Demystifying the College Admissions Process: What Colleges Want

The Applerouth Team
November 19, 2012
min read

We have long heard that colleges look for “well-rounded” applicants. Before you join the equestrian team or pick up juggling as a new hobby, though, you may want to check out the 2011 report published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). The report describes which factors colleges consider when making their admissions decisions, and the information it uncovered may surprise you.

For example, look at which factors colleges surveyed by NACAC reported as of considerable importance (“State of College Admissions,” 22):

Far and away, the top three admissions factors in 2010 were grades, curriculum, and admission test scores. The college essay, demonstrated interest, and teacher/counselor recommendations remained important components of the application, but on a lower level. Surprisingly, only 7% of colleges considered extracurricular activities of considerable importance.


What does this mean for me?

Colleges weigh grades and ACT/SAT scores most heavily of all the factors going into the application. Colleges also place great importance on the rigor of the student’s curriculum. Focus chiefly on improving your grades, taking honors/AP courses if you can keep up your GPA, and getting the highest SAT/ACT score you can.


Should I quit my varsity team or my community service club?

Not necessarily. Life is short, and there’s more to it than college. If you love playing varsity baseball or acting in school plays, keep at it! However, if you’re joining every club in school just to add extra rows to your resume – or if you can’t attend practice without letting your homework slip – the trade-offs might not pay off.


How do public and private colleges differ in their approaches to applications?

The NACAC report also compared public and private colleges with regard to the factors influencing their admissions decisions. The chart below (“State of College Admissions,” 24-25) compares the factors that public and private colleges deem to be of considerable importance:

Both public and private colleges hold grades and curriculum to be very important for a student application, but they weigh the essay, demonstrated interest, and counselor/teacher recommendations differently. Let’s focus in on some of the details of the table:

  • 10% of public colleges believed the essay to be of considerable importance in the college decision, compared with 33% of private colleges.
  • Only 7% of public colleges held counselor and teacher recommendations as of considerable importance, compared with 24% of private schools.
  • For 16% of public colleges, demonstrated interest of considerable importance, compared with 25% of private colleges.

In other words, the more selective the school becomes, the more weight that “extras” like extracurriculars and SAT II scores have. Not all schools value the same things. Public schools, especially those with high enrollment, will focus less on the extras than will private schools. Keep in mind that the average admissions officer at a public school reviewed 981 applications in 2010, compared with 402 applications for a private school officer (“State of College Admissions,” 6). With significantly more applications, the cold, hard numbers will count more than the more subjective elements.


What specific things can I do as I begin my college process?

Get the grades: Far and away, most important in your college application is your overall grades. Yes, a more challenging curriculum will look better on your application, but not if you’re getting C’s. If you think you can handle an honors level curriculum and maintain a competitive GPA, go for it; if you are just scraping by in regular class, stay where you are and get the highest grades you can.

Get the score: The SAT and ACT show no signs of decreasing in importance; rather, as more students apply to college and technology increases, colleges will probably rely more and more on those tests as effective indicators of college readiness. Collegeboard reported a 6% increase in the number of students who took the SAT in 2012 compared with 2008 (“Report on College and Career Readiness,” 27). Yes, you are more than the score you get on the test, but you should do the best you can. Find the score range for your college, take the test multiple times, try out both the SAT and ACT to see which one suits you better, and keep at it until you reach your goal.

Show you care: Public and private schools alike want to know that you are interested in them. The data noted that for most public schools, demonstrated interest counted more for applicants than the essay, and almost as significantly for private schools as teacher recommendations. In light of this, consider doing the following:

  • Explore the college’s website, including admissions information, course offerings, and student life and academics pages.
  • Email and call the admissions office with specific questions that show you have done your homework and are really interested in your school.
  • Visit that college’s booth if your school hosts an admissions day and speak with the representative, asking insightful questions.
  • Email professors at the school with questions about their curriculum.
  • Do whatever you can to make your name stand out to the admissions counselors. A face, a voice, or even an email to attach to a name will go far.

A Dutch proverb says “that which is the heaviest must weigh the heaviest.” As the data supplied by NACAC shows, grades, curriculum, and standardized test scores weigh the heaviest in an application. The other elements are definitely important factors in the decision, but they should not be allowed to “weigh” more than grades and scores.

Cited works:

C, Melissa E., Sarah F. Hurley, and David A. Hawkins. 2011 State of College Admissions. National Association for College Admission Counseling. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <>.

The SAT Report on College & Career Readiness: 2012. Collegeboard. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <>.

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