Admission in an American college or university depends on several parameters, some subjective and other objective. We will not step into the controversy of assigning weightage and importance to various parameters as the importance assigned to them varies in different colleges. We will only try to understand these parameters and try to work on excelling and meeting all their requirements.

Subjective Parameters include what profile you present through your essays and SOP, the neutral 3rd person critique presented by the Letters of Recommendation written by your college professors, interviews, campus visit, etc.

Objective Parameters include your academic grades, and scores on standardized tests such as GRE, TOEFL etc.


Pre-Admission Campus Visit

Physically being on a college campus, talking with students, reading in the library, and dining at an on-campus cafeteria can help a prospective student determine if the school feels right. Moreover, if the Pre-Admission Campus Visit is done officially, then it proves your interest in the college to the admissions committee and improves your chances of selection. This parameter in selection is termed as demonstrated interest by the admission committees. The interest suggests to a college that an applicant, if admitted, may be more likely to attend and, as a result, a college may be more likely to admit such students.

The consensus view among guidance advisors is that it is a good idea to visit colleges, preferably when college is in session and not during a summer break, with a chance to meet an actual student in the form of a tour guide, and taking notes for reference later when applying. Sometimes a college will waive the application fee based on the college visit. A benefit is seeing a school as it really is—not just glossy pictures from a brochure or a promotional video from a website. Another suggested that students should ask themselves, when visiting a particular college: “can I see myself here”? Reporter Jenna Johnson in the Washington Post suggested that students contact a professor in an area of interest at the college before visiting, and try to meet with them briefly or sit in on one of their classes. Reporter Brennan Barnard in the New York Times recommended that student visitors should ask good questions (by avoiding factual questions better answered by the college’s website), and ask for complimentary passes for dining or free food. Barnard recommends going beyond the usual tour to ask random strangers about life on campus and reading the student newspaper. He recommends arranging to speak with a professor in the department of interest as well as athletic coaches and music directors, possibly by emailing them in advance of the visit, to try to meet them even briefly. A follow-up “thank you” note to the host is a good idea (avoid texting abbreviations.)

Counselor Michael Szarek commented on the importance of campus visits in dispelling false impressions: “Half of all college classes are not outdoors. Half of all college classes are not gathered around an electron microscope. Sometimes the leaves are brown, or even fall to the ground. So, use the viewbook to get a sense of the institution and what the college thinks are its strengths. But always rely on the campus visit.”

However, one account suggested colleges structured the official campus visit with the same boring format which rarely includes a faculty member.

An official campus visit starts with an “informational session,” conducted by an admissions officer. This is followed by an hour-long campus tour, which is led by a student with a talent for walking backwards. On the campus tour, we are always shown a dorm room and a dining hall. We are always taken to a library and told how many volumes it contains. We are informed how many students study abroad (a lot), how many student clubs there are (ditto), and how small the classes are (very small.) Structure Campus visits, offered officially by a college, usually include an hour-long guided tour by a student representative.

Several reports suggest that some colleges may be more likely to admit a student based on its interpretation of a student’s overall interest in attending, sometimes referred to as demonstrated interest. Actions by an applicant can signal sincere desire to attend a college, and these might include personal visits, visits to College Fair booths, meeting college representatives when they visit the high school for interviews, answering emails, reaching out to college faculty members, and so forth. The interest suggests to a college that an applicant, if admitted, may be more likely to attend and, as a result, a college may be more likely to admit such students. An effect of basing admissions decisions on likelihood to attend can be to boost a college’s yield rate—the percent of accepted students who choose to attend—which is an increasingly important metric for colleges that seek to perform well in surveys like the US News college rankings.

Extracurricular activities

There are conflicting views about student participation in extracurricular activities. A predominant position is that colleges were after “well-rounded bodies of individual specialists”, suggesting that it is better for a student to be deeply involved in one or two activities rather than nine or ten superficially, such as a “violin-playing quarterback” or a “math-medalist poet,” and that students should not “overdo it” and that parents should not become over-concerned about their child’s extracurricular activities. Applicants who achieve a leadership position in an extracurricular activity are regarded more highly than applicants who merely participate in a bunch of activities. Advisors recommend that a student should choose which extracurricular activities they genuinely care about, pursue them with “gusto” and “joyful commitment” that demonstrates integrity and commitment. And, consistent with this view, is that too many extracurricular activities may look suspect to admissions officers, particularly if it seems unreasonable that any person could be as active and succeed scholastically at the same time.

Jobs are generally viewed favorably by admissions committees, including even part-time service jobs such as flipping hamburgers, since it suggests that a student has learned to handle time-management, to accept responsibility, and develop people skills. A less dominant position was that it is helpful to be involved in a “variety of activities”, including jobs, internships, and community service. Some universities, such as the University of California, have formal programs for spot-checking applications for accuracy, such as sending a follow-up letter to the student asking for proof about an extracurricular activity or summer job. Advisors recommend that extracurricular activities should never interfere with a student’s overall academic performance. A student with lots of extracurricular activities senior year, but little in preceding years, particularly when the essays focus on the extracurricular activities, are suspect; it suggests an applicant is being coached, and may reflect negatively on an application. Advisors warn against “over-scheduling” students with too many activities or courses.

