Admissions

Admission Officers Name the Most Important Elements in College Applications

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Do admission officers put more weight on your SATs or on the grades from your college prep classes? What about recommendation letters and essays? You can glean some answers to these and other questions by reviewing The 2019 State of College Admission report, which The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) recently released.


As part of its research, NACAC surveyed both secondary school counselors and four-year postsecondary institutions as part of its annual survey. Based on the results of those surveys, NACAC collected data about college admission trends, which the organization shares in the report.

"The landscape of higher education is shifting," said NACAC CEO Joyce Smith. "Understanding the wide range of factors colleges consider when reviewing applications is critical, whether in advising students or promoting best practices within the profession."

Here Are the Top Admissions Factors

Following you'll find the top factors that colleges used when evaluating first-time freshmen during fall 2018, according to the survey:

1. Grades in all classes

2. Grades in college prep courses

3. Strength of curriculum

4. Admission test scores (ACT, SAT)

5. Essay or writing sample

6. Student's demonstrated interest

7. Counselor recommendation

8. Teacher recommendation

9. Class rank

10. Extracurricular activities

"Seventy-five percent of colleges rated grades in all high school courses as considerably important, and 73 percent rated grades in college prep courses as considerably important," the report notes. "Strength of curriculum was rated considerably important by more than 60 percent of colleges and nearly half gave admission test scores (ACT/SAT) considerable weight."

For more detail from the report, we broke down 10 additional insights that students and their families may find interesting.

1. Volume of College Applications on the Rise

The volume of college applications continues to increase, the report indicates. The number of applications from first-time freshmen increased six percent and international student applications increased by seven percent between the fall 2017 and fall 2018 admission cycles. Transfer applications were up two percent overall, put public colleges experienced an average 1.7 percent decline in transfer applications while private colleges had a 4.7 percent increase.

2. College Acceptance Rate Also Rises

The national average college acceptance rate for first-time freshman across all four-year higher education institutions was 66.7 percent in fall 2017, up from a low of 63.9 percent in fall 2012, according to data collected by the US Department of Education, which NACAC included in the report. The average acceptance rate at private institutions was approximately six percentage points lower than the average rate at public institutions (64.9 percent versus 70.3 percent).

Survey respondents of the 2018–19 Admission Trends Survey reported that the average acceptance rate for transfer applicants was slightly lower than for the first-time freshman population (61 percent compared to 66 percent). First-time international students are accepted at a lower rate (52 percent) than both first-time freshmen and transfer students.

3. Admission Officers Review Startling Number of Applications

The average number of applications for each admission office staff member (excluding administrative staff) for the Fall 2017 admission cycle was 1,035 for public institutions and 461 at private institutions.

4. Average College Application Fee Is $50

About 71 percent of four-year, not-for-profit colleges had an application fee for the fall 2018 admission cycle, which averaged $50. Public colleges were more likely to report having an application fee than private schools (91 percent versus 57 percent).

5. Early Action, Early Decision Acceptances Have Risen

Even though only six percent of all college applications for the fall 2018 admission cycle were Early Decision (ED), colleges with ED policies reported a higher acceptance rate for ED applicants compared to all applicants (61 percent versus 49 percent).

Thirty-eight percent of four-year colleges offered Early Action (EA). From Fall 2017 to Fall 2018, the number of Early Action applications increased by 10 percent and the number of students accepted through EA increased by nine percent, on average.

6. Fewer Than Half of Institutions Have A Waitlist

Forty-three percent of institutions reported having a waitlist in the fall 2018 admission cycle. Private institutions were more likely than public colleges and universities to maintain a waitlist (48 percent compared to 34 percent). Colleges reported placing an average of 10 percent of all applicants on the waitlist for the Fall 2018 admission cycle, and institutions admitted an average of 20 percent of all students who chose to remain on waitlists.

7. Grades in All Courses Become More Relevant 

For many years, it seemed that the most important thing was to receive top grades in college prep courses for the best chance of admission, but that seems be changing. For the past three admission cycles, (2016, 2017 and 2018), the percentage of colleges rating grades in all courses as considerably important has matched or surpassed grades in college prep courses. Also, class rank has become much less important over the past decade.

8. Private, Public Colleges Emphasize Different Materials on Applications

Private colleges place greater importance on the essay/writing sample, the interview, counselor and teacher recommendations, demonstrated interest, extracurricular activities and work. Public colleges, on the other hand, place greater emphasis on standardized test scores than private institutions do.

9. Larger Colleges Place High Value on Test Scores

Smaller institutions gave comparatively more weight to the interview, teacher and counselor recommendations and demonstrated interest. Larger colleges, however, tended to place more value on admission test scores.

10. More Selective Colleges Weight Essay, Recs Stronger

Institutions that were more selective placed a greater emphasis on grades in college prep courses and strength of curriculum. More selective colleges also rated more highly the essay/writing sample, counselor and teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and work.


Note: Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this article are from the NACAC 2019 State of College Admission. Survey methodology: The 2019 State of College Admission comes from data based on two surveys. NACAC's CTS for the 2018–19 academic year was distributed in May 2019 to 15,997 secondary school counseling offices. NACAC received 2,345 responses. NACAC administers its annual Admission Trends Survey (ATS) to US four-year colleges that are NACAC members. NACAC collects data related to application volume; application practices; the use of various enrollment management strategies, including wait lists, Early Decision, and Early Action; the importance of various factors in the admission decision; and admission staffing. NACAC received 447 responses to the 2018–19 ATS.