how to get into college

The college admission process is straightforward. To get into the top universities, students must have good grades, high standardized test scores, excellent recommendation letters, outstanding essays, and unique extracurricular activities.

Fortunately, most colleges do not require applicants to be academic or athletic stars to be accepted. Even students at the bottom of their class have chances of getting in.

The trick is to know what matters for colleges and use this knowledge as leverage to increase acceptance chances.

The best source of such knowledge is Common Data Set (CDS).

Each year colleges send their data to, a collaborative initiative by the College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report.

According to CDS information, all colleges evaluate applicants based on academic and non-academic factors.

Here is the list of factors that colleges look for during first-time, first-year, degree-seeking college admission decisions:

Academic factors

  • Rigor of secondary school record
  • Class rank
  • Academic GPA
  • Standardized test scores
  • Application essay
  • Recommendation(s)

Non-academic factors

  • Interview
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Talent/ability
  • Character/personal qualities
  • First generation
  • Alumni/ae relation
  • Geographical residence
  • State residency
  • Religious affiliation/commitment
  • Racial/ethnic status
  • Volunteer work
  • Work experience
  • Level of applicant’s interest
Princeton University Admission factors from Common Data Set
Princeton University admission factors

While every postsecondary institution weighs the above-mentioned academic and non-academic factors differently, some general rules do apply.

If you want to get into a good competitive college, use the following ten strategies to improve your chances:

  1. Improve high school grades
  2. Take academically rigorous classes
  3. Improve SAT/ACT scores
  4. Write the best application essay (personal statement)
  5. Obtain good recommendations
  6. Engage in meaningful extracurricular activities
  7. Build a balanced college list
  8. Find an admission hook
  9. Show a demonstrated interest
  10. Leverage early decision and early action plans

1. Earn Good Grades in High School

Getting high grades in high school is the single most important step to take in getting admitted to one’s top-choice college. In a holistic admission policy where admissions officers take into account a number of academic and non-academic factors, ranging from application essays to work experience, the GPA has the most weight among all.

“If you know enough to graduate from high school, that really should be enough to get you into college”

(Koch, B. et al., 2012).

No matter which college or university a high schooler applies to, his or her grades have the most impact on the admissions process, thus largely determining the fate of the teen after completion of a secondary education career.

A report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) confirms it.

“Grades in high school have been among the top decision factors for first-time freshmen for decades. Total GPA and grades in college prep courses were each rated as considerably important by 77% of colleges. Admission test scores and strength of curriculum were also rated considerably important by more than half of colleges (Clinedinst, Koranteng, 2017).

In the above quote, college prep courses were mentioned, which some high school students may find confusing because they could mean different things, including the ones listed below:

  • College preparatory schools

On paper, every high school in the US should prepare students for higher education.

However, some high schools refer to themselves as college preparatory schools or simply college preps as they are designed to arm attendees with the tools they will need in college admissions.

Some of them have specialized curriculums and courses for the said purpose. Most college preps are elite boarding and urban charter schools.

  • College preparatory programs

In some instances, college prep may refer to programs administered by the government or private entities created to increase postsecondary education access among minorities and individuals from underrepresented groups who would ordinarily be unlikely to attend college after high school.

The vast majority of college prep programs come in the form of research opportunities and residential programs for teeners.

In terms solely of increasing a high school student’s chances of getting into the college of his or her choosing, college prep courses refer to classes taken in high school in preparation for undergraduate studies.

College prep courses, in other words, are standard core secondary school classes and not college-level classes.

High school students study a wide range of subjects from their freshman to senior years, the exact number of which can vary according to the secondary education institution and the chosen program of the high schooler, such as through elective classes and college-level courses like the ones provided through the AP program by the College Board.

Going back to college prep courses, they are, simply put, the core requirements of high school education as well as what most colleges and universities look for in the transcripts of applicants to determine whether or not they are eligible to apply as first-time, first-year students.

The said college prep courses are English, math, science, social studies and foreign language.

Different postsecondary institutions require a different number of years for each college prep course.

However, typically, admission requirements as far as these courses go look something like the following:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3 years of math
  • 3 years of science
  • 3 years of social studies
  • 2 years of a single foreign language

Needless to say, how many years every college prep course high schoolers should have depends on the requirements of the college they are eyeing.

Of course, the more selective the institution, in most instances, the more years of college prep courses are preferred. Harvard University, for instance, requires applicants to have 4 years of a single foreign language.

