The waiting period between submitting a college application and getting the final decision from the university can be an anxious one for high school seniors. The average turnaround time for an admissions decision for schools with rolling admissions is four to six weeks, and the regular decision process takes even longer.
While each application is viewed and analyzed on its own merits, colleges and universities are considering a variety of factors and data points during that time — including students’ grades and essays, but also things like the geographic diversity of the incoming class — to make the most informed decision they can on each applicant.
Some aspects of college admissions are outside of students’ control, but experts say it’s important to be informed about the process.
What Are the Most Important Factors in College Admissions?
According to a 2019 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the top factors for admissions are overall high school GPA, grades in Advanced Placement or other college-prep classes and the difficulty of the student’s curriculum.
Experts say it’s vital that students start early to take care of what’s in their control. That means planning for college as early as freshman year.
Most four-year colleges are looking at three buckets of characteristics, says Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting, a college and graduate school consulting firm: academics, extracurricular activities and personal qualities.
“Your record for your college application starts the first day of ninth grade,” Ivey says. “For ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, your job is to build your credentials. Once you get basically to the summer before 12th grade, you need to make a mindset shift from building your credentials to presenting your credentials.”
Admissions officers want to see that a student has made the most of what’s been offered to them in the context of their high school environment. If Advanced Placement courses aren’t offered, students should challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous course load they can, experts say.
This signals to colleges that a student is intellectually curious, will demonstrate a passion for their field of study and will bring a strong work ethic to campus, says Mike Pichay, master college admissions counselor for IvyWise, a college counseling firm.
“The foundation of admission decisions is the academic preparation,” says Pichay, who in a previous role served as assistant director of admissions for Stanford University in California. “They want students who they believe will thrive at their institution. Beyond that, they want to be able to evaluate the personal characteristics of students to see how they would contribute to the campus.”
Test scores have typically been an important factor, too, but some experts say they’re not driving admissions decisions. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools moved to a “test-optional” approach, meaning that applicants can choose whether or not to submit test scores with their college application.
How Much Do Extracurriculars Matter?
One way colleges determine students’ “passions” is by looking to see if they have connected the dots between their coursework and involvement in activities outside of the classroom. For someone interested in studying journalism, for example, that might look like gaining experience freelancing for the local newspaper or another media outlet. They also want to see that students are actively involved in their community.
[Read: How to Write a College Essay.]
“In the last few years the landscape has shifted — admissions officers know that leadership and extracurricular involvement looks a little different today than it did before the pandemic,” says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.
When it comes to talking about extracurricular activities in the application, Sapp advises students to use the essay to share more of their personality and explain why a club or activity is important to them.
When Hasana Parker, a sophomore computer science major from Smyrna, Delaware, applied to Pomona, she highlighted her involvement with the drama club, track team and yearbook. But in her personal essay she talked more about activities she was involved in outside of school. After attending TeenSHARP, a leadership program geared toward students of color, Parker was motivated to help found an organization called Teens Drive, which advocated for more voices from people of color to be included in the school’s curriculum.
“I talked more about these things because these are things I enjoyed doing,” Parker says. “The things that I really enjoyed doing, took initiative in and leadership roles in are the ones that I highlighted the most.”
Colleges Have Priorities for Admission
It’s important for applicants and families to understand that while admissions offices strive to take a fair and transparent approach, it doesn’t necessarily mean the process is entirely “objective.”
Choosing a freshman class is actually a very subjective task: Besides good grades and test scores, the admissions office is generally seeking personal characteristics and abilities that will produce a well-rounded student body with diverse talents that fit with the school’s mission.
In some cases, the deck is stacked heavily against certain applicants.
In March 2019, federal prosecutors uncovered a criminal conspiracy to influence admissions at eight universities, including the University of Southern California, Yale University, Georgetown University and Stanford University. Thirty-three parents had allegedly paid a college-prep firm a combined $25 million to falsify their children’s standardized test scores or bribe coaches to list them as recruited athletes.
While scandals like these are rare, there are a number of standard factors at play in any given admissions cycle that students and parents often have no control over but should be aware of. These are called “institutional priorities,” which Ivey described as certain criteria that various schools must meet with each individual class. These can vary year to year.
Essentially, there are certain spots that admissions offices must leave open for certain types of students. That could include finding students with exceptional talent in art, music or athletics or filling department-specific needs like encouraging the enrollment of female computer science majors.
That may also mean ensuring an even mix of men and women, or a specific balance of in-state vs. out-of-state students.
Many schools are especially concerned with enrolling well-qualified applicants of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, says Julie J. Park, a professor at the University of Maryland–College Park who specializes in racial diversity in higher education. At the same time, schools also often use policies that benefit more affluent students, from legacy admissions to recruiting out-of-state students who pay non-resident tuition, according to a report from EMRA Research.
Ultimately, admissions officers work for the university and “are tasked with executing on those institutional priorities that come from above,” Ivey says.
“There’s a whole mix of things that go into the class that they’re trying to form,” she says, “and that class that they’re engineering is so much bigger than any one applicant.”
That can be a tough realization for students and parents. Students are asked to reveal a lot about themselves, so it’s natural they might take a college rejection personally, Ivey says.
If you are denied admission, it might have nothing to do with you as a person or whether or not your grades were good enough. Sometimes, admissions officers just have to make tough decisions.
Students can combat this through what’s referred to as “demonstrated interest,” meaning they participate in webinars, college visits or other events to indicate they have an ongoing strong interest in the school.
The best way, though, is for students to make sure their college application is unique and stands out among the thousands of other applications it’s stacked up against. It helps if an application has a “cohesive theme,” Pichay says. For example, someone who is interested in becoming a lawyer might highlight that they joined their high school’s debate team or participated in a mock trial.
The goal is to avoid being put in the “LMO” pile.
“LMO is shorthand that some admissions officers use when a kid looks great, there’s nothing wrong with this application, but LMO: Like Many Others,” Ivey says. “There’s nothing really that stands out. That’s really the challenge, is how do you stand out and not be an LMO?”
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