How College Applications Are Evaluated: The Soft Factors

Thursday, November 9, 2017

soft factors college applicationIn The “Holistic Review” Process, Soft Factors Are Just As Important As Grades and Test Scores

Grades and test scores are important when applying to college, but what about the other college application soft factors like essays, recommendations, and more? It’s critical for students (and parents!) to understand how the different elements of applications are evaluated when applying to college in order to have the best chance of admission to their top-choice schools.

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 college applications, and how that is used to inform admissions decisions. In a previous post, we covered the “hard factors,” like grades and test scores, that colleges consider, but here we’re going to explain the “soft factors,” like essays and extracurriculars, that might be harder for students to measure.

Extracurricular Activities

What are colleges looking for when evaluating applicants’ activity lists? Admissions officers want to see what students are doing in their free time and how they are impacting their community. Schools will look at applicants’ level of involvement (quality is more important than quantity!) and how those activities relate to their interests or intended course of study. Colleges will also want to see how students spend their summers, whether it’s furthering interests through a summer internship, job, volunteer opportunity, academic program, or some other summer activity where students are learning and/or making an impact. Students need to choose activities that they enjoy, that align with their interests, and where they can make a lasting impression. Don’t load up on 12 extracurricular activities thinking that a long activity list will impress colleges. Instead, be thoughtful and deliberate about how time is spent outside of the classroom.


The essay is another application element that students spend a lot of time worrying about. College admissions committees want to know something about students that they cannot otherwise learn from the rest of the application. A good essay can make an applicant come alive to an application reader, and transform a candidate from a series of numbers and statistics to a living, breathing human being. However, while a great essay is important, it’s not enough on its own to warrant admission. A compelling essay can go a long way toward helping an admissions officer advocate for a student when coupled with an otherwise strong applicant profile, but if a student doesn’t have the necessary “hard factors” or other strong “soft factors,” the essay alone won’t be enough to tip the scales in that student’s favor.


Recommendation Letters

Most colleges will require applicants to submit two letters of recommendation – one letter from a school guidance counselor and the second from a teacher. Recommendation letters add context to students’ applications, giving the admissions committee another view of what that student can contribute to the campus community if admitted. While it’s not possible to control what others write, it is important for students to build relationships with their counselors and teachers in order to help them write a personal, compelling, and informed recommendation. It’s also important to select the right teachers to write recommendations. For example, if a student is applying to a STEM program, they should seek a recommendation from a math or science teacher. Again, a recommendation letter alone won’t get a student in, but it can go a long way toward strengthening an already compelling application.

Demonstrated or Informed Interest

Colleges want to admit students who want to attend, so it’s important for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the school and why they think they’re a good fit for that institution. Demonstrated or informed interest, like visiting the campus, communicating with admissions officers, detailed supplemental essays, and applying early, signals to colleges that students are serious about attending and can help improve their chances of admission. While it’s important to visit and write strong, detailed, school-specific essays, nothing shows demonstrated interest more than applying early decision or early action. However, students should not apply early if they are not 100% ready, as early application pools tend to be more competitive, and applying early decision is binding – meaning students will have to attend if admitted.

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!

Mari: We Help Make Applicants Three-Dimensional from IvyWise on Vimeo.

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