Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” -William James.

horsegirlSATs as an extracurricular activity? Traveling soccer clubs beginning in kindergarten? Making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless? President of the tiddly-wink club? Curing cancer with My First Chemistry Kit? What should your son or daughter be doing to prepare for higher education? What’s important to colleges, anyway?

The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) offers guidance on this crucial question. The Admission Trends Survey from NACAC State of College Admission 2014 Report identifies the top ten factors that college admissions officers say are “of considerable importance” in the admission decision. The importance of some factors, especially the “softs,” vary depending on whether an institution is public or private. 

boypencil21. Grades in college prep (82 percent). It makes sense that grades in college preparatory “solids” (math, science, history, English, foreign language) would be “Number One.” In NACAC’s survey, this factor drew the highest percentage (82 percent) of colleges attributing “considerable importance” to its impact in admission decisions. College is, after all, an academic institution. Grades are a “cross country run,” while test results are a “sprint.” Across four years, grades show a student’s “true colors,” not only the smarts, but the work ethic, discipline, and ability to deliver over the long haul.

2. Strength of curriculum (64 percent). Straight As are great, but is your student enrolled in honors or AP (Advanced Placement) courses? Colleges want students that seek to challenge themselves. High schools’ advanced course options vary widely, but admissions officers want to see that your teen took advantage of the offerings in the school he or she attended.

$64,000 question: “Is it better to get an A in a regular course, or a B in honors?” Wiseacre answer: “A in an honors course!” But seriously, if a student excels at a subject, he or she should be in the honors course. All honors is not necessary, but at least a few is advisable, in areas of strength.

SAT3. Admissions test scores (58 percent). Test scores are the “sprint,” but are still significant to admissions officers. Yes, many private colleges are now “test optional.” But if your student applies to large state schools, expect standardized tests to play a key role.  Since public universities need to process thousands of applications with limited staff, state school admissions departments are likely to weigh quantitative data more heavily than private institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges. In fact, in the NACAC State of College Admissions 2014 survey, 70 percent of admissions officers at state schools stated that test scores were “of considerable importance” in the admission decision, while 53 percent of admissions officers at private institutions considered this factor important.

4. Grades in all courses (52 percent). Grades in electives count, too, especially if electives are in subject areas in which your student plans to major.

happyindianlaptop5. Essays (22 percent).  Essays are clearly more important to private institution admissions officers (26 percent) than to public university admissions officers (14 percent). Again, state schools do not have the staff to give essays as much attention as private colleges and universities. However, 14 percent of state school admissions officers do say that the essay is “of considerable importance,” so at least on the margin, essays can make a difference for state school acceptance.

That said, the essay is always valuable in the sense that it is the only element of the college process through which the applicant’s unique, authentic voice can be heard directly. A student may not be able to control everything in the transcript, but he or she can control what is written in the essay.

6. Demonstrated interest (20 percent). This factor has only been measured since 2003, when it was 7 percent. Demonstrated interest has become a hot button for admissions people required to maximize their yield.

handinhomework7. Counselor recommendation (16 percent) and teacher recommendation (14 percent). The guidance counselor not only writes the cornerstone “rec” for each applicant; he or she is the spokesperson for the applicant with every college. So your student must get to the guidance office whenever possible all four years, keeping the counselor informed about achievements and issues. If the guidance department asks for “brag sheet” information from students and parents to prepare for the college process, it is important to give thoughtful, example-based ammunition to help the guidance counselor present your student to colleges in a way that comes alive.

Building rapport with teachers is essential for college recommendations, but forming strong relationships with one’s teachers can also lead to valuable mentorship. Engaging a mentor is a life skill that will help your student in college and beyond. Encourage your son or daughter to build relationships with teachers as early as possible in high school, asking two teachers for recommendations at the end of the junior year.

8. Class rank (15 percent). The significance of this factor varies by institution type; it is a more important in the admissions decision for public institutions. Some  states guarantee that students who achieve a high enough class rank at their high school will be admitted into a state university, in a practice known as percent plans. States that use percent plans include California, Florida, Texas, and Alaska.

FOOTBALL29. Extracurricular activities (10 percent). Unless your student is a recruited Division I athlete or a classical violin prodigy applying to a conservatory, extracurricular activities should be undertaken primarily for your student’s enjoyment and personal development. College is an academic institution, which is why, on the NACAC list, grades are at the top and activities are near the bottom. This information flies in the face of advice that you may hear from other parents or even guidance counselors, but having a wide variety of extracurricular activities is actually not that critical. It is more essential to have depth than breadth, to commit oneself to a few activities of genuine personal interest.

10. Interview (8 percent). The significance of interviews varies with the institution. In general, only 2 percent of state school admissions officers reported that this factor was of considerable importance, while 10 percent of private institutions considered the interview important. Most private universities and colleges do not offer interviews (beyond a non-evaluative, optional alumni interview at a nearby Starbucks). However, some private schools do require or “strongly encourage” interviews, which is another measure of demonstrated interest. If your student wants to apply to one of these universities, the interview will be of primary importance! For more information on the specific schools that require interviews, see my post “Acing the College Interview.”

KRISMYUNGTo offer further insights, I am sharing a segment from an interview I did several years back on Hometowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, NJ, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of key college application topics on my YouTube channel.