Students who are planning on attending colleges where getting in can be challenging may want to consider taking more years of college prep courses for a more attractive application that demonstrates college readiness.

So, in other words, the number of college prep course years enumerated above is just the bare minimum at many institutions.

While it’s important for college applicants to have a high overall GPA, it also matters that they have high grades in their college prep courses because, usually, they serve as indicators of a student’s ability to succeed in college.

At some colleges and universities, completing the required years of college prep courses may not be enough.

Certain postsecondary institutions may also require applicants to complete additional high school courses such as arts, technology and specific electives for their applications to be considered for evaluation.

2. Take Academically Rigorous Classes

Academic rigor is the second most important admission decision factor after GPA.

While good students generally have good grades, colleges are becoming increasingly skeptical about high schools practicing grade inflation. And they have good reasons to do so.

According to the study performed by Michael Hurwitz, College Board, and Jason Lee, University of Georgia, grades in the wealthiest schools in the USA increased by a quarter of the point during the period between 1998 and 2016.

Here are the changes the researchers found in the average GPAs of SAT-takers in different types of schools over that 18-year period:

  • Private independent (not religious) schools: 3.25 to 3.51 (0.26 increase)
  • Private religious schools: 3.29 to 3.5 (0.21 increase)
  • Suburban public schools: 3.25 to 3.36 (0.11 increase)
  • Urban public schools: 3.26 to 3.28 (0.02 increase)
Grade inflation in high schools
Grade inflation in high schools

Because schools in America do not have a single education program, and the quality of the education varies from school to school, most selective colleges want to see students take academically rigorous classes to prove their preparedness for higher education.

So, what is academic rigor exactly?

“Pertains to the content of the course, plus the intensity of the material” (Blume, 2019).

Below are some of the most popular ways among high school students to make their secondary school record more rigorous and thus allow them to easily navigate a fastidious college admissions process:

  • AP classes – Advanced Placement or AP classes are comparable to introductory classes in college, which is why they help increase academic rigor in high school as well as boost a student’s GPA as they are weighted. Taking AP exams, which is possible even if a student didn’t take the corresponding AP courses, allows for the earning of college credits at certain colleges, although only if the scores are 3 or higher. High schoolers can choose from 38 different AP classes.
  • IB classes – A part of a worldwide, nonprofit education program developed in Switzerland, International Baccalaureate classes or simply IB classes are similar to AP classes in that it allows high schoolers to take college-level courses. Unlike AP exams, students cannot sit for IB exams without taking the corresponding courses beforehand. IB classes are not as popular as AP classes, too — in the US, only 1,207 high schools, 91% of which are public, offer them.
  • Honors classes – They may not be as challenging as AP classes, but honors classes are more difficult than high school courses in that they cover more material, which is why they help increase the rigor level of the secondary school record of a college applicant. Similar to AP classes, honors classes also boost a student’s GPA since they are weighted as well. However, they are more accessible than AP classes since they are designed by high school teachers themselves.
  • Dual enrollment – Dual enrollment is a program that allows high schoolers to simultaneously take college courses, usually at community colleges located locally. According to Homeroom, which serves as the official blog of the US Department of Education, dual enrollment not only allows a student to enjoy increased college admissions chances for making the high school curriculum more rigorous but may also enable him or her to earn college credits.
  • Accelerated classes – High-achieving high schoolers, whether considered gifted or non-gifted, may enroll in accelerated classes if available. At their core, these classes are dual-credit courses that allow students to earn high school credits and college credits at the same time. Needless to say, accelerated classes help increase the rigor of high school students’ curriculum, although they are only usually accessible to those who are in their junior or senior year.

Taking college-level courses warrants the need for a weighted GPA.

Compared to unweighted GPA, which calculates a student’s average grade on a 4.0 scale with complete disregard of how easy or hard classes taken are, a weighted GPA takes the difficulty of the coursework into account.

Because the likes of AP and IB classes are more challenging than traditional high school courses, they can bump up the GPA to higher than 4.0.

Most weighted GPAs are on a 5.0 scale. However, some high schools implement their own scales, which is why it’s not uncommon for colleges to recalculate the GPAs of applicants using their own formula.

High school students who have no access to courses necessary for a more rigorous secondary school record need not worry about being disadvantaged in the college admissions process.

Admissions officers are aware that not all high schools offer AP or IB classes, which is why they do not take it against applicants who are deprived of such an opportunity.

