How Colleges Judge Applications

As you complete the tests, fill out the required forms, and draft the perfect essays, you may wonder: “What do colleges even think about all this? What does it all really mean?” While the requirements placed on students are clear, the things colleges actually care about in an application are more difficult to uncover.

In this article, we’ll explore how colleges judge the applications they receive, and how they weigh each portion of an application. Our hope is that if students understand how colleges judge and interpret their applications, they’ll be more confident about the application process as a whole.

Holistic Review and Automatic Acceptance

There are several ways that candidates are evaluated, but the two most common are holistic review and criteria-based automatic acceptance. Holistic review means the entire application is judged as a whole, considering each aspect of the application within the context of the rest. Automatic acceptance instead allows students who meet certain specific criteria to automatically gain acceptance into a school–for example, having an SAT or ACT score above a given threshold.

The University of Texas at Austin uses both approaches, so we’ll turn to them as a case study. Based on Texas law, 75% of the students they admit must be automatically admitted based on set criteria. In this instance, all students who graduate in the top 6% of their class at a public school in Texas are granted automatic admission to UT Austin if they submit a complete application before the deadline. The rest of the admitted students are admitted via holistic review, where the entirety of the application is judged on its merit including and beyond class rank. 

In general, state schools are the primary purveyors of automatic admissions. These schools receive tens of thousands of applications, and often don’t have enough time to review all of them in a time-intensive way. Instead, they use automatic cut-offs to decide who gets accepted. Importantly, though, criteria varies by state and by individual school – the GPA that will get you accepted to UT Austin might not be the GPA that will get you accepted to the University of Alabama. 

Some schools, like MIT, will trim out students with academic preparation (especially grades) that are too low for the school to be confident in their success. Other schools commit to having every application decided by committee. Still, even with these more extensive processes, applicants who are obviously not cut out for a school are voted down in less than a minute. Holistic review will be most extensive when considering applicants for acceptance when they demonstrate good academics, individuality, and strength of interest in the school and intellectual pursuit. 

The Initial Review

When officers read an application for the first time, what do they look at? And how do they judge what they see? 

While the exact criteria judged by universities varies greatly, most schools using holistic review divide an application into two parts: Academic and Social. The academic side looks at test scores, grades, course rigor, and overall GPA, while the social side looks at supplemental essays, the personal statement, and extracurriculars. 

There’s more to an application than just these few elements, of course, but these are the core of candidacy ranking. Students are ranked on both scales: those at the top are likely to get in, and those at the bottom are not. Things become most complicated and individualized when considering students who fall into the middle of these scales. 

The top schools using holistic review typically turn to evaluating the following factors in instances where students are otherwise comparable: first generation status, legacy status, geographic origin, level of interest, race/ethnicity, and talent. 

What do all these mean, then? Here’s a brief explanation of each:

  • First generation status: Students who are the first in their family, or in the first generation within their family, to go to college. 
  • Legacy status: Students who had a parent or another relative attend the school in question. Some schools consider this more than others, and some ignore it altogether.
  • Geographic origin: Schools want students with a range of perspectives, and enjoy boasting that their students come from all 50 states. Students from less populous states (think Alaska and Hawaii) have a slight advantage here.
  • Level of interest: Schools want to admit students who will actually attend. The more prestigious a school, the less they consider this–Stanford assumes that everyone they admit will want to attend, but less competitive and prestigious schools care more about ensuring they get a satisfying yield.
  • Race/ethnicity: Schools want students with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds, and sometimes take into account a student’s racial and ethnic background when making decisions. 
  • Talent: Some schools are looking for people to bolster specific programs of theirs. Depending on the year and the school, this may mean recruited athletes, champion debaters, competitive archers, or something entirely different. Much of this is luck of the draw. 

None of these factors will save a doomed application, and none are weighted as highly as the two main categories. Talent is an exception in some special cases–recruited star athletes and students applying to art or music programs may be admitted based on talent despite having lower-than-usual performance in other areas. In general, factors are merely tiebreakers when deciding between equally qualified candidates, and different schools weigh and consider them based on their unique goals and missions. 

What This Means for You

The most important parts of an application are within your control; your academic preparation, essays, and the extracurriculars you participate in. Schools do vary somewhat in their approach, but those three factors are important in every one of the country’s top schools.

This means you can have a good idea of your admissions chances just by looking at the academic side, and seeing if your numbers are good enough to enter real contention at a school. If your grades are good enough, turn your focus to writing and polishing your essays, and getting the best letters of recommendation possible. These are the pieces of your application that will make you stand out from the rest. 

Depending on where you are in high school, the amount of change you can effect upon your academic record may be limited. While showing improvement in grades over time is beneficial, it may not be enough to overcome earlier struggles. This is not to say you should abandon academic efforts in the face of earlier failures, but that you should temper your expectations. Not everyone can get into Harvard–there just isn’t enough room in Cambridge. It’s important to keep in mind that there are plenty of great schools beyond Harvard, though, and you should aim as high as you can reach. 

Final Thoughts

Colleges care about the students who apply to them, but top schools get far more qualified candidates than they have space for on campus. Knowing how these schools judge applications to come to a decision, you can be more confident in your applications, and have a better sense of why you get the returns you do. 

There is always some risk in college applications, and with so many qualified students applying to the top schools, there will always be applicants who end up disappointed. If your academics are in a good place, but you are concerned about your activities or essays, you can always look at our other articles, or reach out to us directly. Ivy Scholars has extensive experience guiding students through the admissions process and helping them gain admission to the school that’s best suited for them.

Wendy Y.
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