Carolyn Z. Lawrence Educational Consultant

What Do Colleges Want?

Insights from the NACAC State of College Admissions Report

by Carolyn Z. Lawrence,

Over the past decade, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) - the leading professional organization for college admissions officers -  has surveyed colleges about their admissions practices.  The annual State of College Admissions survey provides clues about how colleges make admissions decisions and insight into the ever-evolving admissions landscape.  Some of this most recent results may surprise you.

The Big 3: Grades, Curriculum & Test Scores

For the last ten years, admissions officers have consistently reported that these factors are most important in admissions decisions at their institutions:

Grades in college prep courses matter most.  No surprise here:  When asked to rate the importance of specific factors in admissions decisions, 80 percent of admissions officers said that a student's grades in college preparatory courses were of "considerable importance" in the decision. College preparatory courses were not defined in the study, but, in general, these include what I term core academic subjects: English, math, science, social science, and foreign language.  And, not surprisingly, the more selective the college, the more weight is placed on grades in college prep courses. Bottom line: Putting your full effort into earning excellent grades in your core academic classes pays off when it comes time to appy to college.

A challenging high school curriculum is next in importance.  Grades alone aren't enough. Admissions offices are looking for students who have sought out academic challenge in high school.  This includes taking honors and Advanced Placement courses when available, but also taking a full slate of core academic subjects for all four years of high school whenever possible.  Nearly 68 percent of admissions officers rated this factor as being of considerable importance when reviewing applicant files. Again, the more selective the college, the more important the high school curriculum becomes as a factor in admissions decisions.  Among colleges that accept less than 50 percent of applicants, 83 percent said that the level of challenge of an applicant's high school curriculum was of considerable importance. Bottom line: Whenever possible, seek out challenging classes in your high school.  Not only will doing so increase your chances of admission, it will help you be better prepared for academic success in college.

Standardized test scores are also important to most colleges.  Although over 800 colleges no longer consider test scores for at least some applicants, the SAT and ACT remains an important consideration for most colleges.  Fifty-nine percent of NACAC survey respondents rated standardized test scores as being of considerable importance in the admissions decision. Bottom line: Take college entrance exams seriously. Develop a plan for preparing to do well on the SAT/ACT, and stick to it! However, remember that strong test scores don't overcome weak grades.  You'll need both to have the widest range of college options.

Other Factors In The Admissions Decision

Colleges want to feel the love.  Over the past decade, the average national yield rate for colleges - the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll - has dropped from 49 percent to 38 percent.  This has made it much tougher for colleges to predict which applicants will enroll if admitted.  As a result, in making admissions decisions, a growing number of colleges are attaching greater importance to an applicant's likelihood of attending if admitted. One in five (20.5%) of survey respondents said that demonstrated interest was of considerable importance in admissions decisions at their college. Demonstrated interest tended to be the most important to private colleges and smaller colleges, while it was less important to highly selective colleges (many highly selective colleges and universities do not consider applicant interest at all since they receive so many applications).  Colleges can measure your demonstrated interest in many ways: a visit to campus, connecting with the college at a local college fair or presentation, or even whether you've been in touch directly with admissions or faculty. Many colleges also test demonstrated interest by asking students to write essays explaining their reasons for wanting to attend; this is one of the reasons why I advise my students to keep careful notes on their college research and campus visits.  Bottom line: At many colleges, showing that you are eager to attend is important.

Essays are becomming more important, especially at highly selective, private institutions. In 2002, when asked about the importance of essays, only 14 percent of admissions officers said that college application essays were of considerable importance in making admissions decisions.  In this year's survey, just over 25 percent of admissions officers rated essays as being of considerable importance.  Essays were most important in the admissions decision at highly selective colleges and universities; 36.6 percent of colleges that admit under 50 percent of applicants said essays were of considerable importance in making admissions decisions.  Essays are also more important at private colleges; 29 percent of private colleges termed essays as being considerably important compared to 14 percent of public institutions.  Bottom line:  Increasingly, at many colleges the way to stand out in the admissions pool (and in the scholarship pool as well) is to write clear, concise essays that help admissions officers get a fuller, 3-D picture of you. Allow plenty of time for writing and editing your essays!

Extracurriculars may not be as important as teens (and parents) think.  Only 5 percent of colleges rated extracurricular activities as being of considerable importance in their admissions decisions. Even at the most selective colleges (those accepting less than 50% of applicants), only 14 percent of colleges said they placed considerable importance on extracurriculars when reviewing applicant files. This does not mean that extracurriculars don't matter at all to colleges; all colleges have a preference for students who are involved and active outside of the classroom and, at the most selective colleges, a record of outstanding achievements in extracurriculars can help distinguish a well-qualified student in  competitive applicant pools of thousands of well-qualified students. However, extracurricular activities matter far less in the admissions decision at most colleges than many people believe. Bottom line: Strong grades should always come before extracurricular participation. It is better to have stronger, more consistent grades and fewer extracurriculars than it is to participate in numerous extracurriculars at the expense of grades.  Choose wisely.

Other admissions factors examined in the survey:

  • Grades in all courses - 57.9 percent rated as "considerably important"
  • Counselor letter of recommendation - 19.2 percent rated as "considerably important"
  • High school class rank - 18.8 percent rated as "considerably important"
  • Teacher letters of recommendation - 16.5 percent rated as "considerably important"
  • Interview with admissions - 6.2 percent rated as "considerably important"

One last note: The survey did not ask colleges in the survey to rate the importance of other factors that colleges consider in admissions.  These can include factors such as institutional needs and enrollment goals, economic and racial diversity, applicant financial need, and applicant's ability to pay full price.  Although this survey of 1500 colleges provides excellent clues to what matters most in admission, in truth every college has its own unique priorities when making admissions decisions that can affect an individual student's chances of getting in.  Part of your college research should focus on trying to understand the unique student enrollment priorities of each college on your list.

Next: How To Build A Realistic College List

Based in San Diego, California, Carolyn Z. Lawrence helps students and parents from around the world make smart college choices.  Learn more about her personalized college counseling services.

© 2012 Carolyn Z. Lawrence, all rights reserved.  This article may not be copied or distributed without the permission of the author. School counselors: If you would like a print-friendly version of this article to share with your students, please contact me


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