However, your child’s test scores and GPA serve as a rough starting point for what schools are in the ballpark when putting together a college list.
What else do college admissions committees take into consideration?
Test scores are quantitative, standardized, and objective, and college admissions committees take them seriously. But they don't tell the full story.
In an interview with the NY Times, Janet Lavin Rapelye, Dean of Admissions at Princeton University, said Princeton thinks of test scores as a single (yet important) data point:
Standardized test scores help us evaluate a student's likelihood of succeeding at Princeton, but by themselves are not accurate predictors. For all these reasons, we have no cutoffs in test scores, nor do we have cutoffs in grade point averages or class rank.
At Yale, it takes more than good grades to stand out. Patricia Wei, Director of Admissions at Yale University told Peterson's in an interview:
In committee, we say, “This is a good student. Now what is special?” A lot of times we call an applicant “solid.” It translates into “fine, but nothing distinctive.” At other colleges where I’ve worked, “solid” meant admissible, but here it’s the kiss of death.
We'll go in-depth on every aspect of the application in further chapters, but as we continue our discussion on how to stand out to the admissions committee, here are some other factors that affect your child's chances of getting into college.
Class rank and transcript
We've touched on the importance of grades, but how your student's transcript is viewed involves more shades of gray than you might think. While for some schools there may be a “minimum requirement,” admissions committees have years of experience with transcripts and value more than just the grades themselves.
For instance, admissions committees would much rather see students taking on challenging classes and doing their best than just taking easy classes and getting good grades. In the 2014 NACAC State of College Admission survey, they found that colleges consider achieving and maintaining good grades in challenging classes of considerable importance.
On the flip side, the importance of class rank is declining. In that same survey, the NACAC found that only 15% of colleges rated class rank as of considerable importance, which is down from 31% from 10 years ago.
The importance of taking on challenges applies both to students with lots of opportunities and those without. Colleges take into consideration where you live and the opportunities you have available to you—the thing they want to see is that students take full advantage of what they have available.
Naviance is a common tool to learn how colleges take your child's high school into consideration. Ask your child's guidance counselor if you have access to this tool.
While most colleges may rank a student's demonstrated interest in the college as “moderately” or even of “limited importance”, it ultimately serves the school's interest to accept students they know will attend.
Showing interest helps your child stand out because admissions offices want a high yield, or percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling. If they had to choose between two students who were otherwise identical, they would always go for the one who had shown more interest.
Showing interest can mean:
- Attending a college visit
- Reaching out to and keeping in contact with admissions officers
- Emphasizing your interest in your application and personal essay
This is the mentality that makes students who apply early action or early decision appealing to admissions committees, and likely why early admissions acceptance rates tend to be marginally if not significantly larger than regular admissions rates.
Admissions officers aren't just trying to cherry-pick the most successful students—they're trying to build a cohesive class. Because of this, they take diversity very seriously and this may strongly influence some of the admissions decisions they make. Diversity doesn't just mean race or ethnicity, though. It includes a number of different factors you may not realize are important:
- “Special status,” which may include certain things like being a legacy or an athlete. Often each class has to have a certain number of students with this status, so this may end up extending a bit of favor to those who fall in those categories.
- Gender, particularly in majors with large gender gaps. If admissions officers notice particular majors with gender imbalances, they may accept students showing interest in that major to try to balance it out.
- Hometown, so that not all students are from large cities where they likely had access to more opportunities. If a student was able to take advantage of every opportunity they had available, even in a small town, then that shows potential to the committee.
- International students, who often bring both an interesting perspective to the class, and are likely willing to pay more to attend the school, which is another plus.
- Other unique characteristics, such as being homeschooled or students who spent a gap year abroad. These students often are the most likely to take advantage of all the resources available at the university because of their experiences and willingness to go against the grain.
The essay is one of the best place for your student to really show their interest in the school and give admissions a peek into who they are as a person. Rather than just advising your student to regurgitate their greatest accomplishments, instead suggest that the essay tell the admissions officers something they haven't mentioned anywhere else in their application.
Regardless of what they write about, what matters most is that your student's essay is authentic and that they spend time making sure it puts their best foot forward. Admissions officers can tell when a student has put in the time to write, edit and refine their essay and they appreciate that they put in the effort. Writing well also reflects well on the student's work ethic and ability to convey themselves and express their thoughts through writing.
We take a deeper look into how to write a compelling college essay in chapter five.
Interviews and recommendations
Interviews with alumni or admissions officers and teacher recommendations are the committee's chance to see your student through someone else's eyes. The rest of the application is written by your student, but these elements give a different perspective into who your student is.
But students should still view interviews as a two-way evaluation. It's a chance for students to get their questions answered and gauge the vibe just as much as it is a chance for the interviewer to evaluate your student. This means coming with questions and being engaged in the conversation, which will also demonstrate your student's interest to the admissions committee.
As for asking for recommendations, students shouldn't just pick the classes they did the best in. The teachers who have actually had a chance to get to know your student and can write a recommendation that gives more than just generic superlatives will be the ones that admissions officers really value.
We discuss how to ask the right teacher for a recommendation in chapter four.
Make the best of your opportunities
In the end, impressing an admissions committee means doing two things—hitting the benchmarks, and then making yourself stand out. If you're down to the wire, then test scores are the only part of your application that you're going to be able to move in a short period of time.
In the next chapter, we discuss the importance of choosing the right courseload and how good do your grades really need to be.