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College Admission Essentials



all-important, all-powerful tool to determine your college future. Remember, colleges rarely get to meet you in person. Your application needs to convey a powerful, accurate image of who you are as a high school student, a person and a future college student.

Whether you are applying through the Common Application, the Universal Application, or a school’s individual application there are some basics that all schools will want to know. The following list outlines the crucial elements that universities base their admissions decisions on, in order of overall importance.

1. Grades (GPA) / Course Load:

Most schools place the utmost importance on your high school GPA and ensuring that students have challenged themselves to the best of their abilities. Applicants can immediately catch the attention of admissions officers by displaying a consistently high or upward trend in their high school academic performance, along with managing a healthy number of Honors and AP classes. This is by far the most highly valued criteria in admissions for the majority of schools as grades are the most reliable indicator of overall effort and academic performance over a long period of time.

2. Test Scores:

TOEFL – Only international students need to take this test. Most schools will only require that students meet their minimum scores, while some institutions will list specific minimums that students need to hit for each section. Hence, if a school’s minimum score requirement is 100, a full score of 1220 will really count as no different from any score of 100 or above.
SAT/ACT – No matter who you are, you WILL have to take one of these two exams. Which test you take is entirely up to you as both tests are equally accepted at every US university. In fact, last year (2014), more people took the ACT than the SAT worldwide.

SAT Subject Tests – These are optional for most schools now as only select engineering and science programs still sometimes require Math Level 2 and one of the science subjects to be taken. Otherwise, take these tests only to show and prove academic strengths in areas you possess.

3. Extracurricular Activities:

The strength of your extracurricular involvement will be judged on quality, NOT quantity. Universities utilize outside involvement to check a students’ sense of commitment, responsibility, and personal development. Centralizing your time to a few select activities throughout a long-term period will create a higher opportunity to gain expert knowledge and take on additional responsibility in an endeavor. Schools are looking for focus, maturity, and passion in how we allocate our free time beyond our studies.

4. Personal Statements:

With the ever-increasing number of near perfect and perfect SAT scores plus high school transcripts, personal statements and extracurricular activities have taken on more significant roles in college admissions simply because they provide the only way to distinguish one excellent candidate from another. Effective college essays will display MAGIC (Maturity, Authenticity, Growth, Introspection, and Compassion). In order to make a strong and lasting first impression, students should treat the essay as a chance to give admissions officers a glimpse into their personal lives, highlighting their interests and skills, along with reflecting on the challenges they have learned and overcome. The most memorable essays are often times vivid, descriptive narratives that focus on one particular experience or theme.

5. Letters of Recommendation:

The main function of recommendations is to cross-check whether who you personally claim you are is actually supported by those around you. For this reason, the most ideal recommendations should not only come from the teachers who are closest to you and have your back, but they should also come from those who most clearly recognize and can attest to your strengths, achievements, and evolution as an individual.

6. Interviews:

As most interviews are conducted by alumni, they have a rather minimal impact compared to the aforementioned factors, serving more as tipping factors in close call cases. However, they do serve a similar purpose to letters of recommendation. Well thought-out, yet natural-sounding responses along with displaying a knack for social interaction and confident self-presentation can solidify you as a mature, college-ready student.

7. Miscellaneous Factors:

  • Legacy status – If your parents, for instance, attended a particular institution for their undergraduate studies, you will have a significant higher chance of getting into that particular school. Similarly, if you’re closely related to someone of significant stature or renown, you will also enjoy a “celebrity bump” in your chances of admission.
  • Family status – In following the spirit of spreading educational opportunity to everyone, colleges may give more serious consideration to students who are considered to be the first in their families to attend a university.
  • Financial status – Schools will be reasonable
  • Major – The major you apply to can greatly influence your chances of matriculation as certain majors are more competitive than others. Engineering, science, and business majors tend to hold stricter academic standards and accept lower percentages of applicants.
  • Special Conditions/Disabilities – Certain schools set aside special education programs targeting students with unique situations. Directly addressing these conditions will grant you consideration for these limited spaces that each institution features.


Preparation Necessities 

College Confidential

CC is the best online forum to discuss recent SAT/ACT exams you’ve taken along with college admissions news and updates. Get the most up to date info from fellow students around the world.


College Niche

Formerly known as College Prowler, College Niche is an awesome site to get firsthand knowledge on anything and everything you need to know about the universities you’re interested in applying to.


Mnemonic Dictionary

This is a great site that allows students to share their personal mnemonics with each other. If you’re having trouble memorizing certain vocabulary words, look them up here and see if there are any mnemonics that can get you over the hump.


The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and EB White

This is the timeless, classic manual that will guide you towards reaching your full potential as a writer; a must read for any student preparing for college essays.


How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

Having trouble prioritizing your schedule and managing your course load? Find out how to ace your classes, even with a heavy work load, and learn how to sharpen your studying skills so that you’re maximizing your daily work efficiency.


How to Be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport

Colleges don’t look at how many extracurricular activities you’re in; rather, they focus on the quality and evolution of your involvement in your endeavors. This is especially a must read for local students who simply don’t have that much time to dabble in outside activities.


A is for Admission by Michele A. Hernandez

This book will give you an in-depth look into how Ivy Leagues sort through the plethora of outstanding college applicants they get each year. Read this book if you wish to gain a full understanding of the admissions process from start to finish.


College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Robin Mamlet

Former Dean of Admission at Stanford, Robin Mamlet, provides the ultimate guidebook for college admissions, detailing the entire process from start to finish while highlighting the most crucial aspects that admissions officers look for.