Number of Colleges to apply

There are differing views on how many universities a student should apply to. Several reports suggest that applying to too many universities caused unnecessary stress and expense, and hampers a student from targeting applications to a few select universities. But other advisors suggest that applying to more universities increases overall chances for acceptance. We suggest applying to nine to twelve universities is best, and that applying to too many universities is counterproductive. There are reports that the average number of universities that students are applying to has been increasing. In 2008, applications to Harvard University had increased to a record number at 27,278, a 19% increase from the year before. One effect of these numerous applications is to lower the average yield of universities, which dropped from 46% to 38% in 2014 according to one account.

Student’s Online identity

There are reports that some college admissions departments scrutinize applicants’ personalities online, such as Facebook, Linkedin and MySpace profiles, and as a result, they urge students to remove “sarcastic jokes, bad pictures, or political cartoons,” and be wary about what their friends post on their pages as well. A concurring report suggested that some offices have people tasked with “checking out applicants’ Facebook pages”, although there is a contrasting report from one college recruiter who said that their policy is not to examine Facebook profiles and that “Facebook is reserved for students on a recreational basis.” The same caution applies to email addresses; one advisor cautions against having jazzed-up email addresses such as “”,, etc but rather that users should stick with their name, if possible, since it can help colleges find a student’s records.


  • There are differing recommendations about the importance of interviews, with the consensus view that interviews were overall less important than college SOPs and other admissions essays, but should be done if they were offered. One counselor suggested that if an interview was offered by a college admissions program, then it was not really optional but it should be seen as a requirement––not going to such an interview could be detrimental to a student’s chances for admission. One counselor suggested that a student try to get an interview, even if it was not required, since it might help “exhibit character strengths” that might not show up via grades on SOPs, LORs, and transcripts.
  • Several reports noted that most Ivy League schools have abandoned the interview requirement, but that if there is an opportunity for an interview, even with an alumnus of the college, then it is a good idea to do it since not doing it signals a lack of interest in the school. Knowing a college can be helpful during an interview, so that an applicant can say something specific about the school, or a professor who teaches there, or a subject or internship opportunities, since it shows sincere interest. A counselor suggested that a goal of interview preparation should be present oneself as “comfortable with spontaneous conversation” and being able to talk about interests without sounding like the answers were prepared in advance. He suggested it was important to show intellectual passion and loving learning with a deep excitement, and show “social maturity” with sensitivity, empathy for others unlike oneself, and concern for issues larger than personal career ambitions. He advised that an applicant’s attitude should not be what can the college offer but what can the student offer the college, and to avoid asking questions about facts which are better answered elsewhere, and to show an openness to new ideas, an ability to work cooperatively with others, ambition, and caring about others. Counselors suggest that interviewees should be ready for sometimes provocative questions to test social sensitivity; It is suggested that if an interviewer asks a “baiting or leading question”, an applicant should respond by laughing while politely disagreeing with the perspective, and to keep trying to enjoy the conversation with the interviewer. Applicants should avoid sounding snide, annoyed, contemptuous, and avoid describing oneself as humiliated, bored, depressed, angry, shy, inhibited, anxious, frightened, and frustrated, and should be upbeat but avoid going for the hard sell. Another report suggested that shy or timid applicants were at a disadvantage. Although personal interviews were generally overrated, many Ivies have alumni interviews which can help in borderline situations. A student try to find a common bond with the interviewer, and send a brief follow-up letter afterwards. Interviews rarely matter at big colleges but may be more of a factor at small colleges if offered.
  • Our advice is that if offered an interview, a student should take it … And they should dress as if they are going to dinner with their grandparents. The biggest faux pax comes in inappropriate dress for both sexes. Spaghetti straps, buttons that pop open. For boys a rumpled T-shirt…. If you look in the mirror and you think you look good, change your clothes. This is not a date.

