You already know that grades are important when it comes to your student's college applications. It's also no surprise that their scores on the ACT and SAT are a key factor in the ultimate admissions decision. But beyond those two things, what else goes into that fateful decision to either accept or reject a student applying to college?
A simple perusal of the chart above will give you a quick and dirty look at what goes into an admissions decision. But what does it all really mean? Let me break it down for you:
1. The most important factor in admissions is not just grades, but the grades in college prep courses. What this means for your student: A 4.0 GPA isn't so impressive when the classes a student took don't include a lot of rigor (i.e., remedial classes and most electives that schools offer). Schools don't just look at a student's cumulative GPA and call it a day; they look at the courses a student took in order to get those grades. Those first two spots on the list reflect that colleges want to see students taking difficult classes that aren't required (such as AP and Honors classes that go above the school's basic graduation requirements). If your student is in 9th or 10th grade, strongly encourage them to enroll in more difficult classes, even if they might not get a 4.0. In all seriousness, a 3.0 in AP Biology says much more about a student and them being prepared for the challenges of college courses than a 4.0 in weight training.
2. Next up, scores on ACT / SAT. These tests have been around for decades and continue to hold a lot of weight in the admissions process. The new SAT was just unveiled yesterday (3/5/2016), with some improvements. Indeed, the updated exam reflects a shift in educational pedagogy, and aims to test students on applied skills. NPR Reports:
"The new test... will include vocabulary, but within a reading passage. Less cramming, more context. Also, students can expect to find an increased emphasis on using evidence in a passage to back up answers.
"The College Board hopes the redesign will provide a more accurate measure of a student's college and career readiness — a phrase made famous by advocates of the Common Core learning standards. Those standards, in reading and math, are now being used by the vast majority of states, and the SAT's chief rival, the ACT, is surging in part because it was first to adapt to the core. Now the SAT is playing catch-up."
So what does this mean for your student: Practice makes perfect. If your student isn't up for a complete test prep course, have them take some practice tests at home to mentally prepare for these exams. Like it or not, their scores are important to the admissions decision.
3. The Essay. After (most of) the classes have been taken, the ACT/SAT is done, and your student is on their way to wrapping up what is left of 12 years of schooling, the essay portion of the application serves as a bit of a capstone to your student's formative academic years. According to the data above, after grades and standardized exams, the essay is the most important component in the admissions decision.
As an essay writing consultant, I am absolutely biased here, but my obsession with admissions essays is backed up by the data. The truth is, the essay component is more than just another test to make sure your student can write; it's crucial to putting a face to the stark numbers on the app. The essays show the admissions officers that your student is more than just that 2.5 in AP Physics. Or that there was a legitimate reason for that dip in grades during their Sophomore year. The essay is your student's chance to show colleges what an asset they will be to the school, to make a case for their acceptance, and to add their personality to what has become a very standardized process. (And if your student is applying to a smaller private school, the essays become even more important, according to the State of College Admissions Report.)
What does this mean for your student: Do not throw away the opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack. If your student is applying to a competitive school, chances are that most of the other candidates are going to look a lot like them on paper with similar GPAs, test scores, and course curriculum. Assuming that your student is no better or worse than anyone else applying to get into that school's incoming class, the essay is their last chance to stand out and get accepted.
4. Student's Demonstrated Interest: The fact that this ranked so highly is actually a bit surprising. It's no secret that students apply to more than one school (in fact, students should apply to a minimum of 3 schools: a "Reach" school, a "Match," and a "Safety" school), so why are colleges so insistent that students profess their undying love and loyalty to a place that might not even accept them? Personally, I find that strange. Regardless, the "Why Do You Want To Attend Our School" component of the application is a crucial part of the game, so we mind as well do what we need to do.
What this means for your student: Usually this is the sort of question that'll be asked in a supplemental essay (again, see how important these essays are?!). The best strategy for the student in this case is to go to the actual school (or the school's website) and find specifics about the university that they can speak to. What kind of specifics? Well, that depends on your student's reasons for wanting to attend that school. Examples might be that your kid is really excited about studying abroad and they know that the school in question has a very comprehensive study abroad program (this would be a great supplemental essay because it shows that your student has done some comparative research on programs, and they have a passion for learning about other cultures and places). Perhaps your kid already knows that they want to study Geology, and the school in question has a very prominent geologist on their faculty (this shows that not only does your kid have an academic direction, but that they have done their homework and looked up courses and who teaches them).
The key here is specificity. The more enthusiasm your student shows in their application about a specific school, the most likely they are to tip the balances in their favor (even if they aren't the strongest candidate academically!).
5. Everything Else. What about the rest of the factors affecting decisions? Recommendations, after school activities, AP test scores, work experiences…yes, they all matter. But if your student doesn't have a strong academic base, then all the recommendations and extracurricular activities aren't going to amount to much. Nail down the above key components, and your student will be in a solid position when applying to their schools.
Best of luck to you and your family! Keep an eye out for more blogs on college admissions and essay writing!
P.S. The summer before senior year is the best time for your student to start working on their essays. The pressure isn't on yet, and they have the luxury of playing around and experimenting with different topics to see which one will be the best for them. It's also a great time to lock in an essay consultant - once school starts back up, spots go fast!