The college admissions process can be very competitive and stressful. The more selective the school, the more competitive it gets. Just like any other competition, it's important to know the areas where you will be judged and how points are scored. Fortunately, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has done this for us. The NACAC is a national organization made up of roughly 15,000 counseling, admissions, enrollment, and financial aid professionals with the purpose of providing counselors and students with beneficial college admission information and resources.
As a student, the most valuable NACAC resource to you is the State of College Admission (pdf). This report is the culmination of various surveys intended to gather information regarding college admissions. Among other things, it identifies the important factors colleges use to make admissions decisions as well as uncovering trends in the admissions process.
There are 16 factors that college admission departments consider when evaluating you application and comparing against other students. The NACAC gathers information about these factors from the Admission Trends Survey, which requests college admissions offices rank these 16 factors by level of importance: Considerable Importance, Moderate Importance, Limited Importance, and No Importance. The list of factors below is ranked according to the percentage of admission offices that gave them 'Considerable Importance', which is the highest level of importance.
- Grades in college prep courses - 79.2%
- Grades in all courses - 60.3%
- Strength of curriculum - 60.2%
- Admission test scores (SAT Reasoning Test™, ACT®) - 55.7%
- Essay or writing sample - 22.1%
- Counselor recommendation - 17.3%
- Student's demonstrated interest - 16.9%
- Teacher recommendation - 15.2%
- Class Rank - 14.0%
- Subject test scores (AP®, IB) - 7.0%
- Portfolio - 6.6%
- Extracurricular activities - 5.6%
- SAT II scores (now known as SAT Subject Tests™) - 5.3%
- Interview - 3.5%
- State graduation exam - 3.5%
- Work - 0.9%
Looking at the percentages, it should be apparent to you that there is a great disparity between the top four factors and the rest of the list. These top four factors are where you should spend 80-90% of your time and energy. You should try to never sacrifice these top four factors for any other factor. However, this does not mean that the other factors should be ignored. Do your best to include as many of these other factors into your college application as possible. Not only will these other factors add depth to your application, they will also show you are a more well-rounded student.
It is important that you understand that every college and university may rank these factors differently. This list just compiles responses from a handful of the schools out there. For example, smaller private colleges may place a higher weighting on an in-person formal interview whereas larger public universities don't have the time to interview every student. Schools that focus on various arts may rank a portfolio higher than schools that focus on sciences. Specific departments (or colleges) within a university may also place a different focus on these factors than the admissions office.
When it comes time to start researching and visiting colleges, be sure to inquire about how they would rank these factors so you can adjust your focus and re-prioritize if needed.