What Is Most Important to College Admissions?
Updated: Feb 3
As the world evolves, so too does the definition of an ideal university student. The entire landscape of the college admissions process has changed dramatically in the past decade, and many of the ideas that students and their parents bring to the college admissions process are now outdated, incomplete, or just incorrect.
In this day and age, elite schools, such as those in the Ivy League, look for something relatively specific when they select new students. Without stopping to consider this, you might miss the mark.
In our role as college admissions consultants, we correct students’ misconceptions and guide them toward gaining admission to their colleges of choice.
Read on to learn what makes for a successful applicant in today's highly competitive collegiate environment.
What Is Most Important to Top Colleges?
These prestigious schools receive far more applications than they have places in their freshman classes, so they can afford to be very selective to maintain their reputation.
How selective? Below is the acceptance rate for a few of the Ivies:
Harvard's is 4.5%
Stanford's is 4.4%
Yale's is 5.9%
Princeton's is 5.8%
That said, to get into an Ivy League or comparable school, you'll need to stand out from a very big crowd.
Many high school students think they can do this by being well rounded—that is, participating in a wide range of academic and extracurricular activities.
You may have heard from your friends, parents, or a school counselor that this should be your top priority, and we're here to tell you they're wrong.
The most important and also most misunderstood measure of an applicant's potential used by Ivy League admissions officers and their colleagues at other top schools is something called intellectual vitality.
This is a set of personal attributes and activities that demonstrate your approach to life and learning, primarily your level of curiosity, creativity, innovativeness, and even unconventionality.
As Stanford admissions explain, "We want to see the initiative with which you seek out opportunities and expand your perspective."
What intellectual questions or societal problems fascinate you, and how much time and energy have you committed to exploring them and finding answers or creating solutions?
Or as Harvard asks potential applicants: "Do you care deeply about anything—Intellectual? Extracurricular? Personal?"
Answering that question will be key to a successful application. Perhaps you have an idea for mitigating climate change.
Go find the resources to make it a reality! Or perhaps you've thought of a public health strategy to help prevent future pandemics. Find a researcher who will guide your research and get it published.
Have an idea for a novel technology? Patent it.
Needless to say, including publications or original patents on your college application will get admissions officers’ attention.
If you’re more inclined to the humanities and social sciences, demonstrate your intellectual vitality through writing a book, composing a concerto, or founding a nonprofit advocacy group in an area of high cultural relevance like social justice.
You're never too young to start; people in your educational support network, like your family and teachers, are there to help you succeed.
Okay, we’ve covered intellectual vitality, now let’s talk about an equally important aspect that colleges look for called angularity.
In practical terms, this means a laser-sharp focus on a specific area of interest. So much focus, that you’re likely to be a global leader in your area of interest. In other words, they want the opposite of well rounded.
Let’s look at the universities themselves for examples of angularity. It's no secret that elite schools love having Nobel laureates on their faculties.
Stanford currently has 19. MIT has 10. These winners aren't being honored and hired, for their wide range of activities and interests. You won't hear about their tennis games or passion for model railroading.
On the contrary, they are selected for achievements in a highly specific area of their chosen discipline, whether that's chemistry, economics, literature, medicine, or physics.
A Nobel laureate is the very definition of angularity, and although Nobel prizes can take a lifetime to achieve, they begin with extreme focus early on.
Keep this in mind when choosing your extracurriculars. They should be related to your core areas of intellectual interest, and if those activities or organizations don't yet exist at your school, create them.
Colleges look favorably on applicants who established their own organizations and led their own extracurricular projects.
Don't be afraid to get a little ruthless in cutting out activities that don't support your core interests. Your time is limited and valuable, so don't waste it on pursuits that distract from, rather than enhance, your specific goals.
The final pieces of the college admissions puzzle, not surprisingly, are strong grades and standardized test scores. Both require discipline and smart time management.
Ideally, since freshman year, you’ve taken the highest-level classes possible, including all the relevant AP courses your school offers. Moreover, you’ll have taken as many classes as you could in your academic area of focus.
If that's a STEM field, this includes biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics. If you're headed for the humanities, electives like creative writing and the visual arts should be on your radar. You’ll need straight A’s and to score 5’s on your AP exams.
As for standardized tests, in normal years, Ivy League colleges and other elite schools require SAT or ACT scores.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have made these tests optional. Does this mean you’re off the hook? No.
Article: College Information During Covid-19
Even if they’re officially optional, colleges will still consider your test scores if you submit them. Competition for admission to top schools will be as intense as ever this year, and submitting strong test scores will put you in a much better position than submitting no scores at all.
What's a strong score? This varies among elite schools, but not by much. To use Harvard as an example, incoming freshmen have an average combined SAT score of 1520 out of 1600.
The average ACT score is 34 out of 36. If those numbers sound far-fetched to you, you're in luck—Bentham offers comprehensive test prep tutoring, in addition to college advisory services.
How Many Colleges Are You Allowed To Apply To?
The short answer is, "As many as you want." But there are practical reasons you should focus on a relatively short list of schools that are the best fit for your academic background, career goals, and personality.
With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States alone, you can waste a lot of time considering schools that are just plain wrong for you.
Smart applicants begin by identifying the top-ranked schools in the academic field they're most interested in. Future engineer?
Then MIT, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon are obvious choices. Destined for the arts or humanities? Then liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst deserve your consideration.
You may also prefer an urban environment to a small town, or a warmer climate to someplace snowy. All these are important factors to consider as you narrow down your list of potential schools.
Limit your list to no more than 20 schools, which is the maximum allowed through the Common Application.
If you’re unfamiliar, the Common App allows you to apply to multiple schools with a single application, and it's accepted by over 900 schools, including the entire Ivy League.
If 20 schools seem like too short a list, well...it's not. It just means you haven't been rigorous enough in trimming your list for the best fit.
Does It Matter Which High School You Go To For College?
Your high school does not matter. Students from a wide range of backgrounds excel academically and gain admission to top-ranked colleges, no matter what high school they attended.
You can succeed at any high school and progress to any college you want if you focus on the types of academic and personal development we've discussed:
Extraordinary intellectual vitality; strong academic performance and test scores; and angularity.
It's important to take pride in your high school and make the most of the resources it has to offer. Right now there is a student at the best high school in the country who is not taking full advantage of its resources.
Don't make their mistake at your school. By making full use of your educational opportunities and by harnessing your intellectual vitality to create new ones, you will have a huge advantage over students who are doing neither, no matter how great a school they attend.
Now you know what makes for a college application strategy that will ensure you stand out from the crowd of other applicants. It can be intimidating to check all the boxes, especially if you’d never even heard of some of these requirements (like intellectual vitality and angularity).
Fortunately, Bentham Admissions offers a complete range of consulting, coaching, and tutoring services to get you where you want to go, whether it's an Ivy League college or another prestigious school.
Need more motivation?
Read through our collection of admission letters to imagine what's possible for you.