Statement of Purpose & Essays

  • There are differing opinions about the importance of the SOP. The consensus view is that the essay is less important than grades and test scores, but that an essay can make a difference in some instances, often at highly selective colleges where they can “make or break your application.” There was one report that essays were becoming more important as a way to judge a student’s potential, and that essays have supplanted personal interviews as a primary way to evaluate a student’s character.
  • Generally counselors recommend that the essay should not be too long, such as over 500 words. An essay longer than 650 words risked “straining their patience,” but the 500-word suggested maximum length is not a hard–and–fast rule, and what’s important is honing and rewriting.
  • Writing is easy; rewriting is hard. And essays deserve to be rewritten several times. Lots of kids think the objective is to write about something that will impress the admission office. In part that is true, but what impresses an admission officer is an essay that conveys something positive about the applicant; that allows the committee to get to know the kid just a bit from those few pieces of paper. The essay is an opportunity to provide a different perspective about the applicant, a reason to accept a kid. It is an opportunity not to be wasted.
  • Advisors suggest that the essay should be concise, honest (with no embellishments), coherent, not boring, accurate, evoking vivid images, revealing a likeable and smart individual, with cautious use of humor, and possibly touching on controversial topics but in a balanced way. Other tips include avoiding jargon or abbreviations, overly emotional appeals, profanity or texttalk (example: Schools H8 2 C texttalk), or artiness (e.g. poetry in an application) or being cocky.
  • Former guidance counselor for students at Andover and college admissions authority suggested that essays must emphasize personal character and demonstrate intellectual curiosity, maturity, social conscience, concern for the community, tolerance, and inclusiveness. He advises don’t just “be yourself”, but show your “best self”, and that demonstrating class participation suggests a “willingness to go beyond selfishness” and shows enthusiasm for learning. Alan Gelb suggests that the only no-no is “shameless self-promotion”. Topics to avoid include babysitting experiences, pets, encounters with illegal drugs or alcohol or criminal activity, excuses to explain a low grade, stories about a former home or big brother or sister, simply listing achievements, expressing thanks for being chosen as a leader, talking about a “wilderness leadership course,” general complaining or whining, racism or sexism or disrespect for groups of people, bad taste or profanity or vulgarity or bathroom humor, early love or sex experiences, criticism or disrespect for parents, telling only jokes, excessive bragging or too many instances of the “I” pronoun, divulging personal health information about yourself or a friend or a family member, copy-and-pasting a term paper in the essay form such as about global warming or the European debt crisis, and experiences involving lawbreaking or illegal activity. Applicants should not express opinions too strongly as if no possible counterviews were possible. The topic should be something the applicant cares about, and which shows leadership in the sense of “asserting yourself to help others have more success”; according to Dunbar, leadership was not necessarily about being in charge such as being the team captain or school president. Applicants should present a broad perspective and avoid extreme words such as “never”, “always”, “only”, or “nobody”, which suggest narrow thinking. Dunbar advised against the standard “tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em” essay formula but doing something different, interesting, exciting.
  • The best essay topics are a slice-of-life story, with poignant details, in which the writer “shows” and does not “tell”. It is suggested that a student show their essay to a literate friend and ask if would they admit this person to the college. We recommend that applicants not try to come across as a “preppy well-off kid” but downplay parental status. Some advisors suggest that students proactively try to explain an unusual grade, such as a low grade in a core course.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Universities ask for teacher recommendation letters, typically from professors of core courses, who preferably have worked closely and know the student well. An LOR is a neutral third person assessment of a student by a person from an academic background so they are valuable inputs for an admissions committee. One report, however, was that professors recommendations were becoming less important as a rating measure.

Advisors counsel that applicants should meet deadlines, spend time researching colleges, be open-minded, have fun, communicate what “resonates” to the applicant about a particular school, not fall in love with one or two colleges, follow directions precisely and make sure to click the “submit” button. Rudeness towards staff members, feigning enthusiasm, and being pretentious are other turnoffs reported by admissions officers.

There is strong consensus among counselors and advisors that starting the college search early is vital. One recommends starting early in the final year of graduation; another suggests that even this is too late, and that the process should begin during the second year or summer before senior year. And sources suggest that students who begin the process earlier tend to earn more acceptance letters. Another advantage of beginning early is so that applications can be proofread for mistakes. Advisors suggest that emails should be sent to specific persons in the admissions office, not to a generalized inbox, in order to maintain accountability.

Advisors suggest that applicants sending in paper applications should take care that handwriting is legible, particularly email addresses. Advisors counsel that mistakes or changes should be explained somewhere in the application; for example, an adviser at Grinnell College suggested that a record need not be perfect but there must be an “explanation for any significant blip.”

Advisors suggest that applicants should “own up to any bad behavior” such as suspensions since schools are “duty-bound to report them”, and suggest that a person should “accept responsibility and show contrition for “lessons learned,” according to one view. Advisors suggest that the application should help a student position themselves to create a unique picture. It helps, according to one advisor, if a person knows himself or herself, because that enables an applicant to communicate effectively with a prospective school.

International applicants

  • Foreign (non-US citizen) students applying from another country form a large and growing percentage of applicants (including a lot of accepted applicants) to American universities. Applications to American universities from foreign students have increased dramatically in the past decade. International applications are typically similar to domestic ones but with additional complications. Most international applicants do not receive a GPA score or transcript from their college. Most will not normally take GRE or TOEFL exams, so these must be arranged.
  • Non-native English speakers may be asked to provide English language qualifications. If a university requires or offers an interview, these can normally be conducted over the phone or with alumni residing in the applicant’s country. International applicants often must cope with higher tuition fees and less available financial aid, although this varies significantly by college. Further, international applicants also have to apply for a student visa, which can be a complex, tense and time-consuming process.
  • Normally the acceptance rate of foreign students is higher, because of four clear reasons -
  1. Foreign students,who apply to US colleges, are usually crème-de-la-crème of their country and cannot be compared to an average US student, who can be great, good or average.
  2. Foreign students, especially Indians and Chinese tend to get higher scores on standardized tests such as GRE and have good academic grades as they are used to working harder.
  3. Universities and colleges also prefer foreign students as they add diversity to the student body and improve peer learning due to their different perspectives.
  4. Reports have also confirmed that public university admissions officers were actively seeking out-of-state and international students since they paid higher rates for tuition.