Making up by strengthening other application components, in this case, becomes a very important matter.

3. Improve SAT/ACT Scores

Getting high SAT or ACT scores helps students increase their chances of getting into colleges and universities where a test-required or test-optional policy is in effect in the admissions process.

At certain colleges, admissions officers look at test scores to determine the college readiness of applicants.

“Yet, standardized test scores are often seen as more reliable and objective indicators of academic preparation than students’ grades because all students are judged based on the same tasks under the same conditions.” (Nayar, 2015).

Both the SAT and ACT are standardized test scores that some colleges, particularly those that require test score submission or give applicants the choice of whether or not to submit theirs, use as a part of the admissions process.

The former is administered by the College Board, while the latter is administered by the ACT.

Colleges usually do not prefer one test over the other.

Similarly, both cover pretty much the same topics, and neither the SAT or ACT is more challenging than the other.

However, it’s not recommended for a student to pick randomly between the standardized tests since different test-takers have varying strengths and weaknesses.

Some of the most important things high schoolers who are planning on sitting for the SAT or ACT should bear in mind are briefly discussed below to facilitate a more informed decision:

  • The SAT takes longer to complete than the ACT, albeit by not that much. The SAT runs for 3 hours, while the ACT runs for 2 hours and 55 minutes, although its optional writing test is 40 minutes long.
  • There are more questions in the ACT than there are in the SAT. However, it’s worth noting that the SAT asks questions that are longer to read and, in the case of math ones, solve.
  • Speaking of math questions, the paper-based version of the SAT allows test-takers to use a calculator only on the Math Test – Calculator portion. On the other hand, the ACT permits calculator use on all math portions.

In many instances, the best way for students to determine whether they will shine better on the SAT than on the ACT or vice versa is by taking a timed full-length practice test of each.

According to Powerful Prep reviewing 3 months before sitting for the preferred standardized is usually enough for a high school teen to improve his or her score by about 150 to 250 points on the SAT and about to 2 to 4 points on the ACT.

Besides reading study guides and test prep books in advance, below are some other ways to boost one’s test scores:

  • Read and write more
  • Build up vocabulary
  • Learn mathematical formulas by heart
  • Take practice tests multiple times
  • Use official SAT or ACT materials
  • Organize a study group

Some high schoolers could benefit from taking advantage of the test-taking assistance offered by educational organizations such as the Khan Academy — according to a statement by the non-profit itself, spending 20 hours on its Official SAT Practice is associated with an increase in SAT score by an average of 115 points.

It’s a good thing for bad test-takers that more and more colleges have become test-optional.

As a matter of fact, a CommonWealth report says that up to 80% of colleges and universities in the US do not require applicants to take the SAT or ACT.

Including only test-optional and/or test-blind schools on one’s college list, needless to say, is a sound college admissions-related strategy for students who are unhappy with their standardized test scores for failing to give the preparation phase enough time and effort or simply because they are bad at taking tests.

4. Craft a Unique Application Essay

Writing the best application essay gives the applicant the opportunity to showcase to college admissions officers in a convincing way his or her characteristics, experiences, and academic and non-academic achievements, among various things, as well as provide them with insight into what the student can contribute to the college campus and community in general.

A well-written essay, it goes without saying, demonstrates the writing skills and ability of the student to communicate effectively in an attempt to convey his or her thoughts and ideas to others.

Where it matters, submitting a good college essay, therefore, is critical to a successful college application.

Learning about the essay prompt, which is a question or statement designed to guide high schoolers in writing their application essay, or also known as a personal statement, happens upon filling out the Common App or Coalition App.

Doing so, similarly, enables them to determine whether or not colleges require supplemental essays.

Simply put, supplemental essays are additional writing components required by colleges, usually selective ones, which are usually as important and as revealing as one’s application essay. Typically, too, they are college-specific essays.

Now that more and more colleges are test-optional, application essays become more and more important.

“But with no test scores, other parts of the application package, including grades, the essays and letters of recommendation, stand out more (Gordon, 2020).

