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How Colleges Select Students

First, let’s cover the basics of how colleges typically choose students. Colleges use a number of factors to determine which applicants to accept, but overall, your grades in high school are considered the most important, according to a 2012 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). In particular, the colleges want to look at the grades you are receiving in college preparatory, honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses since they demonstrate your ability to succeed in college.

Other factors colleges consider important in admission decisions are:

  • Strength of curriculum
  • Admission test scores (SAT and ACT)
  • Grades in all courses

But it’s not all about grades and what classes you take. The NACAC report listed the following factors that are considered of moderate importance in admission decision, ranked from highest to lowest:

    • Counselor recommendation
    • Teacher recommendation
    • Extracurricular activities
    • Class rank
    • Essay or writing sample
    • Subject test scores (AP and International Baccalaureate)
    • Student’s demonstrated interest

“Present yourself authentically; don’t pretend to be someone you are not for the sake of impressing the admissions officers.”

Though colleges typically look at the same types of factors, some schools emphasize some factors more than others. Small colleges tend to use a more “holistic” approach in the application review process and consider all of the aspects of the application. On the other hand, large colleges tend to follow a more “mechanical” process and use numbers such as your GPA and test scores to determine your initial qualifications.

No matter what size college you are applying to, or what approach the admissions officers take in selecting students, use every opportunity in the application package to showcase your personality and distinctive character.

Be Authentic

Above all, you should present yourself authentically and not pretend to be someone you are not for the sake of impressing the admissions officers. One way you can do this is to answer the questions on the application in a natural—not forced—writing style. Yes, your writing needs to be clear and grammatical. But using long words from a thesaurus does not impress anyone when simple English is more straightforward.

Explain why you are interested in the specific college to which you are applying and what your goals are for the future. Maybe you want to study history and the college has a faculty member who has written a book you’ve read. Or perhaps the college has a career-related major that relates to your interests—you may love computer games and want to study engineering or computer science.

Let Your Personality Shine in the Essays

The essays on the application are the best place for you to reveal what is unique about yourself. If you have a choice about which essay question to answer, pick one that you are excited to write about and that reveals something about your personality. When writing a descriptive essay, focus on something that shows who you are—rather than describing your parents or a friend—and tell a story using colorful details.

If the application doesn’t give you a choice in picking an essay topic, think about how your response can highlight your special qualities. The essay topic, for example, may be to write about your favorite book; your response should showcase your personal qualities as well as your love for the book. For more tips on how to ace the college essay, read our article How to Write a Killer College Application Essay.