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The Admissions Rubric 2.0: How College Applications Are Evaluated

The Admissions Rubric 2.0: How College Applications Are Evaluated

When making admissions decisions, colleges and universities in the US don’t just look at grades and test scores. There are a myriad of factors that admissions officers consider when evaluating college applications, and it’s important to understand what colleges are looking for in order to have the best chance of admission to your top-choice colleges.

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. This is why in addition to the “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) of a student’s application, colleges also place great weight on the “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) in order 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.

The Admissions Rubric
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.

In order to evaluate these factors, 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.

For example, if the average SAT score of previously admitted students is 2100, that then serves as the benchmark for evaluating new applicants. If an applicant has an SAT score above 2100, 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 2100, 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. Here’s a visual representation of this “scoring.”

Average Score = 2100
Applicant Score = 2300Points Awarded = 3Applicant Score = 2100Points Awarded = 2Applicant Score = 1900Points Awarded = 1


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.

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.

Benchmark = Genuine, well-written essay that addresses the prompt and tells the admissions office something about the applicant that they don’t already know.
Applicant Essay = Genuine, well-written, insightful, addresses the prompt and reveals something newPoints Awarded = 3Applicant Essay = Decent essay that somewhat addresses the prompt and reveals a little bit more about the applicant.Points Awarded = 2Applicant Essay = Not well-written, doesn’t really address the prompt, repeats information that’s located elsewhere in the applicationPoints Awarded = 1

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.

How The “Points” Are Used
Gaining admissions isn’t as simple as getting the highest marks in all rubric categories. There’s a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes. Analysis on yield from last year, budgets, departmental needs, and more are all taken into consideration when determining the threshold students have to meet in order to be qualified for admission to the university.

For example, if 3 is the max score that an applicant can get for the eight categories listed above, then 24 is the top score an applicant can get on the rubric. After analyzing all institutional needs and goals, the admissions office might decide that a student with a rubric score of 20 or above is qualified to attend and if admitted will be able to do the work and graduate within four years. So, if a student whose test scores fall slightly below the average of previously admitted students, giving them a 1 in that category, but scores a 3 everywhere else, that student still meets that 20 point threshold. He or she is qualified to attend. On the flip side, a student with above average grades and test scores might get top marks in those categories, but if he or she has a poor essay, little extracurricular involvement, an easy course load, and poor recommendation letters, he or she will most likely score below that 20 point threshold –not qualifying for admission.

The bottom line is, there’s not one factor – grades, test scores, essays, etc. – that will make you a shoo-in for your top-choice colleges. Everything is taken into consideration – including factors that are outside of your control like budgetary restrictions, departmental needs, and more. The goal for every applicant should be to understand what colleges are looking for and what they can do, whether it’s improving their GPA, raising their test scores, or building stronger teacher and counselor relationships, in order to put together the strongest application possible.

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. For more information no how IvyWise can help you prepare for the college admissions process, contact us today.