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How Do Colleges Evaluate You For Admissions?

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) is one of the two national professional organizations in the college admissions field that focus on private admissions counselors exclusively. IECA’s purpose is to enhance the ability of its members to provide the highest quality of services to students and families seeking skilled, ethical, expert guidance. Michael Goran, IvySelect’s founder, director, and lead consultant, is an IECA College Specialist, a designation that demonstrates his adherence to the Association’s demanding criteria for this distinction.

Periodically, IECA conducts surveys of all members. From the results, they produce a list of the factors that the members have found to be the most important admissions considerations of colleges. Since IECA members frequently interact with admissions offices and personnel, their collective wisdom has value for all high school students who plan to attend college.

In this post, we review IECA’s ranked list of their findings, titled, “Top 12 Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students”. Since IvySelect’s specialty is students who aspire to attend Ivy League and other highly selective institutions, we’ve added bullet points to help students who are aiming for the top.

1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes.

  • Ivy-bound students should plan on taking the most challenging curriculum available in their high school.

2. Grades that represent a strong effort and an upward trend.

  • Although there is no precise threshold, applicants to Ivy League schools should have a GPA that is a perfect 4.0 or very close to it.

3. Solid scores on standardized tests (ACT, SAT).

  • A SAT score of 2330 (out of 2400) or an ACT score of 34 will place you in the top 75% of Ivy League schools. A SAT score of 2050 or ACT score of 30 would put you on the cusp of the bottom 25%. These are very high standards because students accepted into the Ivy League are, for the most part, among the top 1% of students in the country. The 75th percentile score at Ivy League schools is the 99th percentile score among all students taking the exams.

4. A well-written essay that provides insight into the student’s unique personality, values, and goals.

  • Your essays will appeal to admissions offices at top-tier schools if they are intriguing, interesting, persuasive, and perhaps even entertaining. Don’t focus on being erudite. Your essays aren’t term papers.
  • You’re marketing yourself through your essays. Marketing copy, especially in a college essay, must be subtle. It’s not as bold and ingenuous as advertising-speak (e.g., “Nobody doesn’t like SaraLee!”) or as unfettered by restraints as blog-ese. There are rules in writing marketing copy and rules in writing essays, but they’re not the same rules that are valued in more formal types of writing. It’s okay to sin against grammatical orthodoxy to make a point or express an idea. When you write in the vernacular — the way people speak — your message will be easily understood, so the admissions reviewer reading it will have a few more seconds to absorb and appreciate it.

5. Passionate involvement in a few in or out of school activities.

  • The single most important guideline in your selection of extracurriculars is — more is not better. Elite colleges look for deep engagement in a small number of activities rather than superficial participation in many. Use the application process as an opportunity to demonstrate your real interests and passions. Don’t make it an exercise in spin. College admissions staffers are experts in recognizing and disregarding spin.
  • It is better to focus on the depth of your interests, not the breadth. If you achieve a leadership role in and contribute substantially to one or two activities, you will fare better than an applicant with superficial engagement in several activities. To advance your admissions prospects, commit wholeheartedly to activities that you truly enjoy and that improve your skills, benefit your school or community, or, ideally, do both at the same time.

6. Demonstrated leadership and initiative in extra-curricular activities.

  • There are numerous student organizations supported by top colleges and they vary widely in nature. All require student leadership. For this reason, students who arrive on campus having proven their ability to lead will be highly valued.

7. Personal characteristics that will contribute to a diverse and interesting student body.

  • Gaining admission to an Ivy League or other top-tier college is a formidable challenge. Students improve their chances of acceptance by emphasizing a talent or skill that sets them apart. This is referred to as a “hook”. Your hook may be in athletics, performing arts, debate, visual arts, mathematics, language arts, sciences, or any academic field common to the college experience. If possible, the hook that you present should be one that will help the college fulfill its mission to create a diverse and interesting student body.

8. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more.

  • Top tier institutions prefer to see that an applicant has stretched to satisfy their quest for knowledge in their intended field of concentration or other area of interest. This may be a course in summer school or at a local college. The completion of certain online programs may convey your dedication to a subject. Such activities as a trip to England’s Lake District or to an archaeological site in the southwest provide evidence of your commitment and can make a positive impression.

9. Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend, often exhibited by campus visits and an interview, showing an interest toward attending the college if offered admission.

  • “Demonstrated Interest” is a factor in admission to some elite schools. Note, for example, that Harvard and Yale do not consider demonstrated interest in their admissions decisions. However, a number of colleges do favor applicants who have shown interest in their school through such activities as interviews and campus visits because these applicants are more likely to accept their offer of admission and be a better fit at their school. The ultimate expression of interest is applying Early Decision at schools like Penn and Columbia or Single Choice Early Action at Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
  • Another reason to demonstrate interest in a target school is that each college seeks to maintain a high “yield”, which is the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll in their school, a metric used in college rankings. Students admitted by one elite school are usually admitted to several others. Applicants who have shown high interest in a school are much more likely to go on to enroll if accepted. This makes them more appealing to a college than those who do not.

10. Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.

  • Applicants to elite colleges often underestimate the importance of recommendation letters. Over 15% of elite institutions view recommendations as “highly important” in admissions decisions and half consider them “moderately important”. You should consider letters of recommendation to be as vital to successful admission to an elite college as essays or extracurricular activities.
  • Admissions officials at Ivy League and other elite colleges form a holistic picture of each applicant beyond quantifiable academic metrics. They assume that if your teachers and guidance counselors, who know you well, speak glowingly of you, then you are that much more likely to contribute positively to their academic programs and campus community.

11. Special talents that will contribute to the college’s student life program.

  • This relates to #7. Elite colleges want to know what the special talents, abilities, and personal characteristics are that you can contribute to their student bodies. These factors are especially advantageous to you if they help a school to achieve its diversity goals.

12. Out of school experiences including work, community service, youth organizations, religious groups, etc.

  • This factor relates to #5 except for the reference to work. Some students hold a job during non-school hours in high school to earn money to help pay for college expenses or to contribute to the support of their families. The time available to them for other in-school and out-of-school extracurricular experiences is limited. The best approach for these students is to use their work experience as a positive factor in their application… in the “it made me a better person” vein. It is especially helpful if an applicant can point to a leadership role of some kind within the workplace.

Every top-tier college is different and so are the criteria used to evaluate applicants in their admissions processes. One of the major advantages in working with IvySelect is our personal knowledge of these differences, which enables us to assist students in navigating the complex maze of admissions successfully to attain their educational goals.