Top 10 Factors for Getting into College


Top 10 Factors for Getting into College

Wondering what colleges really care about when they look at your college application?

Colleges reported that these 10 factors were the most important:

College Admissions Top 10 Factors

 Data provided by National Association for College Admission Counseling

A Closer Look

Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors, why colleges consider them important, how they’ve changed over the years, and how you can impress admission officers in each category.

#1. GPA

If this isn’t your first visit to the MEK Review website, then you’ve heard this before: Grades are the most important factor on a college admissions application!

Colleges use your overall grades as a predictor of how you will do at their university. Do you have the study skills, discipline, motivation, and knowledge to succeed in a myriad of classes each with a unique set of challenges?

Colleges want you to succeed at their university. It makes you happy, but it also makes them look good. So, they use grades to estimate your chances of success.

What does this mean for you?

Your grades in high school should be your number one focus – above test scores, recommendations, or extracurricular activities. If you are a junior and your GPA is low, you need to create a strategic plan to boost your GPA as much as you can, but you will also need to compensate for low grades by impressing colleges with your performance in the other 9 factors.

#2. Grades in College Prep Classes

Interestingly, a few years ago, this was the #1 factor for college admissions. Colleges are very impressed when they see you succeed in challenging college prep courses such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB). These classes let you tackle college-level work, so high grades in these courses are a strong indicator that you will succeed in college classes.

Are you already seeing a pattern between #1 and #2? Yes! Colleges want to predict if you will be successful at their school. They want a high probability that you will earn your degree, go on to do great things, and become an all-star alumnus they can brag about!

So, why did this factor drop from #1 to #2 in 2018?

The number of students in AP and IB courses has increased over the years, so it is much more common for your competition to also have these courses on his or her transcript. With so many students taking these courses, merely taking the class is no longer enough. You have to ace it! This makes overall grades, once again, the #1 factor.

What does this mean for you?

Don’t slack by taking easy classes. Show colleges you’re willing to push yourself and succeed with challenging courses. However, don’t pile on so many AP/IB courses that you become overwhelmed and your grades suffers. Find a balance. Take only what you can handle, so you are excelling in some difficult classes while maintaining an overall strong GPA.

#3. Test Scores

The SAT and ACT tests rank as the third highest factor colleges carefully consider. Why? What do these tests tell a college about you?

The SAT and ACT  are reasoning tests that are supposed to measure your readiness for college, as well as your ability to perform under time constraints and pressure. However, there is a more pressing reason why test scores are so important to admission officers.

If you checked out our blog post on College Admission Trends, then you’re aware that a single admission officer is usually reviewing hundreds of applications.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. If you had 500 applications to review all by yourself, and you still have to balance between your work and personal life, are you going to review each application thoroughly? Perhaps not. Instead, you are going to be looking for big red flags to eliminate candidates quickly, so you can focus more time on reviewing the remaining applicants.

Test scores and grades are a fast and easy way to look at an application.

Scanning to see if a student has a 1.5 or a 3.9 GPA or a 1050 or 1450 on the SAT takes seconds, while reading an essay or reviewing a resume takes more time. Admission officers are looking for ways to quickly narrow down the pool of applicants. As a result, SAT and ACT test scores are a great way for admission officers to expediently decide whether they will send you a rejection letter or pass you on to the second round of application reviews.

What does this mean for you?

You have to prioritize test prep! And the sooner the better. Don’t wait until the last minute. Instead, come up with a clear preparation plan revolved around specific test dates. Give yourself plenty of time to prep, and take the tests multiple times (check out our College Test Prep courses to see how we help students reach the top 1% of test-takers).

#4. Strength of Curriculum

Strength of curriculum means the level of difficulty of the classes found on your high school transcript. As we said about factor #2, colleges want to see that you are willing to challenge yourself and that you succeed when you do. If you have a high GPA, but only took easy classes, colleges aren’t sure you will succeed in college-level courses.

Your high school reputation can also come into play here. If you attended a prestigious magnet school or private school, your curriculum will be viewed differently than a regular public school.

What does this mean for you?

Again, don’t slack. Colleges want to see that your transcript is a mix of honors, AP, and IB classes. Challenge yourself, but don’t overdo it. You can take the toughest classes possible, but if your grades suffer, colleges won’t be impressed. Find the balance.

#5 & 7. Letters of Recommendation

After learning how busy admission officers are, it might surprise you to see letters of recommendation ranked so high. Don’t letters take more time to review?

Yes, they do. In fact, if you’re applying to larger universities, letters of recommendation might be less important than at smaller or private universities, where admission officers have more time to review applications. Also notice the significant drop in percentage from #4 to #5.

80-90% of colleges ranked the first 4 factors as important, while under 60% of colleges ranked recommendations as moderately to considerably important.

However, 60% is still a very high percentage, and overall, letters of recommendation are important because they help complete the picture of who you are.

Colleges look at a mixture of “hard” and “soft” factors. Hard factors are quantitative measurements: you scored a 30 on the ACT, you took 10 honors courses, you earned a 3.4 GPA. These factors are often used to screen applicants through the initial review. However, after the first round, colleges have to take a deeper look to narrow down the pool of applicants further. This is where “soft” or more subjective factors such as letters of recommendation, application essays, and demonstrated interests become important.

