Planning for College

What Do Universities Consider When They Examine a Student’s Application?

Although every college/university is different, and large public universities may use different processes than small liberal arts colleges, clear trends have emerged about the factors that college admissions officers look for when reviewing a student’s application for admission.

  1. Rigorous high school curriculum
  2. High grade point average. Remember the rigor of the curriculum matters.
  3. High scores on standardized tests
  4. Great essay providing insight into the student’s unique personality.
  5. Passionate involvement in a few activities that are meaningful, inside or outside of school.
  6. Strong counselor/teacher recommendations that provide personalized references.
  7. Ability to pay
  8. Demonstrated leadership in or out of school
  9. Demographic and personal characteristics that contribute to a diverse and interesting student body
  10. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, research and extracurricular pursuits.
  11. Special talents that contribute to campus life
  12. Demonstration of student’s character and values
  13. Demonstrated interest in attending

For more than 15 years, Independent Education Consultants Association’s (IECA) members have been asked about the criteria that they find are most important to colleges in their admission decisions. IECA surveys over the past decade have shown that the same five items have led the IECA ranking. The top three have always been the rigor of the student’s curriculum, strong grades, and high standardized test scores. The other two factors in the top five are a great personal essay and the student’s passionate involvement in a few extracurricular activities.


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Planning For Standardized Testing

SAT and ACT remain equally viable options for students. There is ample preparation material for each test, and colleges accept each equally. Increasingly, colleges are willing to super-score ACT tests as they do SAT. As a result, families find themselves faced with key questions: Which test should my student take and when should she take it?

ACT Overview  The ACT is made up of 4 sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science, plus an optional Essay. The section lengths range from 35 minutes (Reading and Science) to 60 minutes (Math). The content of the Math, Science, and English is similar to what junior students are learning in school. ACT Writing is optional and consists of one 40-minute essay on a contemporary topic with social relevance. Students applying to the University of California campuses who take the ACT must take the writing test to meet the UC examination requirement.

SAT Overview  The SAT begins with a long Reading Test made up of five passages. The Writing and Language Test follows with four passages for students to edit. Math makes up the second half of the multiple choice exam; the Math Test is split into a no calculator section and a calculator section. The essay has become an optional final section on the SAT. However, Students applying to the University of California campuses who take the SAT must take the writing test to meet the UC examination requirement.

SAT Subject Tests  The SAT Subject Tests are designed to demonstrate academic achievement in specific subject areas. They are typically required by only the more competitive colleges. Advance planning is essential for maximizing your Subject Test scores, since you will perform best if you take the test immediately after finishing your last class in the subject. Not all Subject Tests are given on all test dates, and you cannot take Subject Tests on the same day as the SAT. You can take up to three Subject Tests in one day, and you can change your mind about which Subject Tests to take right up until the day of the exam; Language with Listening tests are the exception, however, because they require prior registration. Subject Tests are scored on the same 200–800 scale as the SAT, but they do deduct a fraction of a point for each wrong answer, so your testing strategy will be different. Each Subject Test lasts 60 minutes. The University of California campuses do not require any SAT Subject Tests to meet freshman admission requirements. However, Subject Tests may be recommended for some majors at some campuses.

Super-scoring  Some colleges/universities use this for admissions and/or reporting scores for rankings.  Super-scoring refers to the process of taking the best scores from each section of your SAT/ACT exam and putting them together to create your best overall score.  Of course, this is not something the applicant to choose to do as both the SAT and ACT require all sections of the score are submitted.  Rather, select institutions around the country have policies that use this technique in their admissions process. The University of California campuses do not super-score or combine your test results. They use the highest total score from a single test date.

Holistic Admissions  Most of the highly selective colleges and universities have a holistic admissions process. Universities who claim to have a holistic admissions approach do often factor in test scores, but do not use an index score or even minimum scores to grant admissions.  Holistic refers to looking at the whole person.  The admissions process includes numerous types of information and data into the decision.

Do you Know that there are Test Optional Schools?  Even before the pandemic, more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. do not require SAT or ACT scores. For most of these schools, a test optional policy is a practical necessity to ensure adequate volume, diversity, or specialty of applicants.  They are moderately to highly selective, admitting fewer than half of their applicants. In fact, according to U.S. News’ controversial ranking methodology, more than half of the “top 100” Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) are now test optional. However, among the top 100 National Universities (NUs), test optional policies remain rare.

Score Choice  The College Board and ACT have adopted policies, generally referred to as “Score Choice,” designed to give students some control over how SAT, Subject Test, and ACT scores are reported. However, colleges/universities have the final say over what scores applicants should submit and how those scores will be used. Students should carefully review the score-reporting policy of each university to which they plan to apply.