Because of the impact it has on the college admissions process, it should have the qualities listed below:

  • Introspective – It’s when writing a college application essay when students should talk about themselves a lot, from their past experiences to their hopes and dreams. Because the primary reason for requiring the submission of a college essay is for admissions officers to know applicants more than what their GPAs and test scores can reveal, the written piece should let them know about the applicant at his or her very core.
  • Expressive – A college application should not be mistaken for an academic essay or research paper. Rather, it should be teeming with the voice of the high schooler, highlighting his or her unique qualities in an expressive way that’s unique to him or her. An essay included in the college application should veer from the formal and boring and instead celebrate one’s sense of humor, playfulness, creativity and individuality where applicable.
  • Engaging – The goal of any applicant is to make sure that admissions officers learn what they can bring to the table that is the college campus, which starts with them reading his or her personal statement. It’s, therefore, important for the written composition to leave the readers (the people who decide whether to accept or reject an applicant) engrossed in the submission from the opening line to the very last sentence.
  • Well-written – While it’s a given, the significance of submitting an essay that’s written very well cannot be stressed enough. The most competitive and successful application essays are grammatically correct and free of typos as well as exhibit strong sentence structures and literary techniques. Of course, while it has to be matchless, a college essay should still have the usual components — an interesting opening, a well-structured main body and a strong conclusion.
How to write essay to get into college
How to write the best essay

Although it’s totally unacceptable for a high schooler to pay someone to write him or her a winning college application essay, there is no rule that prohibits seeking assistance to help improve one’s written creation.

For instance, according to The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, requesting feedback from professors and mentors by having the college essay proofread by them demonstrates intellectual curiosity and activity.

However, students should also be specific as to what the comments are (flow, transitions, grammar, etc.) for best results.

In terms of when an application essay should be written, experts recommend the summer before applying to colleges.

5. Obtain Good Recommendation Letters

Good letters of recommendation for the purpose of college admissions come from authorities who know students well and can vouch for their character, strengths, academic achievements, potential and ability to succeed in college.

The right recommendations can enhance the applications of students and thus boost their admissions chances.

Colleges that require applicants to submit recommendations may ask for letters from either counselors or teachers. In some instances, some include the submission of both as a part of the entire evaluation process.

At different institutions, recommendation letters have a different impact on admissions decisions.

According to the Inside Higher Ed survey, around 15% of colleges say that a counselor recommendation has considerable importance, while about 46% admit that it comes with moderate importance.

Up to 11% of colleges, meanwhile, state that a teacher’s recommendation is of considerable importance, while as much as 46% say that it has moderate importance.

Importance of recommendation letters infographics
Importance of recommendation letters

A recommendation letter is not a requirement in some admissions.

For instance, although recommendations hold a substantial weight at MIT for its highly competitive application pool, they are of no importance at the University of Indiana. At some, though, they may be optional but at times recommended.

Counselor and teacher letters of recommendation, as the name suggests, come from high school counselors and teachers — the former usually provide insight about students in context of their entire class, while the latter typically gives an understanding of the accomplishments, abilities and potentials of students.

Some colleges, however, allow applicants to submit recommendations written by others, such as the ones below:

  • Athletic coaches
  • Mentors
  • Religious leaders
  • Community members
  • Employers

The process of the college application is less confusing if a school particularly asks for a counselor’s recommendation.

However, it’s a different matter if the required recommendation letter has to come from a teacher.

With so many different high school teachers students may approach, some teens can’t help but fear that requesting the wrong teachers to write their recommendations might keep them from getting into their top-choice colleges.

In most instances, postsecondary institutions indicate which teachers applicants should obtain letters from.

Many of them prefer those that are written by core academic teachers, usually in the junior and/or senior year of high school. Applicants, at times, may be instructed to have their recommendations from teachers they have had 4 years with.

Since teachers are some of the busiest individuals on any high school campus, it’s a must for students gearing up for college to approach them at a time that won’t cause them to miss any deadlines.

Approaching a teacher for recommendation purposes is typically best done a month before application deadlines.

Of course, it’s important to ask someone who knows the student very well and can thus shed insight that can prove to be useful in the college admissions process, preferably in a good light.

Asking a high school teacher for a letter of recommendation in person is preferable.

That’s because it helps the teacher realize that the student is both personable and proactive in applying to college. Making the request through email is not prohibited, but it’s a good idea for the student to add a personal touch to the letter.

Whether done personally or electronically, the student should not be too embarrassed to state the deadline.

Because they have a lot on their plate, it’s not uncommon for some teachers to unintentionally forget about recommendation requests. It’s due to this exactly that doing a follow-up is an integral part of the process.

As a general rule of thumb, college-bound students should politely remind their high school teachers about the need for them to get their hands on a letter of recommendation a week to 10 days before the deadline set by the colleges they are applying to.