Letters of recommendation from your counselor and your teacher can let a college know things about you that a transcript can not. It can tell colleges about your personality, integrity, interest, or special talents. It can show them what kind of impression you’ve made on teachers and counselors who have met and worked with you, and what type of impact you’ve had on your school community. Finally, it can explain from a third-party view any obstacles you’ve overcome that make your high performance all the more impressive or explain why your grades suffered one semester.

Remember, admission officers are trying to predict your success at their school. However, how they measure success goes beyond just your grades in the classroom. Will you thrive at their campus? Do their values and goals align with your values and goals? Will you contribute and enhance the college community? Will you bring something unique and special to campus life or to your program?

Letters of recommendation can help answer these questions.

What does this mean for you?

Colleges usually ask for 1-3 letters of recommendation. Start fostering relationships with your guidance counselor and teachers early on in your high school career. The more personal the letter, the better. Don’t ask for a recommendation from someone who doesn’t really know you but who seems impressive. Your teacher and counselor’s credentials don’t matter as much as their knowledge of and relationship with you. It’s about you, not them.

When you ask counselors or teachers for a letter of recommendation, make it as easy as possible for them to complete the task. Tell them which school, why you want to go there, give them plenty of time, and provide them with all the necessary information or materials.

#6. Application Essay

Just like letters of recommendation, application essays help a college understand more about you. Your essay is your chance to show admission officers who you are and why you would thrive at their university. Application essays are so vital, we wrote a whole blog just about them — to learn more, read about Why Your Application Essay Is So Important.

What does this mean for you?

Competition continues to grow more fierce, especially for elite colleges. More students have top grades, top test scores, and tough course loads, which means soft factors such as application essays become all the more important to help you stand out from the crowd.

Take essays very seriously and give yourself plenty of time to write standard essays as well as required supplementary essays. Make sure you have a strong idea regarding essay structure and content, with multiple people to review it (educators and counselors, not friends!).

Check out our Application Essay Writing program to find out more about how we help students write stellar essays.

#8. Extracurricular Activities

As colleges try to decide whether you will be a good fit for their university, extracurricular activities are a great way to showcase your talents and interests, and highlight what you can contribute to campus clubs, organizations, sports, and programs.

The quantity of activities doesn’t matter nearly as much as the quality of your involvement. It’s not important that you complete 1000 hours of community service, participate in 20 school organizations, and play every sport in high school. It’s more important that there are a few activities that you really invested in throughout high school. These activities should have a common thread that reinforces your interests, goals, and character.

What does this mean for you?

In your freshman and sophomore year, explore different clubs and activities to see what you’re really interested in. By your junior and senior year, narrow down those activities to a few that are meaningful to you. Try to attain leadership positions, awards, or recognition in those activities, and pick organizations that reflect your overall goals.

If you are especially talented in sports, art, or music, this can open doors to scholarship and admissions, even if your grades are less competitive. However, don’t rely on your amazing football skills or piano prowess alone. Colleges still want to see that you can handle your coursework. Your grades and test scores still matter.

#9. Student’s Demonstrated Interest

What does this even mean and why is it important? A “student’s demonstrated interest” is how much a student shows a college that if accepted to the university, he or she will actually enroll.

Universities measures their “yield rate” each year. A college’s yield rate is the percentage of students who enroll in its school after receiving an acceptance letter. It shows how many students choose to come to their school above others. The higher its yield rate, the more prestigious the college appears and the more selective it can become.

So it’s actually very important to a college’s reputation that it has a high yield rate. Admission officers are under pressure to extend invitations to students who are highly likely to accept.

What does this mean for you?

You can increase or decrease your chance of acceptance by how much you show a school you really want to go there!

How can you show interest in a school?

There are several ways. Your application essay, especially essays that ask why you want to attend that specific university, is a good start. You can show interest through campus visits, joining a university’s newsletters, following its social media platforms, or reaching out to the admissions office. You can also show interest through Early Admission or Early Decision applications.

#10. Class Rank

Class rank is how your grades compare to your classmates. The valedictorian of your class ranks #1, the salutatorian #2, all the way to the end of the class.

Why not as important as grades, your class rank is considered because it helps an admission officer put those grades into context. If you have all A’s on your transcript, but ranked #50 out of 200 students in your class, this shows an admission officer that A’s may not be hard to come by at your school. If you have B’s on your transcript but were placed in the top 10% of your class, you may have attended a more challenging high school. They will weigh these factors to get a more complete picture of you as a student.

What’s more, several state universities offer guaranteed admission for students who rank at a certain percentage of their class.

What does this mean for you?

If you don’t know your class rank, ask your guidance counselor. Also, ask your counselor how class rank is determined. While it’s based on grades, it can also be affected by weighted classes. Weighted classes are classes that are considered more difficult, so the grades are worth more than a regular courses. For instance, most GPAs are on a scale of 0.0 to 4.0. However, if you earn an A in an AP class, it might actually be worth a 5.0.

Putting it All Together

These are just the top 10 factors. There are other more minor factors such as SAT Subject tests, interview, and work or internships that colleges consider. The more competitive the school,  the more these minor factors will be important.

Trying to focus on every factor can be daunting and overwhelming.

That’s why you need a clear cut plan. Our expert team of academic and admissions counselors can help you get into your target school.


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