Top 5 Things to Know About College Admission

This article is an update to our “College Admissions 101” from a few years ago; it should help you understand what’s changed about how colleges make their admission decisions and build their class.

Top 5 Things To Know About College Admission 

  1. College admission is not fair.   
  2. Colleges don’t necessarily admit the “top” students from their applicant pool.
  3. Colleges have “institutional priorities” – goals they strive to achieve as they build their campus community.  They don’t tell us (or you) what they are.  [See Georgia Tech Admissions Director Rick Clark’s description of institutional priorities here.]
  4. 80% of college applicants are applying with a 4.0 GPA these days.  When I applied to college 30(ish!) years ago, that number was about 35%.  This is grade inflation and it means colleges want to consider more about applicants than just their grades.  Character, involvement, engagement with community have become increasingly more important in the process.
  5. And yet, grades are THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR in the college admission process.  Grades are followed very closely by the rigor of the courses students choose to take.  The video above gives you more info about this.

We know these statements above can be confusing, frustrating and may go against what you’ve heard from parents who’ve been through the process.  Times have changed!

Start by recognizing that there are simply not enough seats in the freshman classes of the best-known colleges you hear about in the media.  For example – there are 19,000 seats in the freshman classes of ALL EIGHT Ivy League colleges, and there are 35,000 high schools in the U.S.  There are just not enough seats for everyone who is qualified!  This is true for the University of California system as well – not enough seats!  More on that here.  And while it makes sense in our brains to think that colleges just pluck the “top” students off the top of the applicant list and admit them, this is not actually how they make admission decisions.  So your straight-A student who has worked incredibly hard, taken all the hardest classes and done some really cool activities at a leadership level?  That kid who you know and believe deserves to be rewarded for her hard work?  That kid will have an amazing college experience!  Your job is to find the college environment that fits her best, and not think about where she’s admitted as a reward for her high school performance.  

If you haven’t heard the term “institutional priorities,” you can get a solid understanding of this invisible force from the proverbial horse’s mouth through this article by Rick Clark, Director of Admission at Georgia Tech.  His explanation of what Institutional Priorities means, and how they truly drive college admission decisions, is really all you need to know.

Now keep institutional priorities in mind as you watch this video from Columbia University, which is a really basic overview of the components Columbia requires in their application.  Columbia will absolutely give each applicant the same consideration, but in the end, they’re most certainly looking for certain types of students as they build their class – this might mean geographic or ethnic diversity, or other factors including special talents.  And in the end, ALL of Columbia’s admitted students are academically top-notch:  take a look at the fine print under “Academic Statistics” on the second page of this flyer describing the “profile” of their admitted Class of 2027 (high school Class of 2023).  You’ll see that those students who submitted test scores were in the top 99.5th percentile of test score takers, and 95% of their students were in the top 10% of their high school graduating class.

In the short video above, I review what colleges report are their top priorities in admission decisions.  Grades are the most important factor!  Followed very closely by rigor.  You can get a closer look at those priorities in the report here.  Here are some other articles that help you understand a little bit more about the factors in college admission, and the information admission officers use to make their decisions: 

If you and your high school student are just getting started thinking about the college admission process, you can sign up for our FREE College Admission Clinic here.  This free online resource will help you understand the many different facets of the college search and application experience.

As always, if you need some individual guidance as you embark on the college admission journey with your child, we’re here to help!  Click on the “Contact Us” page to get in touch.  We love helping students and families navigate this exciting process.

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