Colleges look for a number of factors when evaluating applicants for admission. It’s important to know what these factors are and to keep them in mind as your child progresses through high school and then enters the college application process. If you know where the colleges are focusing, you can make sure that your activities and application show you in the best possible light.
    The list below covers the ten most important factors that admissions officers look at when deciding whether to admit a student to their college or university.
  • High School Grades

  • SAT/ACT Scores

  • SAT II Subject Tests

  • AP Courses and Test Scores

  • College Entrance Essay

  • Extracurricular Activities

  • Recommendations

  • Interview (if applicable)

  • The Application

  • Personal Factors: race, gender, background

High School Grades

It’s a no-brainer: The higher your high school grade point average, the more it will help you when it comes time to apply to college. But the simple fact is that not everyone is going to get the grades that they hope for in every class. This is not the end of the world. In fact, there are a number of ways you should look at high school grades beyond just getting the best grades you can:

  • Work For Improvement– It is very helpful to show an improving trend in your grades over the four years of high school. If you are getting a B- in a subject area in freshman year, your goal shouldn’t be to start getting A’s in it. That just may not be possible. But it is possible that you can work your grades in that subject up towards a B+. Such grade improvements show your work ethic, pride, and discipline; traits that colleges and universities prize.
  • Star in the Subjects You’re Good At– Students who are good in one subject tend to coast in it, while devoting much more time to subjects they find more difficult. While I’m never going to suggest that you should ignore classes you’re having trouble with, I do suggest that you don’t coast in subjects that come easier to you. If you work as hard on the subjects you’re good at as the subjects you have difficulty with, you might be more than just good at them. You might be a star, and colleges are always on the lookout for people who are outstanding, even if only in a subject or two.
SAT/ACT Scores

More than two million students take the SAT/ACT each year, and most colleges use the SAT/ACT results to help them make admissions decisions about their applicants. A good score on the SAT/ACT can make any application stand out, while a poor score can damage your chances. More than a million students take the SAT/ACT college entrance exam each year. Many colleges use this test instead of or in addition to the SAT/ACT to help make admissions decisions about their applicants.

SAT II Subject Tests

The SAT II subject tests are complements of the SAT/ACT college entrance exam. SAT II tests are hour-long tests that cover a particular subject, such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Literature, US History, foreign languages, and many more.

Advanced Placement Tests (AP’s)

Advanced Placement (AP) tests are for high school courses that cover college material. Students who take AP courses and perform well on the AP tests distinguish themselves from other high school students and in some cases actually earn college credit while still in high school.

College Entrance Essay

Getting into a competitive college is becoming more difficult. A strong college application essay can have a significant positive impact on a student’s appeal when an entrance decision is made. Individualized guidance and support is available to students who want to create a dominant and effective essay.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are the clubs, summer programs and other specialized activities that you participate in during high school. They are the “extra” beyond the school curriculum. Colleges are interested in the extracurricular activities you pursue, precisely because they are “extra”. You don’t have to get involved in any extracurriculars, so the fact that you do get involved in one or two or more is the boldest declaration of your interests, your passions, your drive, and your initiative. In addition, if you rise to a leadership position over a number of years in an extracurricular team or organization, it shows both your dedication and your leadership skills. These are all traits that colleges look for. Participate in charitable endeavors; helping others (even other students) is both worth while and will give your application greater appeal. Some quick tips on extracurricular activities: get involved early, do a few things in depth rather than a short involvement in many things. Summer jobs can also be extracurricular.


When you apply to colleges you will be asked to send in recommendations written by people who know you: employers, teachers, coaches, etc. Good recommendations can really tip things in your favor, while a bad recommendation could really hurt your application; so it’s very important to choose the right people to write your recommendations. Here are some guidelines: choose someone who knows you, respects you, knows your passions and skills, and look to choose people from different areas of your academic and social life.

Interview (if applicable)

The interview gives you the chance to show a college all the intangibles that may not come across in your application: your charisma, leadership abilities, social skills, and your interests in life, learning, and the school itself. The admissions interview can be stressful for students worried about the admissions process—especially if this is the first real interview they’ve done. However, admissions committees realize that high school students have little interviewing experience, and so the process is usually easy and straightforward.

Can you request an interview?

You can absolutely ask an admissions office about doing an interview, even if the college isn’t currently interviewing or doesn’t typically grant interviews. The worst that will happen is someone will say no.

Filling out the Application

When applying to colleges, most students focus on the big things: grades, SAT/ACT scores, college essays and recommendations. That’s all well and good; you should focus on those things, they are important. But a problem arises when students focus on the big things to the detriment of the little things. What sort of little things; well, for instance, filling out the college application. The application is filled with all sorts of questions that ask for answers ranging from a word or two to a full paragraph. Do not look at these questions as something to speed through in order to spend more time, for instance, working on your essay. Instead, treat the entire application the way you would treat your essay. First of all, make an attempt to be neat. Write with good legible handwriting and no cross-outs if at all possible.

Personal Factors: race, gender, background

Few things are as controversial today as the role that race, gender, and background play in college admissions. Quite simply, here’s the way the preferences tend to work: if you are a person who is underrepresented in a particular school, then your chances of getting into that school are increased. As a college applicant you may be able to use these factors to your advantage. For instance, you should always mark on your application if you are a minority. Similarly, you may be able to increase your chance of acceptance by listing an intended major. To what extent personal factors are used in the admission process varies from school to school. The exact mix of these personal factors ranges school to school, year to year, and situation to situation. Very few schools have a constant formula; instead, it depends on what the school is looking for.