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What College Admissions Counselors Look For When Reviewing Applications?

what do college admissions officers look for when reviewing applications?

When admissions officers review applications, they do so as part of a holistic review process. Holistic review requires all submitted pieces of the application and the student’s individual situation to be taken into consideration prior to making a decision. 


With holistic review as the backdrop, there are two primary questions admissions officers are asking when they read admissions applications:  


1. Can this applicant do the work at this college? 

2. What will this applicant contribute to campus? 

The elements that will be used to make your admissions decision include unweighted GPA, course rigor, testing (if required), activities, essays, letters of recommendation, and any honors or awards. Extenuating circumstances may also be considered.  Using these elements, let’s review the two primary questions from an admissions officer’s review lens:

Answering Question 1

To answer question number one, can this applicant do the work at this college, admissions officers will use the following information:

Unweighted GPA: With over 30,000 US high schools and thousands of different weighting systems, unweighting a student’s GPA is a practice most colleges use to find an unbiased academic performance of a student. With an unweighted gpa, the next piece that is evaluated is course rigor. 

Course Rigor: The unweighted GPA will then be assessed in terms of course rigor.  Admissions officers consider first if a student had the opportunity to take honors, IB, and/or AP courses, and if so, did they.  The most selective colleges in the country (those with admit rates below 20%) expect students to be taking the most rigorous curriculum offered by their particular high school.  If a student did not have the opportunity to take honors, IB or AP curriculum, it will not count negatively towards their admissions decision.  However, if students had the opportunity to take classes for advanced standing and didn’t, this will be noted. 

The reason college admissions offices rely so heavily on the high school transcript all relates to data.  For each incoming cohort of new first year students, colleges typically preform an analysis on unweighted HS GPA vs. College GPA.  For decades, colleges have found a strong correlation between the two. Previous success in the classroom is the best predictor of future academic success. 

Standardized test scores (if required): also used to help answer the question regarding ability of a student to do the work at a particular college.  Again, the answer relates back to the data.  While colleges have found that there is a strong correlation between high school and college GPA, decades of similar research has determined that the correlation is even higher using both the high school GPA and standardized test scores.

While this standard has long been the case at many colleges, many test optional colleges have done the analysis and found the correlation less strong or non-existent for their particular institutions and thus have made the testing requirement optional.  In the spring of 2020, many more colleges (such as William and Mary) have adopted a multi-year pilot program to both waive the testing requirement and study the college GPA outcomes of students who did submit testing vs. those that did not. 

For the vast majority of students applying to selective colleges in the US, the answer to question number one “can this student do the work?” is a resounding “yes!”  Therefore, colleges rely on other aspects of the application to answer the second question : “What will this student contribute to campus?”

Answering Question 2

College campuses thrive when diverse individual ideas and experiences come together around common causes.  When we talk about diversity in this context, we are talking about diversity of experiences.  Your unique personal story and individual context is important to colleges. 

Colleges also seek to admit students that have done unique activities and carved their own path in the world.  Colleges seek to create a vibrant academic community with individuals who care for one another and challenge each other. Colleges are seeking students with a capacity and an interest in personal and academic growth.  

With this long, seemingly undefinable list of contributions, there is no one magic activity or essay that will or won’t get you admitted to your dream school.  Rather, colleges are evaluating the below elements to determine your potential contribution to the campus community.  

Activities: If you’ve visited any college in person or virtually, you know each university takes pride in a vibrant campus community.  Beyond academics, colleges are places to discover and you’re your interests outside of the classroom and to discover new ones.  Your activities list show colleges your length and depth of engagement with activities, your level of leadership, and your willingness to try new things.  Most colleges will admit several thousand incoming students each year.  Therefore, there is no formula for activities, only that you engage fully in the ones you are most interested in. 

Honors & Awards: In this section, it is important to explain (with the limited space provided) what you’ve DONE, rather than what you’ve WON.  As college admissions officers are looking for your ability to contribute to campus, they are far more interested in the work you’ve DONE on a day in and day out basis than any particular award, though if you have them it is important to list them accurately.  Avoid abbreviations if possible, particularly in this section.

Essays: You want to show colleges what you are able to contribute based on your experiences. To do this in a way that makes for strong essays, you will need to write vivid, rich anecdotes and avoid generalizations.  It is not enough to write beautifully about an event that changed your life. You must write your strongest story and provide recent, detailed examples that allow admissions officers to envision you as a leader, a friend and a classmate on their campus. Writing college essays is a unique skill that requires personal reflection and should not be rushed. The earlier you are able to start writing and reflecting on your high school experiences, the better prepared you will be for the college essay process.   

Letters of Recommendation: These are valued highly by admissions officers since it is an outside voice that often corroborates and supports what is in the other elements of the application that you’ve submitted.  Admissions officers want to hear from teachers what type of student you are.  If a particular class was difficult but you persevered, this is an excellent teacher to request a letter of recommendation from.  Perfection and over-the-top platitudes about students are not expected in letters of recommendation.  Instead, colleges are seeking students with a growth mindset. Letters of recommendation provide an honest assessment of the student in the classroom and beyond. 

Extenuating Circumstances: The majority of students won’t have extenuating circumstances, but if you do it is important to include an addendum essay within your application. A major move, an illness, low grades, death in the family or other life events may qualify if they significantly impacted your high school years.  College admissions officers aren’t looking for excuses, though in certain circumstances an explanation may be useful If you have any questions, please ask your college counselor or college consultant about how to best address this question for your unique situation. 

Understanding how each of the above elements of your application will be reviewed by admissions officers should provide you with some direction on how to construct your strongest possible application for the college admissions process. Should you find yourself needing additional professional guidance or want individualized support for your college applications, please be in touch with a member of our team.  

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