How College Applications Are Evaluated: The Hard Factors

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

how college applications are evaluated.jpgQuantitative Elements Like Grades, Test Scores, and More are Weighed When Applying to College

College bound students know that grades and test scores are important when applying to college, but exactly how important? It’s critical for students to understand how the different elements of applications are evaluated and what they can do to improve their chances of admission.

In our article The Admissions Rubric 2.0: How College Applications Are Evaluated we explained how colleges use a reading rubric to evaluate different aspects of students’ college applications and how that is used to inform admissions decisions. Here, we’re going to explain exactly what those different college application elements are and how students can use this information to their advantage.

First, we’re going to highlight the “hard factors,” or, more simply, the numbers or measureable elements that colleges take into consideration when evaluating applications.


There’s no debate: grades are the most important factor that admissions officers consider when evaluating college applications. Not only do colleges want to see good grades, they also want to see an upward grade trend, meaning that applicants’ grades improve year after year as they take more challenging courses. This signals to colleges that students are prepared to handle the rigors of a college curriculum. If a student’s grades or GPA aren’t within the middle 50% of previously admitted students, that college might be a “reach.” In order to have the best chance of admission to their top-choice colleges, students need to make sure their grades are well within a particular school’s admissions standards. And if they’re not – work to improve them!

Test Scores

One of the things that students stress the most about when applying to college is their SAT or ACT scores. Many students will take these college entrance exams multiple times in order to reach their goal scores. What students need to know is that, while test scores are important to many colleges, a perfect score alone is not going to guarantee admission. Just like grades, students need to have test scores that fall within the middle 50% of previously admitted students in order to have a good chance of admission. However, don’t neglect other parts of an application in order to achieve perfect test scores. Students should also consider test-optional or test-flexible colleges, in addition to test prep, if they’re struggling with their SAT or ACT performance.

Course Rigor

While not exactly a “number,” course rigor is hard factor that colleges can measure in order to better gauge how challenging a student’s course load is. Colleges want to see applicants taking challenging, advanced courses that match that interests. For example, if a student is applying to an engineering program colleges will want to see that student taking a higher number of science and math-related courses with increasing difficulty each year. If AP/IB courses are available to a student, but he or she is not taking them, then their course rigor is lower than someone who is taking all AP/IB or honors courses each year. Students should plan a challenging, yet appropriate, course load each year.

Strength of School

When admissions officers review applications, they will also review information about students’ high schools known as a school profile. They will look at the rigor of the courses offered and other things like how many students from that high school go on to college, and more. This is also why it’s important to take the most challenging courses offered, and seek out other educational opportunities, like MOOCs or classes at a local college, in order to increase course rigor if a high school’s profile is not that strong compared to others.

Class Rank

One “hard factor” that doesn’t carry as much importance as it used to is class rank. According to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admissions Report, only 14% of college place considerable importance on class rank. The importance of class rank has declined significantly over the past few years. However, it’s an element that students still worry about each year. While some colleges will see how students compare to their peers at their school, it’s not a factor that will significantly tip the scales one way or another.

There’s a lot that students can control when applying to college in order to have the best chance of admission to their top-choice colleges. That’s why it’s important to understand how college applications are evaluated and what students can do now in order to improve their applicant profile. Developing a solid college prep plan is critical, and IvyWise can help!

Are you on track with your college prep? Download our free college planning checklist here!

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