How do admission counselors rank the different application elements, like GPA, test scores, essay, and recommendations?

Kim LiftonKim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop
High school grades are the #1 factor in the admission decision. Colleges look first at college prep course grades, then strength of curriculum, test scores, and college application essays. However, the National Association for College Admission Counseling surveys its member colleges each year, and they found that colleges do not choose the students based solely on highest grades and test scores. Rather, they use many other factors to add depth to the numbers so they can build a diverse class that fits a college’s mission.

Smaller colleges and the more selective institutions are more holistic in their admission approach. In a holistic admission process, the essay helps colleges determine fit, shows colleges that a student can write, and presents a more personal side to the applicant. As college becomes increasingly competitive, the essay becomes more important in the process at any college that requires one. It will not save a student who is not qualified academically, but it can push an applicant who is qualified to the top of the pile. Students should always look at an essay as an opportunity to stand out.

Nancy G. McDuff
Associate Vice President for Admissions and Enrollment Management

The University of Georgia

This may vary by school, but in many cases the work that you have done over three to four years of high school is the most important indicator of your ability to do college-level work. It is not just the grades, but the rigor of the classes that you take that will show your abilities. Test scores are important, as are activities, leadership and work. The best way to know how a school evaluates applicants is to read their admission information and learn what they value.

JP SpagnoloJP Spagnolo
Director of Admissions and Enrollment Marketing
University of Saint Francis
First and foremost, it is important to recognize that college admission counselors use these indicators to assess your ability to succeed at their school. They do this because their ultimate goal is for you to graduate from their institution. Each college will have its own criteria for ranking candidates. For this reason, you should inquire with the specific schools in which you have an interest, if you want to learn more about the system they use to rank applicants. Usually this information is posted on the college’s website. If you are unable to find it posted on the Web, I suggest that you contact the admission office directly. That being said, most colleges will rely on your GPA as the primary indicator of your potential success at their institution. The next most commonly used element is your test score. If you are planning to attend a private institution they will be more likely to emphasize the importance of your essay and recommendations. Lastly, regardless of the weight each element holds on your acceptance to a given college, you should make sure you put your best foot forward. This means you should continue to focus on improving your grades, practicing for the standardized tests, having someone look over your college essays before you submit them, and selecting individuals that can give you a positive reference.

Cyndy McDonaldCyndy McDonald
Higher Educational Consultants Association (HECA)

Admission committees usually have a holistic review of all the different application elements. The reviewer looks at all parts: application elements, GPA, test scores, etc. together. Colleges will display on their websites which factors are most important to them. Use this list of Top 10 Characteristics College Look for in Students as a guide:

  1. Did you challenge yourself by taking hard classes (AP, IB, Honors, etc.)?
  2. Did you get good grades in those classes?
  3. How did you do on the SAT/ACT or other standardized tests?
  4. What do teachers/others say about you?
  5. Do you have depth in your activities?
  6. How did you spend your summers?
  7. How did you help your community?
  8. Can you express yourself in a written personal statement?
  9. How can you contribute to the college campus?
  10. Can your personality shine through your application?

Tom Weede
Vice President for Enrollment
Butler University

Your previous academic record always tells us the most, so the first thing we look at is the courses that you have taken.  We need to see that you have challenged yourself by taking the highest level classes you can take. If you have a 4.0 GPA and have taken Basket Weaving, Advanced Basket Weaving, and Underwater Basket Weaving, it won’t help you at all. Then we look at your GPA. As we look at your GPA, we also look at the quality of your high school, including the percentage of students that go on to college. Third, we look at test scores. While SAT and ACT scores don’t tell us as much as your high school record, these scores do give valuable information. While test scores are a factor, they are not as important as your academic record.
After these things, we look at your essay, activities, recommendations, grade trends, work history, and anything else that is part of your application. A word about activities: I would rather see a student who had been deeply involved in one or two activities over time, with leadership, than someone who jumps from activity to activity, simply to be able to create a longer list of activities.



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