Beyond Academics: You Are a Factor in Admissions

Before the advent of the home computer and Internet, college applicants submitted typed or handwritten answers to essentially the same questions on every college application that they completed. This tended to keep the number of applications down to about three per student. In 1975, several private institutions in the northeast with similar admissions requirements piloted the use of a shared application form that students could photocopy and mail. This became the Common App, which caught on in this early form and then had a huge upsurge in usage after it went online in 1998. 

The ease-of-use of the Common App, as well as a few similar automated platforms, has brought the volume of applications up to over seven per student, with especially high numbers from students aspiring to attend a top-tier institution. Last year, more than one million students submitted over four million online applications to 750 colleges and universities. Admissions offices have been forced to adopt methods to cope with the high volume of applications.

Since the number of freshman admitted to top-tier colleges and universities has remained relatively fixed, the increase in applications has caused a steady diminution of the percentage of applicants who can be accepted. Last year, the top five schools, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, had acceptance rates of 5% or less and the following schools had acceptance rates between 5% and 10%: Brown, Caltech, Chicago, Claremont McKenna, Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Penn, Pomona, Swarthmore, and Vanderbilt. 

A large percentage of applicants have the excellent academic credentials that top-tier schools require. So how do admissions offices narrow the field of well-qualified applicants down to the small percentage that they can admit? 

The answer is that admissions offices evaluate a range of “soft factors” such as interviews, essays, extracurricular activities and achievements, awards, social media presence, letters of recommendations, and potential contributions to the school’s diversity. They’re not looking for anything specific. They take a holistic approach in seeking evidence of personal characteristics such as optimism, determination, altruism, empathy, strength of character, a personality compatible with school’s culture, demonstrated interest, and leadership potential. As a result, students who focus exclusively on their GPA and SAT/ACT scores and don’t prepare in advance to demonstrate desirable characteristics are in danger of losing the competition for admission to students with the same academic credentials who are prepared.

Academic qualifications are easily quantified and compared, but soft factors can’t be measured objectively. Many institutions have tried. For example, schools have implemented methodologies that attempt to quantify soft, non-cognitive attributes through self-assessment testing instruments. However, there’s widespread concern that such instruments enable student-respondents to manipulate results. They are smart people. They can guess what personal characteristics the schools will favor and are able to answer dual-choice and multiple-choice questions accordingly. Gaming the test is possible due to the difficulty of framing questions in a way that savvy test-takers can’t intuit the answers that will be most beneficial to them.

Let’s assume that you’re a student who is well prepared to give evidence that you possess “the right stuff’ to come through a non-cognitive evaluation successfully. The question then becomes, “How can I best communicate this information in the parts of my application?” 

We at IvySelect, as a college admissions consulting firm specializing in Ivy League and similarly elite schools, assist our clients in identifying and communicating their most positive personal attributes in a clear, consistent manner. We also offer superior strategic guidance and planning to help you define and maximize those soft factors so that you are a more competitive applicant to elite universities. 

IvySelect understands the need to anticipate the assessment of your non-cognitive attributes as a key part of the process of admissions. We provide you with a winning strategy through which you’ll convey your attractiveness as a student. We guide you in using all channels of communication so that your best self is presented to the schools you wish to attend.


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