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How College Applications are Evaluated

In the US admissions process, colleges and universities take many factors into consideration. Admissions officers look at “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) and “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) to gain a full picture of applicants. How these components are evaluated, however, can be confusing to families and make the college admissions process somewhat mysterious.

At IvyWise, we strive to demystify the admissions process and show students and families how much of this is actually in their control.

“Holistic Review”
Most US universities use the “holistic review” process when evaluating college applications. This means admissions officers place emphasis on the applicant as a whole person, not just his or her academic achievements, so soft factors may be given just as much consideration as the empirical data present in hard factors.

Admissions officers want to get to know students and admit those applicants who they think will excel at the institution and make a positive impact on the campus community. The holistic review approach benefits applicants who may have not had the best academic marks, but can contribute to the college community in other ways.

Colleges want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists who can contribute to the campus community in ways other than great academic performance. Taking only the applicants with the top grades and test scores may not make for a diverse or well-rounded student body.

The Admissions Rubric
Admissions officers use a “rubric” as a guide. Rubrics are not one-size-fits-all and differ from school to school, but most evaluate these core components of an applicant’s profile (in no particular order):

  • GPA
  • Course Rigor
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Strength of School
  • Essays
  • Demonstrated Interest

In most rubrics, each factor is evaluated against the admissions standards for the school, and whether it is above, equal to, or below the standard outlined in the rubric.

In the webinar, “How Selective Schools Make Decisions: The Admissions Rubric”, IvyWise counselor Nat explains the process that goes into evaluating college applications and what exactly admissions committees are looking for in potential students.

For example, if the average SAT score of previously admitted students is 1800, that then serves as the benchmark for evaluating new applicants. If an applicant has an SAT score above 1800, he or she can be given the highest score for that particular category. If the applicant has an SAT score right at the average, or 1800, he or she is given a middle score, and a low score is given for an SAT score below the average. Again, different schools use different rubrics and scoring systems can vary.

Things like extracurricular activities and essays can seem harder to judge, but an admissions rubric does make the process seem a little more straightforward.

For example, a school can choose to rate essays based on what they learn about the applicant and whether the essays are well-written. A stand-out essay in which the reader learns a lot about the applicant can earn top marks, while a well-written essay that reveals little about the applicant can earn middle-of-the-road marks, and a poorly written essay where the reader learns nothing new about the applicant can get a low mark.

Many schools publicize the median GPA and test scores of admitted applicants in order for prospective students to get an idea of the scores they will need in order to be considered for admission. The goal for applicants is to submit an application with components equal to or above the admissions standards set by the admissions office.

Evaluating the strength of your extracurricular activities, course load, essays and other soft factors against the admissions standards of the college or university, however, isn’t as simple as checking the information on the school’s website. Help from your college counselor is most valuable for these components.

Meet with your college or independent counselor early and often.
College and independent counselors have insight into what schools are looking for when evaluating the soft factors of a college application.

For example, counselors know that schools like to see sustained interest in just a few extracurricular activities throughout all four years of high school, with students steadily taking on more responsibility and leadership roles in those activities. Because counselors have this insight, they can help students find activities that best fit their interests or identify activities to become more involved in.

Also, more and more schools are looking at demonstrated interest. Counselors can help students identify what steps they need to take to show a school that it is a top choice and how to indicate the strong possibility that they would attend if admitted.

Colleges look at everything from all four years of high school, so it’s never too early to start preparing for the college admissions process. Students should meet with their counselors as early as freshmen year to begin mapping out action plans. These plans should include classes they’re taking now, what courses to take next and following years, SAT and ACT test-prep timelines, and how to begin building balanced college lists.

At IvyWise, we have over 100 years of collective admissions experience, so we know what colleges are looking for when evaluating applications. For more information on our services and how we can help enhance your student’s chances of admission when it comes time to apply, contact us today.

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