How Colleges Evaluate Applicants

Colleges use a variety of methods to evaluate applicants. One source noted that four of every five colleges accept more than half of all applicants, and three-fourths of students who apply to colleges are accepted by their first choice college. Depending on the size and values of the school, admissions criteria can vary from being almost entirely formulaic to involving significant subjective judgment regarding the student's "fit" for the institution. Criteria vary considerably by school, and one view is that the "great deal of inconsistency across institutions" sometimes gave an incorrect impression that "student selection is arbitrary." Criteria include standardized test scores (generally ACT and/or SAT), class rank, grades (as shown in the high school transcript), degree of extracurricular involvement, and leadership potential. One report suggested that the most important criteria, in order of importance, were

Grades in college preparatory courses
Strength of curriculum
Grades in all courses
Class rank

Many colleges also rely on personal essay(s) written by the applicant and letters of recommendation written by the applicant's teachers and guidance counselor; one benefit of the essay is to help colleges such as Pitzer College, which claims that half of its applicants have "perfect or near-perfect grades and test scores," further differentiate students.Institutions place different weight on these criteria: for example, some schools do not require or even accept the SATs for admission. It should be noted that some factors are beyond a student's control, such as a college's need in a given year for diversity, legacy applicants, or athletic recruiting.

College admissions personnel spend less time on average reading each particular application; in 2009, the average admissions officer was responsible for analyzing 514 applications, and the trend was in the direction of officers having to read more and more applications. A typical college application receives only about 25 minutes of reading time, including three to five minutes for the personal essay if it is read. Advisors suggest that understanding some of the criteria can help an applicant apply to colleges with greater success. Some colleges extract information from the federal FAFSA financial aid form, including names of other schools the applicant is applying to. Counselors urge students and parents to understand what types of things colleges tend to look for in applications, and plan accordingly. A key attribute admissions evaluators look for, according to Mamlet and Vandevelde, is authenticity--a real person who comes through the application, not a packaged artificial entity or distortion crafted to impress an admissions officer. An admissions officer at Vanderbilt University wrote about how their office evaluates applicants: "It's really about, 'What did I take advantage of in the environment I was given.'" Several reports suggested that colleges were not looking for the "well-rounded kid" but rather a "well-rounded class":

Colleges are looking for ... the well-rounded class. Colleges put together their entering class as a mosaic: a few great scholars for each academic department; a handful of athletes; some musicians, dancers, and theater stars; a few for racial and economic diversity; some potential club leaders, etc. Colleges want a kid who is devoted to - and excels at - something. The word they most often use is passion.
-- Steve Cohen in the Washington Post, 2011

Colleges want students who have demonstrated through their actions an ability to see and connect with a world that is larger than they are.
-- Robin Mamlet and Christine Vandevelde, 2011

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