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As students head back to the classroom this fall, another round of college admissions begins for seniors. While they may be working on applications and essays this fall, most of their profile is already fully baked. 9th-11th graders, listen up! There may be an opportunity to pull out that great essay next year, but have you asked yourself – what really matters in college admissions? How do admissions officers make decisions?

  1. Grades (and grades in college prep courses). The single most important variable in admissions is how a student performed in high school. In essence, grades matter. A lot. Different high schools have different grading scales and different opportunities for taking advanced coursework. Colleges will have full view of this when they review a student’s School Profile – a document created by the high school to help a college understand the context of that school. High marks, especially in dual enrollment, honors, AP, etc. classes, are critical.
  2. Course Rigor. Getting straight As is certainly a feat. But, now try doing that with advanced coursework. Colleges are looking for students who challenge themselves academically. That means finding the right balance between getting strong grades and taking hard courses. It is somewhat of a tightrope walk. To navigate this, a four year plan can come in handy. If a student did well in 9th grade, try bumping up a course level or two in 10th grade. And so on. 
  3. Testing. While many colleges have gone test-optional, most students are still submitting test scores to selective colleges. Test scores, for many students, show their ability to answer high school content questions in a limited timeframe. Having a high test score (relative to those who apply) can boost a student’s chances. Applying without a test score should be considered only after a student has taken the exam and done as best as she could. Then, compare the score to the averages at the schools to which you’re applying. The best preparation for these exams is reading and doing well in school!


There are a number of secondary factors in the admissions process as well. Below is a brief outline of those (in no particular order):

  • Essays. Colleges will evaluate both the main personal statement that is sent to all colleges as well as the additional writing samples you provide. Many colleges will require (or recommend) an additional essay or two (sometimes even 6+ essays)!
  • Demonstrated Interest. Showing interest in a college can actually help a student earn acceptance. Colleges want students who want them back. This yield rate can help bring down the admission rate. Both of these make the college look good. How do you demonstrate interest? Visit campus, virtual visits, connect with the admissions rep, sign up for newsletters, follow on Instagram, open emails, and more.
  • Recommendations. Many colleges will require at least one teacher recommendation. Many ask for two. And many will also ask for the counselor to write a narrative. Having good relationships with teachers will help to secure these letters. Doing well in their classes will help the teachers with the content of those letters.
  • Extracurriculars. What a student does outside of the class is incredibly important. Engaging in extracurricular activities, from clubs and sports to jobs and music, shows that you are an active member of the community. Having a leadership role in one or more of these can expose some other great qualities. Volunteering or participating in social action groups shows that you care about your world. Winning awards shows that you can achieve at a high level. All of these take time – starting early is key.

And, finally, there are some tertiary factors to consider (also in no order):

  • Subject Tests (AP / IB)
  • Legacy Status
  • Interview
  • Portfolio

Much of the admission decision is already set by the time a student is ready to write the essays and fill out the application. This is a good time to talk with underclassmen about these factors!

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