How do colleges evaluate applicants

Factors having considerable importance
Factor % Agree
Grades in college courses 83%
Strength of curriculum 66%
Admission test scores 59%
Grades in all courses 46%
Essay or writing sample 27%
Student’s demonstrated interest 23%
Class rank 22%
Teacher recommendation 19%
Interview 9%
Extracurricular activities 7%
Portfolio 6%
GRE Subject scores 5%

Overview of “How Universities evaluate applicants”

Colleges use a variety of methods to evaluate applicants. One source noted that four of every five colleges accept more than half of all applicants, and three-fourths of students who apply to colleges are accepted by their first choice college. Depending on the size and values of the school, admissions criteria can vary from being almost entirely formulaic to involving significant subjective judgment regarding the student’s “fit” for the institution.

Criteria vary considerably by school, and one view is that the “great deal of inconsistency across institutions” sometimes gave an incorrect impression that “student selection is arbitrary.” Criteria include standardized test scores (GRE), class rank, grades (as shown in the college transcripts), degree of extracurricular involvement, academic potential and leadership potential. One report suggested that the most important criteria, in order of importance, were (1) grades in college courses (2) strength of curriculum (3) grades in all courses and (4) class rank. Many colleges also rely on personal essay(s) written by the applicant and letters of recommendation written by the applicant’s professors; one benefit of the essay is to help colleges such as Pitzer College, which claims that half of its applicants have “perfect or near-perfect grades and test scores”, have a way of further differentiating students. Institutions place different weight on these criteria. It should be noted that some factors are beyond a student’s control, such as a college’s need in a given year for diversity, legacy applicants, or athletic recruiting.

It is a gargantuan task for admissions staff at selective colleges to analyze and process thousands of applications with a “huge mail deluge” since there are often six pieces of mail for each applicant, including transcripts, letters of recommendation, and the application itself. College admissions personnel spend less time reading each particular application; in 2009, the average admissions officer was responsible for analyzing 514 applications, and the trend was in the direction of officers having to read more and more applications. A typical college application receives only about 25 minutes of reading time, including three to five minutes for the personal essay. Advisors suggest that understanding some of the criteria can help an applicant apply to colleges with greater success.

Counselors urge students and parents to understand what types of things colleges tend to look for in applications, and plan accordingly. A key attribute which admissions evaluators look for is authenticity—a real person who comes through the application, not a packaged artificial entity or distortion crafted to impress an admissions officer. An admissions officer at Vanderbilt University wrote about how their office evaluates applicants: “It’s really about, ‘What did I take advantage of in the environment I was given.'” Several reports suggested that colleges were not looking for the “well-rounded kid” but rather a “well-rounded class”.

Colleges are looking for … the well-rounded class. Colleges put together their entering class as a mosaic: a few great scholars for each academic department; a handful of athletes; some musicians, dancers, and theater stars; a few for racial and economic diversity; some potential club leaders, etc. Colleges want a kid who is devoted to – and excels at – something. The word they most often use is passion.

Colleges want students who have demonstrated through their actions an ability to see and connect with a world that is larger than they are.

Academic evaluation

Waiting for acceptance letters to arrive can be a stressful time for prospective college students. Whether applicants see “Congratulations!” instead of “We regret to inform you,” can depend on the schools to which they applied. While some colleges and universities pride themselves on selectivity, others welcome most, if not all, of their college applicants. Schools on this list had the highest acceptance rates for the fall 2014 (almost a 100% acceptance rate) entering class among all schools surveyed by U.S. News, regardless of ranking category.

Bismarck State CollegeBismarck, ND
City University of SeattleSeattle, WA

CUNY—​College of Staten Island

Staten Island, NY

CUNY—​Medgar Evers CollegeBrooklyn, NY
Daytona State CollegeDaytona Beach, FL

Many students aspire for admission to a prestigious college or university, but the supply of open seats often does not meet the demand from applicants. Earning admission to the schools on this list can be especially difficult. With the lowest acceptance rates among all undergraduate institutions surveyed by U.S. News, regardless of ranking category, the 100 colleges and universities listed here are among the most selective, based on the fall 2014 entering class.

School Fall 2014 acceptance rate
Stanford UniversityStanford, CA 5.7%
Harvard UniversityCambridge, MA 5.8%
Columbia UniversityNew York, NY 6.9%
Yale UniversityNew Haven, CT 6.9%
Princeton UniversityPrinceton, NJ 7.4%

Statistical analysis

There are numerous reports that colleges use proprietary mathematical algorithms as part of their process for evaluating applications. Some colleges hire statistical experts known as “enrollment consultants” to help them predict enrollment by developing computer models to select applicants in such a way as to maximize yield and acceptance rates. Some of these models take into account factors such as an applicant’s “zip code, religion, first-choice major and extracurricular interests, as well as academic performance”. Colleges have been reported to have mathematical algorithms which recalculate an applicant’s high school grade point average by weighting different course grades by such factors as perceived course difficulty and strength of college curriculum; this allows the university to come up with a revised GPA number for a student they can compare against applicants from different colleges.

