The Mysterious Formula For College Admissions

College admissions are inherently unfair and highly stressful, but they can also be meaningful and moving. For example, this year, two admission leaders shared stories about students whose parents were dying. Admission officers look at many criteria when reviewing applications, including ACT and SAT scores, grades, counselor recommendations, extracurricular activities, application essays and legacy preferences.


Colleges evaluate students based on their academic performance in high school. They look at your grade point average, test scores, the rigor of your courses and the number of college prep classes you took. They also consider trends in your academic performance. For example, if your grades started out low but then improved, this shows resilience. Admissions officers use this data to create an academic index and compare you against other applicants. They then evaluate soft factors like extracurricular activities, teacher and counselor recommendations, essays and demonstrated interest in the university.

The process varies from college to college. Some colleges have a single reader who reviews all applications, while others have multiple readers for different regions of the country. If both first readers recommend admitting a student, the admissions committee will discuss the application. The goal is to have a diverse class that can contribute in many ways, including through their academic and extracurricular endeavors.

Extracurricular Activities

While colleges vary in the importance they place on extracurricular activities, most recognize that they help admissions committees get a full picture of a student. They want to see that students were deeply involved in their chosen activities and held leadership positions. In addition, they look for commitment to the activity over a long period of time. Participation in academic clubs like debate, chess club, model United Nations and mock trial can showcase skills that transfer well to college life: public speaking, listening to others’ points of view and the ability to articulate arguments clearly. Playing on a sports team demonstrates the same qualities of collaboration, coordination and commitment to a common goal.

Artistic pursuits such as painting, drawing, sculpting, graphic design, fashion design and theater can emphasize creativity and visionary thinking. Volunteering and community service experiences demonstrate that a student cares about other people. Whether building homes with Habitat for Humanity or serving meals at Room in the Inn, these experiences can impress committees.


The mysterious formula that crunches grade point averages and standardized test scores to pop out decisions of yes, no or maybe later does not take into account one of the most fundamental things about your teen — his personality. Whether it’s a college essay, recommendation letters or the admissions interview, colleges look at personal qualities to gauge whether your teen will thrive on their campuses and fit into their student communities. Colleges typically ask applicants to describe a time they overcame adversity or what makes them passionate about their studies. The purpose of this is to get a more unscripted sense of an applicant’s character traits and values. The College admissions panel wants to know whether your teen is a person who will bring something special to campus life and make good friends.

In a new study, researchers at universities including Oakland University and the University of Guelph found that personality assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Big Five personality traits correlate strongly with medical school performance. However, the CUSM study’s results were not as strong as other metrics and required further exploration before it could be formally included in the medical school admissions process.


Colleges like to see students who are genuinely interested in their institution. They also want to know that students will enroll if they are admitted. To that end, admissions counselors might weigh demonstrated interest when deciding which students to admit. Demonstrated interest can be exhibited through campus visits, attending information sessions, and reaching out to the college via email or social media. In addition, some colleges offer merit aid or scholarships that are based on demonstrated interest.

It is important to remember that colleges consider many different factors when evaluating applicants. For example, smaller and more selective colleges might put more weight on personal statements or essays, teacher and counselor recommendations, leadership experiences, and extracurricular activities that are not academically-oriented (such as art). In contrast, larger public state universities may use a formula based on GPA and standardized test scores. They also often favor in-state applicants. This is why it is crucial for students to research and compile a list of colleges that best match their interests.


College admissions is a complex and often stressful process. Your student will be notified by their school of an admission decision, usually via email or a thick envelope that indicates acceptance, denial, waitlist, or rejection. Applicants are evaluated on a variety of criteria, including their grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and application essay. Standout essays that reveal something about the applicant can earn top marks, while poorly written ones may receive low marks.

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