Who To Admit: How Do Universities and Colleges in America Decide?

Director of Admission, Carnegie Mellon University

The process of deciding who gets into American universities and colleges is unlike any other in the world. It’s a delicate balancing act that involves many factors: academic indicators and measurements about you, characteristics that make you unique, and the goals and priorities set by individual universities and colleges.

You’ve probably heard a lot about what you need to do in order to apply to an American college or university. What you don’t hear is how colleges and universities evaluate the applications they receive—particularly those from international students.

You might wonder, for example, what parts of the application universities rely on most when making decisions. How do college or university goals and priorities affect an admission decision about you? And how important are factors such as language proficiency, participation in school activities and organizations, artistic talent, etc.?

While there are no absolute answers to these questions, one thing is certain: rarely is a student admitted based on only one factor. American colleges and universities evaluate many things to determine admission. It’s the combination of many different pieces about you that ultimately makes the American admission process unique. In many ways, it is like a puzzle that an admission office must piece together to decide whether or not you will be a good match.

Because each college or university has a specific set of goals, priorities, and objectives, each one may differ in the emphasis it places on various parts of the application. What you can be sure of is that your application will receive a fair and open review. Admission committee members have years of experience reading applications, understanding the potential of applicants, and making evaluations about which candidates will be the best match. Admission decisions are always made carefully and professionally. That’s why it can take a few months for these committees to decide who will be offered admission.

So, how do American universities review applications? They do so thoughtfully, with institutional goals and priorities in mind. Almost all college and university admission committees read the material you submit to uncover strong reasons to admit you. Except for some very large public or private institutions, most admission decisions are not based on numerical formulas or on the results of one comprehensive examination. In fact, offices of admission take great care to understand the person behind the paperwork—the “real you.” To do that, admission committees review each of the following, in roughly this order of importance:

  • Secondary school achievement
  • Standardized tests
  • Essays and personal statements
  • Letters of recommendation
  • English language proficiency
  • Activities and special talents

While all of these credentials are part of the decision of which applicants to admit, each plays a slightly different role in the admission process, so let’s review them.

Secondary school achievement

While it’s not the only factor considered, your academic achievement during secondary school is the most significant part of your application. Your performance will be reviewed within the context of your school and the curriculum you pursued: International Baccalaureate classes, American-style courses, or the typical educational sequence in your home country. Admission committees also consider the academic level of the courses you have taken. They are most interested in students who have challenged themselves to the best of their ability in the context of their school course work. Paying particular attention to your success in the most difficult areas of your curriculum, they try to assess the “fit” between your academic background and their university’s programs.

Helpful Hint: There are no universal standards in which you are automatically admitted or immediately denied admission. Each school evaluates applicants using its own criteria. Your guidance counselor can help you select the universities you’re most suited for based on your academic preparation, your goals, and your personal preferences. You need to try to find a good match between yourself and the academic rigor of the colleges to which you apply.

Standardized tests

Standardized tests (such as the ACT or SAT) can serve an important purpose: they provide admission committees with a common set of criteria to evaluate the skills and aptitudes of students who come from hundreds of different schools and whose backgrounds and academic preparation vary widely.

Helpful Hint: It is important to take required tests well in advance of the deadline for submitting your applications; your counselor can provide you with dates. Just as there is no single secondary school level of achievement that guarantees you admission, there is no universal score or threshold that automatically guarantees or denies admission.

Essays and letters of recommendation

If you do not have the opportunity to visit the colleges you’re interested in or interview with an admission representative, the application essays and letters of recommendation can be very important. Your essay helps an admission committee understand your personality, your perspective on life, and your special interests and skills. Essays and recommendations should reveal more about you as a person and as a potential member of the university community.

Recommendations provide important insights about your academic abilities and your contributions to your school and your community. These letters should be written by people who know you well and who can attest to your qualifications. You might ask teachers, college counselors, and even employers to write your letters of recommendation. Be sure to tell them what you plan to study in college and give them a brief summary of your accomplishments. Remember to ask them to complete the recommendation well before the deadline so that your application is not delayed.

Helpful Hint: Personal essays can be challenging to write, but they work best when they reveal information about your interests, goals, thoughts, and unique qualities that might not otherwise be mentioned in the application. Think about what other information an admission committee should know about you. Don’t restate what you’ve already included in other parts of the application. Start early and plan to work on several drafts before you settle on a final version.

English language proficiency

If your native language is not English, most colleges and universities will ask you to demonstrate your ability to read and write in English to ensure your English skills will not be a barrier to your success as a college student. Your language proficiency will be reflected on several parts of the application, but most American colleges and universities will require you to take the TOEFL.

If you feel your English skills aren’t as good as they could be, don’t be discouraged. Your scores will improve with frequent use and constant practice. A university may still admit you, although you may be required to get additional language training and practice before you’re allowed to pursue a full course schedule. That additional training may be provided by the university.

Helpful Hint: TOEFL is the most widely used test for evaluating English ability, and many colleges and universities require it for admission. If you plan to take it, make arrangements to locate a testing center and take it soon.

Activities and special talents and interests

A review of your involvement in school activities helps admission committees understand how you spend time outside of the classroom and how you might contribute to organizations, activities, and teams on campus.

If you have a special ability or talent in athletics, music, art, theater, debate, or a similar area, make sure the colleges and universities you apply to know about it. Many schools are pleased to receive a portfolio, CD, or other media that demonstrates your unique ability or accomplishments. However, always check with the college or university first: most schools have firm policies about submitting supplementary materials. If you do send a portfolio, be sure such materials are representative of your best work and only long enough to provide a glimpse of your talent or ability. Never send original pieces of work or items that must be returned to you.

Helpful Hint: Few students are admitted solely on the basis of special abilities or talents. However, evidence of special talents provides admission committees with proof of the breadth and depth of your interests, and it complements the other parts of your application. Also, be aware that universities will not penalize an otherwise strong student whose limited involvement in activities is the result of fewer opportunities at his or her school.

All universities and colleges have a set of institutional values that affect who is admitted each year. For example, a college or university may strive to enroll a balanced number of freshmen across all academic disciplines. Another college or university may value students with high levels of cocurricular engagement, leadership, or service. Still others may believe it is important to maintain gender balance, and others may value geographic or ethnic diversity. These institutional needs can guide who is ultimately admitted and can often account for why great students may not be seen as great matches for every college or university.

American universities actively encourage international students to apply, valuing the contributions you’ll make to their college community. If you are considering an American university or college, start by searching for universities that fit your academic, personal, and social interests. If you do, your application is more likely to be reviewed favorably, and you’re more likely to be offered admission at the university of your choice.

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