Furthermore, many universities track how well other students from the same college have done—that is, applicants from the same college who attended or are attending the university—by comparing their college grades against their university grades, and admissions officers use this data to try to estimate the likely university grade performance of a given applicant. Generally admissions departments do not reveal the particulars of such mathematical analyses. According to Michele Hernandez, Ivy League admissions departments compile an academic index based on three main factors:

(a) highest GRE score

(b) Highest GRE subject score

(c) converted rank score which is based on grades, class rank, and college difficulty.

In her view, two-thirds of this evaluation is based on GRE scores, while only one third is based on grades, leading her to conclude at one point that grades were less important overall as a factor than GRE test scores, while in a different chapter she also suggested that the college transcript information described roughly 60% of the college’s perception of a student’s academic performance. Next, the composite academic index score was combined with an analysis of personal factors such as extracurricular activity or the essay, such that the academic factor was weighted 70% to 85% while the personal evaluation was weighted only 30% to 15%.

Generally the particulars of the mathematical formulas are not revealed to the public, and different colleges have different formulas. Part of the purpose of algorithms is to expedite the handling of thousands of applications in a short amount of time. For example, at Dartmouth, data goes into a “master card” for each application, which leads to a “ready sheet”, where readers summarize applications; then, an initial screening is done: top applications go directly to the director of admissions for approval while lackluster ones go to another director. Dartmouth uses “A” for accept, “R” for reject, “P” for possible, with “P+” and “P-” being variants. A committee might spend a week with the “P” ones, of which only about a sixth will become acceptances, according to Hernandez.

Analysis of grades

The consensus view is that college grades are probably the single most important factor in winning admission to an MS program. Maintaining high grades is particularly important for the final semester of senior year, and there is a report that colleges are paying greater attention to a student’s grades throughout senior year. Particularly important is academic performance in core courses, and having a high grade point average based on good grades in honors courses. Universities evaluate applicants often by examining how a student has successfully exploited what a college has had to offer. Of the top five criteria for getting into college, having good grades were first, second, and third most important overall (test scores were fourth, extracurricular activities and essay were fifth). An ideal academic record is one of increasingly better grades in courses of progressive difficulty. Hernandez wrote that universities looked for patterns with both grades and test scores; high grades with low test scores suggested a hard-working student, but high test scores with low grades suggested a picture of a lazy student. First year college grades generally do not count much, but trends are important—an upward trend in grades was a positive factor, a decline a negative one. Public universities are more likely to evaluate applicants based on grades and test scores alone, while private universities tend to be more “holistic” and consider other measures, according to one view. At the same time, public universities receiving a greater application load will end up using a threshold GRE score as a first step in rejecting applicants

Rigor of college courses

How University admissions officers analyze applicants  
College Grades  Lacks drive Ideal student High
Needs to show results Struggling but ambitious Low
High Low  

A consensus view is that taking rigorous college courses is a plus. Guidance counselors report that admissions personnel take a student’s course of study into serious consideration when evaluating applications. Admissions officers construct a college profile and take into account such data as curriculum offerings, demographics, and grade distributions at the college. One adviser suggested taking the hardest courses that there were, and that the worst thing, in terms of evaluations, was to drop a hard course.

Athletic ability

Athletes in popular sports such as football, athletics and swimming are recruited by colleges hoping to improve their sports teams.

A survey of admissions officers revealed that 28% agreed that their school had accepted athletes despite having lower grades and test scores than others. A survey by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that schools with strong athletics departments tended to have athletes with lower GRE scores than non-athletic students. Athletes get better treatment even at elite colleges, according to one academic study. A report suggested that some applications by athletes go first to a special committee for review by coaches, who may then, in turn, advocate for particular players. Recruited athletes who play in-demand or “revenue” sports (i.e. generate ticket sales) such as football or basketball can have a “significantly greater advantage in admissions” than others. Some Ivy League coaches, seeking to improve the average academic performance of their teams, would admit mediocre athletes with top academic skills as a means to balance out the stellar athletes with below-average academic ability. To fix this “average score” arrangement in which there had been a temptation to admit an extremely poor student with great athletic ability, many schools went to a banding arrangement. For example, coaches would consider all wrestling applicants within a specified range or band of academic performance, and coaches could admit more wrestler-applicants who showed greater scholastic promise. Howard and Matthew Greene report that coaches do not make admissions decisions, but they can advocate for a particular applicant. And they report that committed athletes should explain in their applications how much time they have used towards perfecting their athletic ability:

According to a college source, “We often talk with highly involved athletes who have little time for other activities outside of their sports. In many cases their grades suffer. Most student-athletes are not “recruited” to colleges, but colleges will respect their commitment and drive.”

