How Colleges Make Admissions Decisions

How colleges make admissions decisions

In about 30 seconds. Hours of tedium and toil into your application, schoolwork, extra-curriculars and SAT/ACT all comes down to a quick 30-second yes or no. The sad truth is, that’s usually how colleges make admissions decisions.

In 2012, Rachel Rubin, a doctoral student at Harvard, surveyed 75 of the most competitive colleges regarding admissions processes. Her research revealed that there really is a black-and-white approach to some admissions, despite the constant claim “we look at students holistically.”

College admissions have multiple steps to go through; however, most don’t make it past the very first one.

Step one: GPA/Test-score screening
Most schools set minimum GPA and SAT/ACT requirements. If you’re significantly above the requirements you’re in. If you’re significant below you’re out, and if you’re somewhere in the middle, you’re on the fence. It really is that simple.

At top schools, you’ll need to score in the top 10% on your SAT or ACT and have a GPA of at least 3.5. But, top schools will demand that you take a tougher curriculum, meaning if you don’t have any AP classes, you probably won’t get in. You will need at least a 28 on the ACT and a 2,100 on the SAT (for 2012 statistics). Most colleges post their ACT/SAT requirements online.

76% of the colleges surveyed said this is how they make admissions decisions. The others (comprised mostly of selective liberal arts schools) said they look for students who are a “good fit” with the college’s standards and culture first. In other words, they look at your essay, recommendations and application questions first, then your grades/test scores.

Step two: Quick read of your application
If you meet the GPA/test score requirements, schools then consider your essay, extra-curricular involvement and application. Some colleges assign letter grades to each student. A and B students will be accepted D and F students won’t be, and C students will receive further review.

Admissions committees are looking for students who stand out, students who will thrive at their school. You have to show passion and that you’re headed for a great academic/professional career.

But, most importantly, you have to DO SOMETHING. If you’re majoring in Creative Writing, write a collection of short stories and publish them on a WordPress site. Include the link in your essay. Science majors can complete a project and enter in a competition. Write about your findings. For business, try to start a small company, even if it’s just you. It doesn’t have to be successful and profitable, but the fact that you tried sets you above the rest.

Those are the types of students who get accepted based on essays and letters of recommendation.

Step three: Scrutinize your application
Some colleges will make a decision after step two, but others will further consider your application. This is where they look at you holistically and compare every detail of your essay, involvement and recommendations to other students. This is usually the last step, but some colleges may require an interview.

The intangibles:
Colleges favor students for a variety of factors beyond race/ethnicity. Your selected major could play a role, especially if it’s uncommon in the applicant pool. Schools try to avoid making decisions based on students’ financial needs. But, all factors equal, a student who has no financial needs may get in over one who has major financial needs.