What Matters Most In Getting Into College

By Jeff Selingo

In the high stakes game of college admissions, both parents and students seem to be looking for that magic bullet, a proven formula to guarantee college admission. That’s even more of the case now as the pandemic upended college admissions leading to unprecedented increases in applications. According to the organization that runs the Common App, application volume in 2021-22 increased nearly 10 percent from the preceding year—which itself was up some 10 percent from the year before that.

Recently, I hosted a webinar with Huntington Learning Center about the factors that go into admissions decisions. (You can watch the entire virtual event here.)

I was joined for part of the webcast by Rick Clark, assistant vice provost and executive director of admissions at Georgia Tech and co-author of The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.

Here were my three key takeaways from the webinar:

Test scores matter as one of several key factors in holistic admissions.

“Holistic admissions” is a process that looks at both academic and non-academic factors and is used by most colleges and universities that don’t have strict “cutoffs” for grades and test scores when deciding who gets in.

While there isn’t one element of an application that puts a teenager in the “admit” or “deny” pile in holistic admissions, generally speaking nothing carries more weight than an applicant’s high school transcript (rigor of courses and grades in them) and ACT/SAT scores. As admissions officers wade through thousands of applications in a short amount of time, those three metrics offer a relatively quick way to predict who will succeed on campus.

Numerous studies show that grades and test scores taken together are the best predictor of success in college—better than either measure alone. At the beginning of the pandemic, however, many colleges and universities were forced to waive their testing requirements for applicants who had difficulty finding locations to take the SAT or ACT.

But in 2021-22, more students took the tests than the year before and colleges are reporting that more and more applicants are sending scores—even if they aren’t required—as a way to bolster their application in a competitive field.

Some institutions, like Georgia Tech, have returned to requiring test scores in admissions. Clark, the admissions director at Georgia Tech, said that even when test scores weren’t required for admission in the Fall of 2021, two-thirds of applicants submitted their scores anyway. And the acceptance rate for those students was higher. Tech admitted 21% of students who included test scores in their applications, compared to only 11% who did not. The trend is similar at other colleges as well, where students who submitted test scores had a higher acceptance rate. 

When given a choice, Clark said students should weigh application-by-application whether test scores will help or hurt chances of admission.

“If you’ve been maximizing the curriculum at your school, you're performing at a high rate, you're in that top 10% of your school, that's a whole different conversation on what your testing will mean for admission decisions versus if you’re not in the top percentile of your class where test scores are probably not going to save you,” Clark said.

One more important thing about test scores: they are often used to award merit-based financial aid, and in general, that requirement was not waived even during the pandemic.

Tell a story in your application; don’t just fill in the blanks.

Resist cutting and pasting from a Google doc to fill in the blanks on your application or to complete a supplemental question about why you want to go to X school.

After spending a year embedded in three admissions offices for my book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, I found in the rush to finish applications, students often miss the cohesiveness of their own story that is supposed to be at the foundation of holistic admissions.

Tell admissions officers what you want them to know. Make acronyms clear. Don’t assume they know anything about you, your high school, your classes, or your activities. If you want them to know something, tell them.

Explain what matters to you. In the activities section on your application, put first what matters most to you.

Finally, what’s the story you want to tell? Think of your application as a narrative of your journey—the social and educational path you took to reach this particular point in your life, your passions, and interests.

“Be sure your essays and short answer questions broaden our understanding of who you are—not simply what you’ve done,” Clark said.

Before you hit Submit on the application, think: What do I want this document to tell someone who doesn’t know me and will only have a few minutes to review it?

There is no formula to guarantee admission.

Every applicant isn’t judged by the same yardstick despite what the public might think happens or wants to happen in the name of fairness.

Admissions standards aren’t applied consistently because they are applied in context. Admissions officers judge applicants’ achievements based on the opportunities they were given. What courses did they take from the classes available to them? How many students in their high school go to college? What might a college expect from them once they get to campus?

According to Clark, “Where we spend the majority of our time is looking at where do you go to high school? What did you have access to? How did you do in those classes?” 

At Georgia Tech, for example, that means looking at the rigor of math classes a high school offers compared to the classes an applicant actually took. Colleges are looking not only for well-rounded students, but a diverse student body, with a range of experiences.

ABOUT Jeff Selingo

Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named among the 100 Notable Books of the year by the New York Times. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also writes a bi-weekly newsletter on all things higher ed called Next, and co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.


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