Particular skills

Some colleges are more likely to admit students with in-demand skills, such as writing, debating, theater management, science competitions, organizational skills, musical skills, and so forth.

Personal initiative

Admissions personnel look favorably on applications where it is clear that the student, himself or herself, appears to be firmly in control over the whole application process; the appearance of pushy parents or coaching can have a dampening effect. Ideally it is best if the student, himself or herself, is in charge of organizing the college search and decision-making process; the “student must be in the driver’s seat”. One admissions dean explained: And admissions officers are turned off by “micromanaging parents”.

Students who really manage the show on their own, fill out the application on their own, make their own appointments for interviews, correspond with you on their own email account – these students get extra points because they’re managing their lives.

Demonstrated interest

This can be an important factor in some situations, sometimes a “driving factor”, since a college may be more likely to say yes to a student likely to take admission on being accepted. Accordingly, it has been advised to become knowledgeable about schools being applied to, and “tailor each application accordingly.” university visits (including overnight ones), interviews, attending University Fair days, comments in the essay, and other indications of interest can be a factor for many colleges concerned about their yield––the percent of students who will say yes to an offer of enrollment. According to Andover’s college counseling director Sean Logan, it is important to have numerous contact points with colleges to show demonstrated interest: visiting, phone contact, emailing, visits to websites (including number of clicks as well as length of time on the website), whether a college visit included a tour and interview, and whether a college-recommended off-campus personal interview was done. Schools such as Connecticut College, Franklin and Marshall College and Emory University have been credited as “popularizing the yield game” by refusing well-qualified students who failed to show much real interest in attending, as a way to boost their yield scores.

A university representative said, “We assumed they weren’t coming, because we didn’t have much contact from them. We know they’re probably using us as a back-up and they haven’t done much to show any sincere interest, so we decided to waitlist them.”

Over the years, predicting enrollment has evolved from guesswork into science. Some colleges accept more relatives of alumni, not just to please prospective donors, but also because “legacies” enroll at a 5% to 10% higher rate than other students.

It helps colleges to know the competition. Applicants to Boston University, Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for example, are asked to list other colleges they’re considering. This question offends some guidance counselors so much that they advise students to leave it blank. But if applicants are seeking scholarship money, college-admissions offices can glean the same information from other sources.

Active participation

Students with special skills such as wrestling may be given preferential treatment.

One report suggested that colleges seek students who will be actively involved on campus and not spending every day studying alone in their rooms. As a result, they are interested in teacher recommendations which suggest active classroom participation in college classrooms, describing students who speak up in class, who ask questions, who are almost like an “unpaid teaching assistant” to help a college professor make a class great, or make a weak professor’s class bearable.

Weeding out problem people

Admissions tries to screen out difficult people, spoilers, and “self-involved brats”. According to Dunbar, many colleges are “afraid of aggression”, and recommends avoiding “harsh humor” or signs of severe emotion, anger, and aggression. Admissions evaluators look for signals possibly indicating difficult people, such as non-constructive or disrespectful criticisms of people by an applicant, or evidence of a drug or alcohol problem. Colleges try to weed out dependent people who either follow their parents too closely, or do only what the “cool kids” do. Dunbar advised that “parental control of any kind, if detected, can be very damaging”, and advised that students should not appear to be controlled by parental whims.

Analysis of essays

Dartmouth College admissions, according to Michele Hernandez, spends a week examining the possibles or Ps, and after much deliberation, accepts perhaps a sixth of them.

Michele Hernandez suggested that almost all admissions essays were weak, cliche-ridden, and “not worth reading”. The staff gets thousands of essays and have to wade through most of them. When she worked as an admissions director at Dartmouth, she noticed that most essays were only read for three minutes. Some too-common essay types were the “outward bound” essay about how a person discovered their inner grit while hiking tough mountains, or the “community service” essay about how a student discovered, while working among disadvantaged peoples, that “all persons were the same”. Admissions officers seek to learn how a person thinks, what kind of person they are, and their level of intellectual promise.

Other factors

One report was that at Ivy League universities, 40% of students were so-called “special cases” including student-athletes, minorities, low-income, legacies, and development cases, and that admissions standards were typically lowered for these groups.

Full-paying students

While there is general agreement that chances for admission are higher for students who are prepared to pay the full price, there are indications that this has been even more prevalent in the past few years given economic uncertainty and rising college costs, particularly at schools without large endowments. Half of admissions officers at both public universities and a third of officers at four-year colleges were actively seeking students who could “pay full price” and did not need financial aid, according to one survey of 462 admissions directors. The report suggested that full-pay students tended to have lower high school grades and test scores than other students, compared to other applicants, on average. Two other reports confirmed that public university admissions officers were actively seeking out-of-state and international students since they paid higher rates for tuition. Another report found that one in ten admissions officers had said that their college admitted full-pay students despite their having lower average grades and test scores. Reports vary about whether the financial neediness of applicants impacts admissions chances; one suggested that applicants with strong academic credentials or talents are more likely to get financial aid, but that depending on the college, “borderline admits” needing money were most vulnerable; a second report was that “colleges like rich students”. One view was that financial aid depends on how a specific student compares with other students.

