As the admission's office handles thousands of applications at some colleges, your goal is to stand out in a good way. If you have an average GPA and test scores, then the material on this page should help improve your chances of getting into a good college or university. If you already have top grades and high SAT or ACT scores, you can still improve your application, given that other factors come into play, especially talent in sports, the quality of your essay, and extracurricular activities. The essay is gaining weight at selective colleges, as it helps them differentiate students. Please be aware that at most colleges a typical application receives only 25 minutes of reading time.
Keep your application brief, neat and clean, and stick to the point when answering questions. Search Google for professional resume writing, and cover letters, like you were applying for a job interview, and write your college application in the same manner. Admissions officers seek to learn how a given applicant thinks, what kind of person they are, and their level of intellectual promise. The admission's office staff are smart, and they have a lot of experience. Just be yourself, and work on improving your grades and test scores.
High school grades are the single most important factor in winning the admissions game. Therefore, maintaining high grades throughout the year is especially important for regular admission applicants. Many colleges are paying greater attention to a student's grades during their senior year, not limited to academic performance in core courses, but in AP or honors courses as well. In fact, an ideal academic record is one of progressively better grades in courses of increasing difficulty. College admissions officers look for patterns with both grades and test scores; high grades with low test scores suggest a hard-working student, but high test scores with low grades may suggest a smart, but lazy applicant. One advisor suggested that it is optimal to try taking the hardest courses that are offered, and that the worst thing you can do is to drop a hard course mid-semester just because you know you'll get a low grade.
ACT Scores and SAT Test Scores
Most colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, and have formulas for converting test scores into admissions criteria. Colleges use standardized tests because there are large differences in curricula, grading, and difficulty among US schools. One benefit of the ACT test is that it allows you to select specific colleges to which to send scores. Students should practice taking the test under simulated testing conditions, and wear a large watch with a sweeping second hand. On average, over half of those retaking the SAT or ACT tests saw improvements in their scores.
If you have the money, try Kaplan Test Prep
courses in person, at a Kaplan Learning Center located near your college. To get a high score on a standardized test, cramming isn't going to help. These tests measure your accumulated knowledge over years of study. Practice online using the SAT Practice Test
or the Free ACT Test
. Regarding whether to choose the SAT or ACT, there is no penalty for guessing wrong answers on the ACT, but on the SAT, incorrect guessing is penalized. Some SAT questions can be trickier while some ACT questions may be longer. The ACT has more questions geared to higher levels of mathematics, suggesting that students who do well in math may perform better, but that the SAT may be a better choice for students with a strong vocabulary.
Admissions' Criteria Factoring
Factors in the college admissions' process, in order of importance:
1. AP or Honors Courses
2. High School Curriculum
3. SAT/ACT Scores
4. Overall GPA
5. Admissions Essay
6. Early Decision Commitment
7. Class Rank
9. Teacher Recommendations
10. AP Exam Scores
Studies suggest that colleges are not looking for the 'well-rounded kid,' but rather a 'well-rounded class.' Your task is to show the schools exactly where you will fit into their freshman pool. Are you a jock or a straight-A student? Well then, present yourself in that light. About 25% of seniors apply to seven or more colleges. New developments in college admissions include greater numbers of applications, increasing numbers of students applying from foreign countries, and applying online using the Common Application Form. There is also a greater dependence on the US News rankings, with more colleges making use of waitlists. The overall time span for higher education is lengthening, because college increasingly is becoming a pathway towards graduate school.
Essays are gaining importance as a way to judge potential, and essays largely have replaced personal interviews. Writing an email may be easy, but rewriting a serious essay is much more challenging. Re-write your essay as many times as you feel is needed, and have people that you trust read it. Essays must emphasize personal development, and demonstrate curiosity, social conscience, and concern for the community. Avoid writing about babysitting, your pets, illegal drugs, or other experiences involving any kind of illegal activity. Applicants should show that they've been involved on campus and not just studying all the time. The admissions office will try to screen out difficult people, and are watching for negative signals, or evidence of a potential problem. Colleges also try to weed out overly dependent people, who either follow in their parents' footsteps too closely, or hang out with a bad crowd. The admissions' essay topic should be something the applicant cares about, and which shows how you've helped others to enjoy greater success. The best essay topics are like a short story, with poignant details, in which the writer shows by example. There should be no grammar or punctuation mistakes in your college essay, and even if the college application says that the essay is optional, you should treat it as a requirement.
Applicants who lead an extracurricular activity are regarded more highly than applicants who merely participate. Some universities, such as the UC System, have programs for spot-checking applicants for accuracy, such as sending a follow-up letter to the student asking for proof about a summer job. Don't allow extracurricular activities to interfere with academic performance. A student with lots of extracurricular activities, but weak grades, isn't going to fool the admissions' committee. Start early in high school, and only join clubs that you have a real interest in, and are going to stick with for several years.
US College Rankings
News & World Report
rankings are based on data which US News collects, either from an
annual survey, or from the school's website. Critics charge that US News & World Report changes its methodology every other
year so that the rankings will change of necessity. Forbes Magazine also publishes college rankings listings, which have been well-received. Although best known for their Forbes
list, the Forbes college rankings have been getting a lot of attention.
New college rankings place a greater emphasis on student satisfaction, as well as academic achievement. For critics
of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, the new Forbes College Ratings
seem to be more balanced, and include their rankings for small colleges. Peterson's Guide
is another comprehensive guide to US colleges and universities, designed for students trying to choose between hundreds of competing schools.
Transfer students experience another pathway towards admissions. In fact, nearly 50% of all current undergraduate students begin their education by attending a community college. By far, the most common transfer path is students moving from two-year community colleges to four-year institutions, although there is considerable movement between four-year colleges well. Many community colleges have agreements in place with four-year schools, particularly in the case of state universities, so that the transfer of credits is assured. Many private schools actively seek out transfer applicants to fill their classes. Even as late as April, there may still be openings in first-tier colleges for the fall semester.
Early Decision & Wait Lists
Early decision is a legally binding commitment, meaning students must withdraw their applications to all other schools if accepted. There are penalties for withdrawing, so Early Decision is only for students who are certain about wanting to attend a specific school. Admitting early decision applicants benefits schools because there is a high probability that the admitted applicants will attend. In addition, early decision helps the college admissions offices distribute the job of sifting applications throughout more of the school year. Thus, applying via Early Decision carries a greater chance of receiving an acceptance letter, almost 15% higher than regular decision applicants. One drawback is that early decision is essentially 'applying blind' as regards the amount of financial aid that you might receive.
About 50% of all colleges use a waiting list, particularly selective schools accepting less than half of applicats. Colleges use wait lists as a hedge to make sure they have enough students in the fall, and some schools purposely select fewer applicants during regular admissions to appear highly selective, and then do an about-face and accept students from waiting lists later. Recently, Stanford and Yale wait-listed approximately 1,000 students while Duke wait-listed nearly three times that many. 30% of wait-listed students are eventually accepted, and wait-lists are becoming more common. Students who are wait-listed need to stay in touch with the admissions office, to declare that they will attend if ultimately accepted.