Lessons in Evaluating Information - What Are Admissions Officers REALLY Looking For in a College Application?

Because many students and parents are "newcomers" to college admissions, they are often unable to distinguish good information from bad information and they get confused by what information they should heed.  Unfortunately for them, bad information abounds.  Just last week I was dismayed to read an opinion column in USA Today that had all sorts of bad information in it about what college admissions officers look for when evaluating applications.  At first, I felt compelled to write a blog posting countering the bad information point by point because I was so concerned about the number of students and parents who would have read this column and come away with a very inaccurate understanding of what college admissions officers look for in college applications.  But then I realized that it would be far more helpful if I simply offered three very important lessons about how to evaluate information AND gave some good information what college admissions officers look for when evaluating applications along the way.  So here it goes. 

Lesson #1:  Consider the source of the information before you rely on it.

All information about college admissions is not created equal.  Lots of people will offer you information and even more will offer free advice.   But you really should exercise some judgment about what information and advice you rely upon. 

Accept information from true experts only.  Everyone else is merely a well-intentioned, but ill-informed, source.  In the case of information and advice about what college admissions officers look for when evaluating applicants, who are the experts that make for the best sources of information? First and foremost, independent college counselors or high school counselors who have been admissions officers at the kind of colleges you want to attend.  Your second best source?  Your high school counselor if he or she has direct experience with or a relationship with admissions officers at the kind of colleges you want to attend.  Your third best source? Current admissions officers at the colleges you want to attend.  (Why are former admissions officers better sources than current admissions officers?  Former admissions officers are able to speak more frankly and give you specific feedback on your situation because they no longer participate in deciding your fate.)

Lesson #2:  Generalizing about college admissions is dangerous.

There are more than 2000 four-year, degree-granting colleges in the U.S. and they are not all the same, particularly when it comes to admissions.  Some of the essential distinctions when it comes to admissions are whether a college is public or private, what the size of the undergraduate population is, and whether the college is selective or non-selective. Public colleges have very different admissions criteria for in-state residents than out-of-state residents; private colleges rarely do.  Small colleges often pride themselves on their abilities to consider fewer applications “in-depth” using both subjective and objective criteria, while large colleges often pride themselves on their abilities to process a large number of applications “fairly” by relying heavily on objective criteria.  Selective colleges use both subjective and objective criteria to help them choose between equally qualified applicants, while non-selective colleges use largely objective criteria to determine if an applicant is qualified and if qualified, the applicant is admitted without regard to how that applicant compares to other applicants.  Other finer, more granular, distinctions also matter to college admissions for particular students.  For example, if you are hoping to be a recruited athlete, what a college’s collegiate athletic association affiliation is matters. 

For the majority of students, the one distinction that matters the most in determining what admissions officers look for when evaluating applications is the distinction between selective and non-selective colleges.  For the purpose of this blog posting, I’m defining colleges that admit less than 50% of the applicants as “selective” and colleges that admit more than 85% as “non-selective.”  There are colleges that fall in the middle, but I’ve chosen not to reference these simply because the “poles” give you a good sense for the spectrum of behavior and those in the middle generally exhibit behavior that, as you would expect, falls in the middle. 

If you look at data that generalizes, you will not get a good picture of what matters to admissions officers.  For example, if you consider data from the annaul State of College Admissions report prepared by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) for colleges overall (the generalized data), it seems that a very small percentage of college admissions officers place considerable importance on anything beyond grades and test scores, (e.g. 9% for extracurricular activities, 26% for essays), but when you look at the more particular data, you learn that, at selective colleges, a much higher percentage of college admissions officers place considerable importance on these other factors (e.g. 24% for extracurricular activities, 48% for essays).  Big difference.       What other things do admissions officers at selective colleges place more importance on than their counterparts at non-selective colleges?  Curricular strength, SAT Subject Tests or AP/IB Test scores, teacher and counselor recommendations, work portfolios and interviews. 

Now you can understand that if you decided that your lack of extracurricular activities didn’t matter to Harvard, your failure to respond to the alumni interviewer didn't matter at Yale, or your sloppy essays dashed out in 15 minutes didn't matter to Stanford, you would be making a VERY BAD decision.  At least if you actually want to get into one of the these colleges. 

In other words, when admissions officers at selective colleges report they use a holistic admissions process and consider all the components of your application, they REALLY do.  That means for those of you who aspire to attend a selective college, it ALL counts.

Lesson #3:  Be leery of any information that seems too good to be true.

The maxim that anything too good to be true probably isn't works in college admissions just as well as it does in most other parts of life.  But, of course, there is a reason that the maxim has developed and a reason that it is worthy of repeating.  It is human nature to look for information that reinforces your own beliefs, your own perspective, and your own desires of how the world should work.  In this situation, students and parents often fall victim to bad information about college admissions because they want it to be true. 

You may desperately want it to be true that grades from 10th grade don’t matter or that your less than rigorous selection of courses will be overlooked, that your test scores won’t be important, or that the less than glowing teacher recommendations won’t stand in your way, but no matter how much you may wish these things to be true about college admissions, they aren’t.  At least when it comes to selective colleges. 

Even if they consider other factors, college admissions officers also place considerable importance on your academic credentials.  And why wouldn’t they?  College is an academic enterprise.   But before you despair, you should remember that college admissions officers use a variety of information to compile your academic profile.  In fact, there are at least nine factors that admissions officers may use when determining your academic profile.

  • Your grades in college preparatory courses
  • The rigor of your curriculum in comparison to the curriculum chosen by other students at your school
  • Your SAT or ACT scores 
  • Your subject test scores (SAT Subjects, AP, or IB)
  • Your counselor recommendation
  • Your teacher recommendations 
  • Your grades in all your courses
  • Your class rank
  • Your portfolio (samples of work submitted with the application)

What is striking about this list is how many different things actually come into play when an applicant’s academic profile is evaluated.  No single factor is determinative of your fate. 

Admissions officers will get all their information about your credentials from your application. They not only have the information that comes from you, they have information from your counselor that describes your school and the rigor of the curriculum you’ve chosen and they have information from the college’s own databases accumulated from applicants in year’s past.  This information is much more detailed and richer than applicants assume -- you’d be surprised and maybe scared to know just how many admissions officers know that you’re A+ in biology doesn’t mean much because it came from the easiest grader at your school. 

Your takeaway? Deal in reality.  Academics matter.  If you want to get into a selective college, invest in doing your best academically.  Nothing substitutes for great academic credentials.  And when it comes time to apply, present all of the information that speaks to your particular credentials.  For example, take the time to locate the teacher who left the school, but who can give you a great recommendation and also explain why you are a much better student than your grades might indicate.  It will be worth it!   

A final note….

The data I cite comes from the most recent State of College Admissions report by NACAC and summarizes data for students entering college in 2009.   If you’d like to educate yourself further, you can probably get a copy of the report from your high school counselor because these reports are available to NACAC members free.  But if you can’t get a copy from your counselor for one reason or another, you can purchase a full, downloadable copy from NACAC.

Comments or Questions?

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Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)