As with requesting the document for the first time, they may choose to do a follow-up in person or via email.

Asking the high school teacher if he or she needs additional information is good practice, too.

6. Engage in Meaningful Extracurricular Activities

Engaging in meaningful extracurricular activities, simply put, means joining clubs and organizations as well as partaking in activities on or outside of the campus with a sense of purpose.

High school students who are targeting prestigious institutions of higher education in the US could benefit from having worthwhile EAs as far as college admissions go.

Most college admissions officers take extracurriculars into account in the admissions process because they establish the interests and passions of applicants as well as their commitment to pursuits outside of the classroom.

They also simplify the process of the search for well-rounded individuals who can contribute to the campus.

Extracurriculars are activities that students participate in outside of their regular academic classes.

Ranging anywhere from clubs to sports and from employment to volunteering, EAs allow students who engage in them to hone various skills that can benefit them not only in character development and social growth but also in reaping academic success.

Some of the best EAs for college applications are listed below:

  • Leadership activities
  • Academic clubs and organizations
  • Athletic participation
  • Creative pursuits
  • Political activism
Best extracurricular activities to get into college

Many impressive extracurriculars also happen outside of the campus.

Work experience, for instance, can help strengthen a college application as it provides the individual with practical and real-world experience as well as demonstrates dedication and work ethic.

On the other hand, volunteering teaches a high schooler the importance of community involvement and provides the opportunity to give back and impact the lives of others.

Numerous skills can be acquired and developed by high school teens by means of participation in EAs and according to the report by the Department of Education, some examples of those are enumerated below:

  • Acceptance of constructive criticism
  • Communication skills
  • Following directions/instructions
  • Leadership skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Resiliency
  • Self-confidence
  • Team-work
  • Time management

Most, if not all, skills students pick up and hone via EAs are essential for academic success, and college admissions officers at selective institutions wouldn’t want to waste precious slots on students who are unlikely to thrive academically.

The same report adds that teens who partake in extracurriculars demonstrate 4 things, and they are as follows:

  • Higher levels of academic achievement
  • Greater character development
  • Better social development
  • Increased sense of the importance of community involvement

It’s not uncommon for some high schoolers to believe that EAs are more important than their studies.

“Some students even said to me — mistakenly, in my view — that participation in a wide array of extracurriculars, even at the expense of excelling in their classes, was necessary to land a job or for success in the admissions process for law school or graduate school. It is as if they believed the whole world works like high school” (Hurst, 2016).

While engaging in meaningful extracurricular activities can help make a college application look more attractive, it’s a must for students to keep their grades from slipping to keep their admissions chances high.

On the Common App and Coalition App, there are 10 and 8 slots, respectively, for extracurriculars.

Filling out all available slots, however, is unnecessary — college admissions officers would much rather see a few meaningful EAs than a lot of worthless activities that students participate in insincerely.

College admission officials prefer students who have made a significant investment in a few activities rather than ‘serial joiners’ – those with long lists of activities but no real involvement in any of them (Rubenstone, 2021).

When it comes to engaging in meaningful EAs, students must keep in mind that quality, not quantity, matters. Needless to say, having 10 extracurriculars picked randomly won’t get college admissions officers on board.

The University of Florida says that high schoolers should ask the questions below before agreeing to an activity:

  • Will it build my character?
  • Will it expand my intellect?
  • Does it have meaning?
  • Will it help my family or support a public good?
  • Do I really care about it?

7. Build a Balanced College List

Building a balanced college list involves shortlisting a mix of reach, match and safety schools to increase a student’s chances of getting into the best-fit school, all the while considering various academic, social and economic factors including the major, location, campus culture, facilities, amenities, tuition costs and financial aid offer.

Adding random colleges to the Common App or Coalition App is a complete no-no.

Since it’s the high school teen’s college life and, ultimately, professional career and job satisfaction that are on the line, attending the correct institution of higher education is of utmost importance.

Earning the appropriate undergraduate degree for one’s chosen employment goal starts with heading to the right college after high school, where the individual can complete the necessary academic program and obtain the ideal qualification.

Going to the wrong postsecondary institution or, worse, not getting accepted to any college can keep goal attainment at bay.

The importance of attending the right school for academic success cannot be stated enough.

Attending a good match institution enhances student success and retention as they are more likely to complete college (Bowen et al., 2009).

