Three Things College Admissions Look For


The deadline for early decision college applications is quickly approaching, which means for high school seniors college applications is on the brain. There are hundreds of thousands of books, blogs, and articles on the college admissions process.

But what exactly is every admission team looking for? What is the magic formula to receive a thick admission packet versus a sparse denial letter? The reality is that there isn’t one set of admission criteria that applies to all applicants.

With that being said, there are some general things all students can do to better their chances of acceptance at GW or any other college or university throughout the US.

Grades Matter for College Admissions, But Rigor Matters More

“A ‘B’ in an AP class looks better to a college than an ‘A+’ in a ‘regular class.’” My high school guidance counselor shared this advice with me in my senior year of high school when I was debating if I wanted to take AP Economics or not. I had always loved the social sciences but math, graphs, and numbers had become my long-time enemy and I was nervous about involving myself with them at the college level.

The alternative was to remain in another elective class: video communications. A sure fire ‘A.’ Ultimately, I decided to take the risk. I enrolled in AP Macro Economics and the class was not easy. It required studying and perseverance. I had to think creatively and scramble to review the material. But ultimately, I earned an ‘A’ and my GPA benefited and so did my likelihood of college acceptance. While I chose to pursue the more rigorous and challenging of the two options, many of my peers opted for the guaranteed ‘A.’ In fact, throughout the country many students choose to “take it easy” their senior year by loading up on easy electives that guarantee an ‘A’ to anyone who breathes oxygen. But these students are making a huge mistake.

In an interview conducted by the New York Times, Jeff Rickey, the vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University, shed some light on the importance of academic rigor in the admission process. When asked what colleges look for when reviewing students’ transcripts, Rickey says the first thing is rigor. “If AP courses are offered, we would expect to see AP courses on the transcript. If honor courses are the highest level, we would expect to see them.”

When faced with the question of what is preferred, an ‘A’ at a general level or a ‘B’ at an advanced level, Rickey agrees with my high school guidance counselor saying, “As we admissions officers say when we are asked this question, ‘An ‘A’ in an Advanced Placement class!’ But, seriously, the student should take the most challenging course that is best for him or her. The extra challenge of the AP course may prepare the student better for the challenge of college courses.”

Know Your Competition

Choosing challenging classes and doing well in them is a crucial step for college applicants. But what happens when your peers within those classes are applying to the same school?

According to GW, all students from any given school are compared consecutively. That means that classmates are compared to one another. However, this is not to enforce a quota. In fact, GW argues that this provides a more fair reading and interpretation of each student’s application. GW admissions representative Brit Freitag says, “We read in school groups because then you get more consistency. It’s actually more fair.” The Post article goes on to say, “Knowing as much as possible about a student’s school and classmates provides essential context.”

This becomes clear when you look at the matriculation list for a school like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a Fairfax County public school that offers an elite magnet program for some of Northern Virginia’s brightest students. Annually, TJ graduates matriculate to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the nation. According to TJ’s student newspaper, the class of 2013 sent over 65 students to William and Mary, 11 to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 10 to Princeton, 8 to Stanford, 86 to University of Virginia, 10 to Carnegie Mellon University, and 3 to Harvard.

In looking at these statistics, it is clear that quotas are not entirely at play, but admission personnel know the rigor of TJ’s program. Simply put, an ‘A’ at TJ is harder to earn than an ‘A’ at most other schools.

Other Factors that Affect Admission Decisions

Demographics do come into play. Though GW says that gender is not a make-or-break criteria, it is brought up during the discussion regarding a student if that student is male. This is because 55 percent of GW’s population is female, so being a male is an advantage in their admission process. In all reality, there is nothing an applicant can do regarding the color of their skin or their gender, but it is something to keep in mind throughout the application process.

Keeping demographics in mind, there are some other things students can do to make their application stand out. I recently wrote a blog on the key to writing a compelling college application essay, in which I emphasized the importance of standing out. This idea is central to being selected for admission to university. At GW, admission personnel read between 30 and 40 applications a day, and they do this for months. The Washington Post recently stated that many college applications are reviewed initially for 5 to 15 minutes. Making an impression is not a simple task, but it is one that can make the difference between acceptance and denial.

According to Rickey, the key is taking a deep interest in a handful of activities rather than a shallow participation in many. In his interview he stated, “We admissions officers are fans of students with deep involvement in a few activities. We are not fans of students who pad their list of activities in their junior and senior years to look more engaged.”

Another important thing for student’s to highlight in their applications is why they want to attend that particular school. This is known as ‘Demonstrated Interest’ and different schools place different weight on it. For example, Trinity University’s website reads, “Visiting campus, emailing or calling an admissions counselor, attending a Trinity In Focus program, talking with a representative when they visit your high school, and stopping by our table at a college fair are some of the ways to show the Admissions Committee that you are genuinely interested in attending Trinity, and help us get to know you better.” However, Duke has stated, “Duke does not take demonstrated interest into account when evaluating applications. Although we are glad that you may have visited our campus or asked us questions about the school, demonstrated interest is not an advantage in the admissions process.”

But according to GW’s admission staff, student interest can be a compelling feature of an application.  “Sometimes applicants write mostly about Washington, D.C., rather than the university. Or they just write about themselves. Not helpful.” It is important for many schools to understand why it would be a match between the student and the campus. This information can be included in the personal statement or the essay and should be specific to the student’s goals/experience and programs or opportunities the college presents.

Ultimately, all of these factors are important in the application process, but according to most colleges, grades and test scores are crucial to at least getting your foot in the door. Without a strong GPA and solid SAT or ACT test scores, students’ applications will be tossed aside regardless of accomplishments or demonstrated interest. The good news is that schools like to see students who are on the upward trend rather than the downward trend. So if you have a student who struggled initially in high school, hope is not lost. It is important for colleges to see the student has a desire to improve and that he or she can come back from a ‘C’ or even a ‘D.’ But to do so many students may need to work with a private tutor or educational coach to address content deficits and improve study skills.