College admission officers across most of the nation report the same news: the number of applicants is rising due to a surge in births during the 1980s. For the next couple of years, the number of applications will exceed the number of openings at most colleges, making admissions more competitive. With colleges being more and more selective, the pressure is on to stand out amongst all of the applications. 

What Are Colleges Looking For?

As you prepare application materials, it can help to know what schools are really looking for in the piles of paperwork.  Applications are evaluated differently depending on the college’s standards and how selective, or competitive, they are. 

  • Highly Selective: For those trying to get into the top tier of colleges, which number only in the 100’s, the competition is fierce. For every spot at one of these schools, as many as 10 or 15 students apply. Every aspect of a student's high school experience, from academic strength to test scores to your essay, is considered and used by Admissions to determine who the best applicants are for the slots available.    
  • Selective: Selective colleges make up the majority of the four-year institutions in America and are where most of your applications will be submitted. These colleges consider grades, level of course work, personal essays and recommendations. Many have switched to a policy of test scores (SAT/ACT) being optional. For these schools, Admissions is primarily determining whether you are ready for college-level study and a good fit for their program. 
  • Not Selective: Less selective colleges base their decisions on whether applicants meet minimum requirements for grades and how many openings they have available. Many require only a high school diploma and acceptable grades and will accept students on a first-come, first-served basis.

Here are the most common critical factors that may be considered for admission by selective colleges:

  • Coursework taken (classes, level)
  • Grades and grade point average
  • Class ranking
  • Application questions
  • Personal interview
  • Test scores
  • Essay
  • Counselor/teacher recommendations

Varying in their level of importance are these admission factors:

  • Major/college applied to
  • Activities outside the classroom
  • Geographic location
  • Alumni relationship
  • Special talents and skills
  • Ethnicity

There's no general agreement about which of these factors are ranked more important, but most admission officers place the most weight on your high school record so keep your focus there.  

Our best advice is to be realistic about the colleges you apply to and consider a range of schools, rather than focusing on one dream institution. Also be sure to compare your academic record with each college's minimum and average requirements.