Creating a balanced college list, which consists of institutions that meet a college-bound high school student’s various needs and preferences, therefore, is key to gaining admission to at least one college that the applicant would likely attend as well as where his chances of reaping an overall successful and satisfying academic experience would be high.

A college list, however, isn’t balanced without it including the 3 types of higher education institutions college applicants should consider applying to, namely reach, match and safety schools.

The key differences among reach, match and safety schools can be found below:

  • Reach schools – Typically, reach schools are prestigious and selective colleges such as the Ivy Leagues like Harvard University and Dartmouth College where acceptance rates are at 20% or less. Students who apply to reach schools have academic profiles that put them at the bottom of the admitted student range, which means that their GPAs and test scores aren’t as competitive as those of accepted applicants.
  • Match schools – Because a college applicant’s academic profile matches the average for the incoming freshman class, getting into a match school is quite easy. Still, there is a possibility for him or her to get denied, which is why match school acceptance rates usually range from 40% to 60%. A college is considered a match school if the applicant’s standardized test scores are between the 25th and 75th percentiles of admits.
  • Safety schools – Colleges with high acceptance rates are seen as safety schools, where applicants are likely to get an acceptance letter 80% of the time. Needless to say, despite surpassing the academic profiles of students usually admitted, the applicant isn’t guaranteed a slot. Also sometimes referred to as backup schools, safety schools are also usually in-state institutions and the cheapest options.

Since it’s less likely for a college applicant to gain admission to reach schools, adding 1 to 3 of them to the college list is enough. Including the same amount of safety schools on the college list is recommended.

On the other hand, it’s a good idea for a high schooler preparing for his or her college career to shortlist 3 to 5 match schools if the goal is to increase admissions chances — applying to that many match schools is usually enough to make sure that the teen has a college or university to go to after getting his or her hands on a high school diploma.

8. Find an Admission Hook

Hooks, or unique qualities or experiences, allow applicants to stand out from the rest, which allows for increased odds of getting in.

Also sometimes known as institutional needs or institutional priorities, hooks, simply put, are various requirements such as personal talents or attributes that admissions officers regard as they review applications to meet certain goals, which are either rooted in a school’s mission or history or even short-term solutions to a particular problem or deficit.

Remember, colleges want what they don’t have. For instance, if the majority of applicants in a good stem college are males, females will have higher chances of being admitted. On the other hand, males have better chances when they apply to nursing schools, which are usually female-dominated.

But gender, or race, are not the only distinguishing factors.

Nowadays, practically every component of a college application can serve as a hook — after all, the reason admissions officers would like to see them is that they are important and can impact their decision.

Some hooks can be worked on by students, while others they are born with and can do nothing about.

For instance, it’s quite common for some colleges and universities to favor in-state applicants more than out-of-state ones.

This is especially true for the immense majority of public institutions as applicants have parents who contribute to the state by paying taxes, some of which go into the subsidization of these government-funded schools.

On the other hand, the heads of admissions officers at certain degree-granting institutions may consequentially turn toward student-athletes or those who strongly demonstrate leadership skills or interest in a particular major.

Determining whether or not an applicant has a hook (or two or even more) that a top-choice college fancies, for the most part, is as simple as accessing its Common Data Set (CDS) and heading straight to the list of various academic and non-academic factors taken into account during the admissions process.

The steps to take to have a look-see at the said list are as follows:

  • Go to Google
  • Type “Common Data Set” or “CDS” and the college’s name in the search bar
  • Press the “Enter” key
  • Click on the link to the school’s latest CDS
  • Scroll down to Section C or “First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission”
  • Head to Section C7

In the said section of the CDS, the top half of the table lists the different academic factors, which, with the exception of those with an open admissions policy where the only requirement to get in is a high school diploma or an equivalent, colleges consider and upon which their admissions officers make a decision as to whether or not to admit an applicant.

Meanwhile, the table’s bottom half enumerates the various non-academic factors that may or may not be role players in the admissions process, and they are listed below as they appear on the CDS:

  • Interview
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Talent/ability
  • Character/personal qualities
  • First generation
  • Alumni/ae relation
  • Geographical residence
  • State residency
  • Religious affiliation/commitment
  • Racial/ethnic status
  • Volunteer work
  • Level of applicant’s interest

Some colleges don’t care about some of these non-academic factors, while others do — and those who do put different degrees of importance or weight on each, thus impacting the outcome of the assessment of an application.

