Admissions

Admission Officers Reveal the Most Important Factors Driving Decisions

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You've heard rumors about what admissions officers want to see in your college applications. One friend heard that schools only look at the grades that apply to your intended major, but your cousin said colleges don't look at the grades you earned in your electives. Fortunately, you can put those rumors aside and hear it right from the source -- college admissions officers have revealed what they see as the most important factors when making their admissions decisions.

Here's the scoop: The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) recently released its 2018 State of College Admission report, which covers myriad issues involving the college admissions process gleaned from surveying counselors at secondary schools, as well as admissions officers from colleges nationwide.


As part of its research, NACAC sent an admission office survey to 1,241 four-year postsecondary institutions in August 2018. Based on the results of those surveys, NACAC collected data about college admission trends, which the organization shares in the report.

“This report reminds us that college admission decisions are highly contextualized, institution-specific endeavors that make simplistic descriptions difficult,” said NACAC CEO Joyce Smith. “Admission officers consider a wide range of factors when reviewing applications. Understanding the context in which a student’s record exists is an important component of evaluating what might make a student successful in higher education.”

Here Are the Top Admissions Factors

Following you'll find the top factors that colleges used when evaluating first-time freshmen in the fall of 2017, according to the survey:

1. Grades in all classes

2. Grades in college prep courses

3. Admission test scores (ACT, SAT)

4. Strength of curriculum

5. Essay or writing sample

6. Counselor recommendation

7. Demonstrated interest

8. Teacher recommendation

9. Class rank

10. Extracurricular activities

"Eighty-one percent of colleges rated grades in all courses as considerably important, and 71 percent rated grades in college prep courses as considerably important," the report says. "Admission test scores and strength of curriculum were also rated considerably important by more than half of colleges (52 and 51 percent, respectively)."

Check These Trends

Although not in the top ten, NACAC listed six additional factors that admission officers consider important. The remaining factors, in order, are subject test scores (AP, IB), portfolio, interview, work, SAT II scores and state graduation exam scores.

NACAC uncovered several trends of interest as part of these results. "For many years, grades in college prep courses had been rated as the top factor in admission decisions, followed by strength of curriculum and grades in all courses (overall GPA)," the report said. "However, from 2014 to 2017, the percentage of colleges rating grades in all courses as considerably important has increased from 60 percent to 81 percent." Over the same period, the importance of grades in college prep classes dropped from 77 percent to 71 percent, while curriculum strength decreased from 60 percent to 51 percent.

It's possible that these changes could stem from an increasing proportion of students who take AP classes and dual-enroll in both college and high school, NACAC said.

In addition, when it comes to the role that various student characteristics play in admissions decisions, race has been a hot topic lately, thanks to the Harvard trial, but NACAC found that the admission officers surveyed cited the high school the student attended as being more important than race, gender, ability to pay or alumni relationships.

The report also discusses myriad other factors, such as admissions factors for transfer students and international students, as well as stats about Early Decision and wait-listing. To check out the entire report, visit the NACAC site.