Secrets Behind the College Admissions Process

Everyone wants to know the secret to getting into college. While some parts of the admissions process are obvious (e.g. your test scores matter, high grades will help you, make sure your essays don’t have grammar errors), some parts of the admissions process remain opaque. What makes the difference between Student A getting accepted and Student B getting rejected, especially if they both students had high standardized testing scores and a strong GPA?

To begin to answer the question, you must first realize that colleges take a holistic look at the applicant, which is to say that they evaluate the contextual factors surrounding each individual student’s application. At the end of the day, it isn’t just the student’s grades and test scores that make the difference in an applicant’s admissions status. Rather, it’s a much more nuanced process in which factors such as where the student attended high school, how the student spends their time outside of the classroom, and yes–even the socioeconomic status of the student’s parents–that can make the difference between “You’re accepted” and “We regret to inform you…”.

Below are some secrets behind the college admissions process:

  1. Your High School Matters

College admissions officers are keenly aware that not all high schools are the same. Some might offer an extensive list of AP classes for students to take, while others might not offer any at all. Regional admissions officers are in charge of researching high schools in their assigned area and getting to know the in’s and out’s of school in their region. What colleges want to see is that a student took the most challenging courses that they could, given the context of their high school and what their high school offers. Furthermore, if a high school is known for being extremely rigorous and challenging, there might be more forgiveness towards a student having a slightly lower class standing and/or earning sightly lower grades.

  1. Your Parents Matter

Are your parents in high-paying professions, e.g. doctors, lawyers, executives? If so, colleges know that you will likely have had access to resources that other students might not have, so expectations will be higher regarding your extracurricular activities and grades. In the same vein, if your parents are in a lower income bracket and/or you come from a single-family home, colleges will take that into account. For example, colleges recognize that some students need to work part-time jobs in high school in order to support their families, and this time commitment will obviously impact the student’s ability to participate in extracurriculars (as well as the amount of time the student can devote to studying for class). For these students, admissions officers’ expectations surrounding extracurriculars and grades are adjusted according.

  1. Depth, Not Breadth

Many students think that by participating in as many extracurricular activities as they possibly can, they will increase their odds of getting accepted. The truth is that colleges prefer to see commitment and, if possible, leadership, within the clubs and activities that you are most passionate about. Choose a few extracurricular activities to really focus on and, ideally, stick with these activities through all four years of high school, which will show both your commitment and your passion. Even better is taking on a leadership position, e.g. becoming the president of a club or becoming the captain of your sports team.

  1. Keep It Professional

Review your online presence; when you google your name, take note of what comes up. Admissions officers come from all walks of life and you don’t know if they are young or old, liberal or conservative, etc. Play it safe by making sure that your social media is set to private. Likewise, be mindful of what email address you use when submitting your applications. This is a seemingly little thing that can make a big difference. Make sure you are using a professional-sounding email address rather than something like

  1. Bribes Don’t Work

Don’t send bribes alongside your application. Sending the admissions officer cookies won’t boost your chances, nor will hinting at a large financial donation for the college.

  1. Make Sure The People Writing Your Letters of Recommendation Know You Well

Students often think to ask their teachers to write their letters of recommendation. But before asking the teacher of the class you scored the best in to write your letter, however, pause and think about if that teacher truly knows you well and can write at length about your good qualities. If you got an A+ in History but barely spoke to the History teacher all year, that teacher might not be the best choice for a recommender. It will be better to ask a teacher who knows you well, even if you initially didn’t do well in their class. For example, if you got a B- in English your first semester, but then worked really hard alongside your teacher to bring your grade up to an A by the second semester, that English teacher (a) knows you well as a student, and (b) can testify to your grit and determination to self-improve and raise your grade. In this example, the English teacher, rather than the History teacher, would serve as a better writer for your letter of recommendation.

  1. Make Sure Your Essay Shows Who You Are

The admissions officers can already see from your transcript, test scores, and letters of recommendation who you are as a student. Don’t then spend your essay talking about your grades and favorite classes. Instead, use the essay as a chance to showcase other aspects of who you are. Think about your passions, your dreams, and your positive qualities that will add something special to a college’s incoming freshman class. Write an essay that reflects what makes you an excellent person for their school, not just an excellent student within the four walls of a classroom.