What this means is that your financial aid package from a reach college may not be as attractive as the package from one of your target, or well matched, colleges. If you are looking for generous scholarship aid, you need to look at colleges and universities where your academic profile is strong compared to that of the average admitted student. By contrast, other schools practice need-blind admission.

Geographic diversity

One view was that state schools strive to admit students from “all parts of a state,” which suggests that applicants who live farther away from a given school had a better chance of admission. But a contrary view was that geographic location of the applicant matters perhaps only slightly, if at all; We looked at acceptance ratios to Dartmouth for different geographic locations, and found that geographic distance was not a factor influencing admittances.

Race and ethnicity

A survey of admissions personnel suggested that two-fifths had said yes to applicants from minorities despite having lower grades and test scores than other applicants, on average. At the same time, rulings by the Supreme Court have prevented race from becoming an “overriding factor” in college admissions. A report suggested minority students have a better chance overall at selective colleges. In the case of multiracial students, they have a choice of which box to check since it may be perceived either as “gamesmanship” or overtly reflecting one’s racial makeup to gain advantage. Some Asian-Americans have felt loathe to describe themselves as Asian, or to reveal information about their ethnic background, on the supposition that college admissions departments discriminate against them because of their ethnicity and consider them incorrectly to be “boring academic robots”, according to several reports. Typically, Asian applicants require a higher GRE score than of a comparable white student, and considerably higher than that of a non-Asian minority, to have a similar chance of admission. Asians get a “raw deal” in Ivy admissions, according to Hernandez, and have to be much better students than the typical white applicant to be admitted. She wrote that it benefits an applicant to be African American, Latino, or Native American, since colleges can advertise their diversity as a result. The admissions practices of Harvard and Princeton were investigated for possible discrimination against Asian-American applicants by Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. An important development in 2012 is that the Supreme Court decided to review the case of Fisher v. University of Texas which may affect university-based admissions decisions based on race.

Legacy applicants

There are differing views about how important it is to have a family member or relative who also attended a college. It is clear that it is a factor; one report suggested that having a family member who is an alumnus gives “a leg up” for applicants. One report suggested that siblings do not count as legacies. In some cases, a parent’s attendance at a related graduate school counts as a legacy, but most colleges do not count this. Many selective private colleges have a higher admit rate for alumni children as a way to “keep the larger set of alumni happy and giving”.

Legacy admissions have had a history of controversy; economist Peter Sacks criticized the practice of legacy admissions as a “social reproduction process” in which “elite institutions have an implicit bargain with their alumni … ’You give us money, and we will move your kid to the front of the line.’ Another agreed that legacies perpetuated a “hereditary aristocracy”. But an opposing view is that all colleges, to varying extents, make choices as part of the admissions process, including state schools which charge in-state residents (with taxpaying parents) a lower rate than out-of-state residents, and it was argued that there was not really much difference between taxpaying parents contributing to a state school as well as generous alumni contributing to a private school—both with the possibility that it will help their offspring get into college. Consultant Donald Dunbar suggested that admitting legacies encourages future donations, and in turn these incoming money flows help the school subsidize the education of more minority students; another source suggested that alumni gifts was important in helping a college pay for need-blind programs.

Most college admissions officers will state that legacy status is only a tiny factor in making the final admissions decision. You’ll often hear that in a borderline case legacy status might tip an admissions decision in the student’s favor.

The reality, however, is that legacy status can be quite important. In some Ivy League schools, studies have shown that legacy students are twice as likely to be admitted as students without legacy status.

Family wealth

Development cases are a set of preferences in university and college admission, particularly in college admissions in the United States, separate from merit, athletic, racial and legacy preferences, whereby applicants from wealthy families are more likely to be granted admission to selective universities based on the ability of their family to make large donations.

The practice is not widely discussed by universities that use it, but is reported to be used by a number of top-ranked schools, Ivy League and otherwise, and has been associated with Duke University (which acknowledges its use) and Brown University (which does not comment), especially since the 1980s.

Personal connections

Counselors and admissions directors tend to agree that in a few selected cases, connections were important. A report based on a survey of admissions directors suggested that “whom you know does matter”, since higher-level administrators and prominent alumni and trustees can exert pressure on the admissions departments to admit certain applicants.

Other considerations

There was a report that more colleges are resorting to computerized fact-checking software, as well as anti-plagiarism tools such as Turnitin, which checks documents for unoriginal content on the web, possibly as a response to well-publicized scandals in which a student won admission to Harvard University by fraudulent means. Supplementary materials generally carry “no weight” in college admissions, according to one view. A report in Time Magazine suggested that many elite colleges used a vaguer measure of institutional fit to decide who is admitted, which is based on nonacademic qualities and may favor “underrepresented minorities and students who demonstrate exceptional talent.” Students who take a “gap year” between high school and college can benefit if the year was enriching and developing and helped the student mature.

