The college admissions process is all too opaque.  Students with similar stats are often admitted to vastly different schools and it’s often hard to tell why.  Searching a college’s admissions page will often tell you that they review students holistically which sounds nice in theory but offers little data about what each school cares about.  For instance, none of the UC schools consider race in their admissions process while all members of the Ivy League actively try to build a multi-racial incoming class, yet both sets claim they review every aspect of a student’s application.  This difference in values happens across a variety of dimensions.  Some schools don’t care about your class rank or level of demonstrated instance while at others that can make or break your application.  There are, however, a number of ways to discern what matters most to colleges.


The first, and most effective way is to find a school’s common data set.  This form has much vital information including the relative importance of a variety of academic and nonacademic factors for potential freshman.  Each element is ranked as either very important, important, considered or not considered. While this is a great nugget of information, it has the obvious caveat that each category is subjective.  The difference in weight given to a “very important” versus an “important” factor is anyone’s guess.  Additionally, there are a number of factors which aren’t listed on the common data set such as legacy status or potential to be a student athlete.  A great example of this is the percentage of valedictorians at Brown and Dartmouth.  Both schools are among the best in the country and their students have similar stats.  However, nearly fifty percent of Brown’s incoming freshman were high school valedictorians while only about fifteen percent of Dartmouth’s were.  Just looking at the common data set wouldn’t tell you that Brown places a premium on valedictorians, you would have to do some serious digging.


Beyond the common data set, there are a few more resources to discern what colleges value.  One is the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s State of College Admissions Report which was last updated in 2015.  The report is a bird’s eye view of what colleges consider most on the aggregate.  The results are comfortingly common sense.  The five most salient considerations are, in descending order): Grades in College Prep Courses  (AP or IB), Grades in All Courses, Strength of Curriculum and Admission Test Scores (SAT or ACT) and Essay or Writing Sample.  In essence, if you take difficult classes and excel, you will position yourself well once college admissions roll around.


Unfortunately, after those initial five factors, things get a bit dicey.  Your guidance counselor’s recommendation is placed sixth, two spots ahead of the ones given by your teachers.  This is particularly problematic given that most students have a fairly superficial relationship with their guidance counselors.  As we’ve previously reported, the average student spends just 38 minutes with their guidance counselor.  Furthermore, the position is often understaffed according to the American School Counselor Association which recommends schools nearly doublethe number of guidance counselors per student.  Cultivating a meaningful relationship with your guidance counselor is often an undervalued way to give your application some extra oomph.


While this may seem discouraging, it’s important to remember that this data is on the aggregate and not indicative of individual schools.  The report ranks a student’s portfolio as one of the least important factors, the vast majority of students aren’t applying to programs where that matters.  If you’re applying to art school, your portfolio will be much more than important than if you wanted to be a doctor.  Having said that, if you’ve already built a portfolio, there’s no harm in submitting it alongside the rest of your application to showcase a different facet of your skillset.  Similarly, while sixty-three percent of schools don’t even consider your SAT IIs, many of our country’s top universities require them.  You should treat the report as a resource, not as a holy text.  It comes with caveats and, while it gives you a survey of the landscape, it won’t tell you what any single college cares about.


Once you’re at the top our nation’s applicant pool and competing for a few thousand spots at highly selective universities, as many of our students are, the opacity returns.  To be a true contender at a top thirty school, you need a story.  You need to show admissions officers who you are and how you’re different than other students with equally excellent grades and test scores.  We’ve written a great deal about building your personal brand and how to draw a thread between your high school years to your college ones and beyond.  That frequently means aligning your supplemental essays and personal statement with the values of the college.  Creating that synergy is difficult for a variety of reasons.  It can be difficult to determine what a college wants in a student beyond great grades and demonstrating how you fit that mold without pandering is no small task.  Fortunately, Ivy Admissions has the inside scoop about every college.  Our counselors will do deep research into your top choices, taking the load off your shoulders and letting you focus on what is really important.  No matter where you head in the fall, we know how to get you there.