When I first began working as a college counselor, comprehending the universe of schools available to students was mind numbing. There are 2,600 four-year colleges in the United States–a mish mash of public, private, religious, and secular schools–each with its own set of admission requirements. Consequently, when parents asked me to distill a list of factors that might provide uniformity across the admission practices of multiple schools, I became a bit dumbfounded: such a list would not be easy to produce, nor uniformly accurate. I continue to witness this issue, many years later. 

Still, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, our mother organization, periodically performs a survey across the vast collegiate universe and places the most important factors into a list called the ‘Factors in the Admission Decision’.

Whenever I review this lengthy list, I try not to lose track of the diversity it encapsulates. ‘GPA in college preparation courses’, the factor cited as most important by three quarters of U.S. four-year colleges, was not cited as most important by a quarter of colleges–and that’s over 600 of them. To make a finer observation, even within a prestigious private research university, admission committees may be looking just as much or even more at a Music Performance major’s talent than his or her raw academic history. Factors such as artistic talent and potential can become weighty factors in certain admissions decisions. Grades and test scores have their place in the admission process, but will carry less weight in certain cases. 

What factors are used to identify promising applicants? According to the NACAC Admissions Trends Survey of 2010, they are the following, in order of importance (with the percent of colleges that identified the factor as being ‘considerably important’ in parentheses):

  1. Grades in college preparation courses (75%)
  2. Strength of curriculum (62%)
  3. Admission test scores (SAT, ACT) (54%)
  4. Overall grades (52%)
  5. Essay or writing sample (26%)
  6. Teacher recommendation (21%)
  7. Student’s demonstrated interest (campus visits, contact admissions office) (21%)
  8. Counselor recommendation (20%)
  9. Class rank (19%)
  10. Interview (11%)
  11. Subject test score (AP, IB) (8%)
  12. Extracurricular activities (7%)
  13. SAT Subject Exam scores (7%)
  14. Portfolio (art, music samples) (7%)

But, of course, such an extensive list requires clarification. For public schools (the UC System in particular), ‘grades in college prep courses’ refer to grades in a-g courses taken in sophomore and junior years. Another finer point: many private schools have their own formula for calculating a college prep GPA. Most will include an applicant’s AP and Honors classes in their GPA calculations; but, then again, some schools might not include AP Environmental Science, for instance. So, what each school means by GPA varies widely. Getting this message across to some parents can be confusing.

‘Student demonstrated interest’ reflects campus visits, relevant contacts with the admissions office, meeting admissions reps when they visit high schools… and has shot up the list in recent years to number seven. The importance of this score strongly depends on whether a school is private (27% found it considerably important) or public (only 6% found it considerably important). For the private school, student interest is directly correlated with admissions yield, which is a key component in the school’s US News and World Report ranking. I can see eyes glazing over as I run through this information.

Public universities place great importance on ‘class rank’ and ‘admissions test scores’. The University of California guarantees a place on one of its campuses to applicants in the top 9% of their high school; some individual campuses strongly factor in standardized test scores. Private universities factor in essays, recommendations (which the UCs don’t use), and demonstrated interest much more than their public peers. Explaining this to certain families or students can cause bafflement.

According to Mark Twain, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. The ‘Factors in the Admission Decision’ are statistics that, if misunderstood, might lie and confuse. I’ve tried, as best as possible, to figure out how each admissions department views an application. Yet, how each factor contributes to admissions decisions at different schools is the true Holy Grail. In spite of NACAC’s ‘considerable factors’, some admissions decisions, to my rational eyes, will continue to remain paradoxes wrapped in enigmas. But, then again, that’s what makes college counseling so fascinating.

By Ralph Becker