Acceptances and rejections


Students are usually notified of a college’s decision in the April to May period, and are usually notified by email, although some colleges still send “fat” envelopes (usually an acceptance) or “thin” envelopes (usually a rejection). A trend appears to be declining percentages of acceptances to leading schools. There are indications that the percentage of students who say “yes” to an offer of admission (the yield) has been declining, from 49 percent in 2001 to 54 percent in 2014. Admitted students may also be awarded financial aid. There are two kinds of financial aid: need-based aid, awarded entirely on the financial specifics of the student’s family, and merit-based aid, given to students judged to show exceptional academic promise. Several reports confirm that accepted students who are dissatisfied with an aid offer should contact the college to see if the offer can be improved.

International students who have been accepted should complete an I-20 form. A disappointing aid package may be appealed with a polite call to the school’s financial aid office, while being thankful for any funds that have already been offered. In some cases, it is possible to bargain with a school for a more generous aid package, particularly if there is a more generous offer from a second school which the first school sees as a competitor. One report suggested that even by May 2012, there were 375 colleges which still had space for freshmen or transfer applicants for fall of 2012. Seniors accepted to college are expected to maintain good grades during the spring; for example, one hundred high school applicants accepted to Texas Christian University, whose grades plummeted in the spring of their senior year as a symptom of senioritis, received so-called “fear of God” letters from an admissions dean asking them to explain themselves, and threatening to rescind offers of admission.

Wait list considerations

Colleges use waitlists to hedge their bets, uncertain about how many accepted students will say yes, and to draw applicants from the waitlist when vacancies open. In addition, waitlists allow colleges to target acceptance letters to students likely to attend to maintain the college’s selectivity ranking and yield.

About half of colleges use a wait list, particularly those which accept fewer than half of all incoming applications. Since students on average tend to be sending out more applications, colleges have been having a tougher time knowing for certain whether the students to whom they have offered admission will, in fact, attend in the fall. Some of the uncertainty is related to the phenomenon of students applying to more and more schools, sometimes 15 or more, to increase their chances in a statistical sense, but this adds a new layer of guesswork for colleges trying to predict how many accepted students will say yes, and puts waitlisted students in “limbo” or the “basic equivalent of purgatory,” according to US News. In addition, many colleges lose some students due to a phenomenon sometimes called summer melt, meaning that some students, even ones who have sent in a deposit, will not show up in the fall, and melt away, and this “melt percentage” can be as high as 5% to 10% of persons who have paid a deposit.

The admission process is a complicated dance of supply and demand for colleges. And this spring, many institutions have accepted fewer applicants, and placed more on waiting lists, until it becomes clear over the next few weeks how many spots remain.

As a result, colleges use wait lists as a hedge to make sure they have enough students in the fall. Some schools “under-invite” applicants in the regular admissions season to appear highly selective and then about-face and accept them from their wait lists later. One report is that Vanderbilt gets a tenth of their freshman class from the wait list. But it varies from college to college and from year to year. For example, in 2010 Stanford and Yale wait-listed 1,000 students while Duke wait-listed 3,000 students. Overall, one survey suggested that 30% of wait-listed students are eventually accepted, but this is an average figure for all wait-listed students, and the percentage is dramatically lower at elite or prestigious schools. There is a report suggesting that in recent years, the lists are more fluid than in previous years in the sense that there is more activity regarding wait lists which have become more of a “safety net” for colleges rather than students. Estimates vary about how many college applicants find themselves on a wait list; one report was that 10% of applicants were wait-listed.

One adviser suggested that students who are wait-listed “work the wait list” by staying in touch with the admissions office to make sure they know the student will attend if accepted, and possibly take steps such as forwarding new grades and making a subsequent college visit, or send a one-page letter or 60-second video describing a strong desire to attend and the reasons.

A former dean of admissions at Franklin and Marshall College suggests that students not view the wait list letter as a “polite denial” but rather as a possible opportunity. A second report in 2011 confirmed this, and it suggested that private colleges without “billion-dollar endowments or 40,000 applicants” were finding that the period from May to the start of classes in fall was a time of uncertainty, with many institutions seeking new applicants, and unsure how many of the applicants that had promised to attend would, in fact, show up in the fall. What can happen is that institutions at the top of the “food chain” accept students from their wait lists, and these students in turn sacrifice their deposit to schools lower down the chain, generating vacancies and uncertainty.

A downside to wait lists is that by the time a student is accepted, there may be much less money available for scholarships or grants. There was a report in The Wall Street Journal of a few colleges such as Franklin & Marshall which deliberately waitlisted overqualified students on the assumption that even if accepted, they would almost certainly not enroll. The alleged purpose was to boost the admissions yield rate––the percentage of students who accept a college’s admissions offer––as a means to improve the college’s overall performance on the influential US News college rankings.

Duke University in 2010 had 27,000 applicants, accepted 4,000 and placed 856 on its waiting list in April, since it was uncertain how many of those accepted would choose to attend; in this sense, the wait list is a form of hedge for the university to guard against uncertainty. Duke does not rank students on the wait list, but chooses based on other characteristics.

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