College Admissions: What Top Schools Look For

Amid headlines proclaiming record breaking numbers of applications at top schools, many students have become increasingly concerned about their chances for admission to selective colleges and universities – and rightly so. “Even historically less selective colleges have seen a dramatic rise in applications for the incoming freshman class,” says Mr. Jim Narangajavana, co-founder of C2 Education. “Unfortunately, these schools have not increased the number of applicants they will accept, which means that they are sending out record numbers of rejection letters.”

An impressive GPA and high standardized test scores are no longer enough to guarantee admission, even at many public schools. “In fact, more and more schools have moved towards a more holistic approach to admissions,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “This means that while test scores and GPA are still incredibly important, colleges have begun to look more closely at other criteria as well. They seek well-rounded, motivated, diverse students and numbers on a page can’t give them a clear enough picture.”

This trend towards more inclusive admissions standards has left even the highest achieving students wondering how to create the most impressive application possible.

By the Numbers

“In general, admissions officers will still look at the numbers first,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “This provides them with an apples-to-apples comparison. The very top performers, those with an incredible GPA and very high test scores, usually have very little to worry about. If a student manages to distinguish himself based on the numbers alone, he will probably be granted admission. Then there are the students who fall in the very bottom of the numbers rankings – those whose GPAs and test scores are well below those of the average applicant may be given a chance to redeem themselves through other parts of the application, but often they get placed at the bottom of the pile.”

For those students who fall somewhere between the top performers and the bottom performers, other parts of their applications will merit greater scrutiny. “The vast majority of applicants at a given school will not be rejected or accepted based solely on their GPA or their test scores,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “However, that doesn’t mean that grades and test scores aren’t important – as the first factor that schools look at, good grades and high test scores are vital to any college application.”

Why an A Isn’t Always an A

While college admissions officers are scrutinizing high school transcripts, they aren’t only looking at the grades. “Most schools, particularly selective schools, want to see that a student has taken the most challenging courses available,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “A student who earned straight A’s in lower level courses is often less desirable than a student who earned B’s in gifted, honors, and Advanced Placement classes. In fact, some schools, like Emory University in Atlanta, look at how rigorous a student’s coursework has been before anything else.”

Activities Outside of School Matter, Too

Once schools have looked at the quantitative aspects of an application, they begin to delve into the less clear-cut sections. They look at the rest of the application as a way to get to know the applicant, and one of the most telling sections is the section in which students list and explain their extracurricular activities.

“Admissions officers can learn a lot about a student’s drive, motivation, interests, and leadership potential simply by looking at an applicant’s extracurricular activities,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “The key here is quality, not quantity. An applicant who has listed six or seven different clubs and has never held a single leadership position in any of them is not as impressive as an applicant who has consistently participated in two or three activities and has help leadership positions in at least one of them.”

The Admissions Essay: Who Are You?

“A lot of students want to know how important the admissions essay really is,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “At the end of the day, after all the applications have been weeded through, the odds are that admissions officers are left with hundreds of candidates with roughly the same GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities. In a pool that large, it’s difficult to be unique – and that’s where the admissions essay comes into play.”

The admissions essay offers students the opportunity to set themselves apart from the crowd. “There are times when an admissions decision can hang on a personal statement. In fact, the admissions essay is one of the most vital parts of a college application,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “We see so many students who simply don’t know where to begin with their admissions essays and it’s heartbreaking because those essays can be such a crucial part of the application. That’s why we recently published C2’s The Smarter College Essay Writing Guide, a step-by-step guide to help students produce competitive college admissions essays.”

The Oft Neglected Recommendation Letters

The final aspect of a strong college application is the recommendation letter. “Strong recommendations are a critical part of a college application,” says Mr. Narangajavana. “While your admissions essay allows you to tell the college about yourself, the recommendation letters provide a different perspective. This allows admissions officers to see a more detailed picture of an applicant.”

Choosing who to ask to write recommendation letters is important. Mr. Narangajavana suggests that students choose people who know them well. “A lot of students will ask teachers or counselors who perhaps don’t know them all that well, but this is a mistake. Students need to ask people who know them well and will be willing to write a very personal recommendation letter. Otherwise, students might end up with recommendation letters that are impersonal and could have been written about any applicant – those won’t help set an applicant apart,” he says.

Timing is also key. “If a student has a strong relationship with a 10th grade teacher, he should ask his teacher to write a recommendation letter that year. Yes, it’s early, but the teacher is going to remember more about the student at the end of his 10th grade than a year or two later when the real college admissions push begins. The letter can always be updated later, but it will feel more genuine if it is written at the high point of the student-teacher relationship rather than a year or two later,” Mr. Narangajavana suggests.

What’s the Most Important Part?

“No one part of an application is going to make or break a student’s chances of admission,” Mr. Narangajavana says. “Thanks to the more holistic method of admissions, most schools look at absolutely every aspect of the application. In other words, there isn’t a ‘most important part’ – they are all important.”

Mr. Narangajavana reminds parents and students to utilize all resources when preparing for college applications. “Students shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help – whether from a counselor, a teacher, or an outside source like C2,” he says.

For more information about C2 Education and its services, please call 1(800) 777 – 7000 or visit them on the web at

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Filed under C2 College Admissions, C2 Education, C2 Tips, Education News

One response to “College Admissions: What Top Schools Look For

  1. Pingback: Shoot for the Stars | Be Smarter Blog – C2 Education

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