Knowing which of the said factors are deemed very important allows high schoolers to have an idea of which colleges or universities are very much likely to be impressed with their applications and thus increase their likelihood of receiving an acceptance letter in the mail.

By applying strategically, therefore, they can improve their admissions chances.

High schoolers who are the first in the family to consider attending college, for instance, may consider applying to institutions that have a proclivity for first-generation students, as evidenced by the existence of first-gen programs, initiatives and services.

There are many of them, and they include Georgia Tech, University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign and Penn State.

However, not all hooks can be found on a college’s CDS — in some instances, students can obtain clues on institutional needs on a school’s online portal or brochure or even news about them that educational websites dish out.

For instance, to achieve a more diverse campus gender-wise, it’s not uncommon for many colleges and universities that specialize in engineering, computer or hard sciences, most of which have the word “tech” or “polytechnic” in their names, to try to increase the number of female applicants to fulfill the desired balance.

As a matter of fact, according to a report by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the institution has sought for over a decade to draw in more female students into the tech pipeline by building outreach programs and career support for them.

During that time, applications from women increased by up to 99%.

So, in other words, female high school students may hear positive news from admissions offices if they apply to colleges that devote their resources to incentivizing more women applicants.

9. Show a Demonstrated Interest

Showing demonstrated interest means applicants display enough eagerness to attend a college or university through various means, ranging from following the school on social media, attending college fairs, and taking an in-person or virtual campus tour to applying via an early admission program.

Other than making sure that available slots would go only to the best-fit students, college admissions officers also see to it that the yield rate of the institutions they are working at is given the protection it needs.

In terms of college admissions, yield rate is the percentage of accepted students who choose to matriculate.

Having a high yield rate increases the reputation of a college, thus making it more desirable not only to students who wish to work on an undergraduate degree but also to college ranking sites.

Some college ranking sites include yield rate as a factor in scoring institutions of higher education.

For instance, Money gives it a weight amounting to 5%.

However, it’s not just colleges themselves that benefit from a higher yield rate.

With higher rankings, schools receive more applications and admit more students, which enables them to make more money. This paves the way for more competitive academic programs and financial aid packages as well.

Due to this, it doesn’t come as a surprise that certain postsecondary institutions keep an eye on students who demonstrate the most interest in attending.

Typically, they do so with the use of proprietary software tools designed to determine how much time and attention an applicant has given the school he or she likes to attend.

Below are some of the ways applicants may show a demonstrated interest in their top-choice colleges:

  • Signing up for the college’s free newsletters
  • Opening emails from the college
  • Clicking on links in college emails
  • Emailing admissions officers or counselors
  • Navigating through the college website
  • Following the college on social media
  • Attending college fairs
  • Taking a campus tour, whether in-person or virtually
  • Applying early, especially via a binding plan like early decision
  • Talking about the college in supplemental essays
  • Agreeing to an alumni interview
How to demonstrate interest in college

As established earlier, not all colleges and universities consider demonstrated interest in the admissions process.

Public institutions of higher education are some of those that do not care whether applicants show enough fascination with them. For the most part, it’s because these schools tend to receive a large volume of applicants per admissions cycle.

According to a report by US News, as a matter of fact, the University of California, Los Angeles, received the most number of applicants in 2020 (108,877). The highly selective UCLA is followed by another public school also in the UC system, which is the University of California, San Diego (100,073).

On the said list, the private school which received the most number of applicants was New York University (80,210).

Receiving so many applicants, it would be very expensive and time-consuming for admissions officers at large public institutions to investigate the level of interest of each applying student during the review process.

In addition, large public schools are often the default choice of many college-bound teens, particularly in-state ones, which means that they are likely to attend if given an offer to enroll.

Besides public schools that grab the attention of plenty of high schoolers dreaming of becoming bachelor’s degree holders someday, numerous elite institutions such as the Ivy Leagues and other selective schools don’t track demonstrated interest as they are completely aware of the fact that they are the top-choice schools of most applicants.

Not too long ago in this post, the steps to accessing a college’s CDS were enumerated.

Taking the same steps allows a college-bound teener to determine if a college tracks or cares about demonstrated interest — he or she should, after opening the CDS, also head straight to Section C7. At the very bottom of the given table lies the “level of applicant’s interest” and its relative importance.

Needless to say, demonstrating interest matters a lot if “very important” and means nothing if “not considered”.

10. Leverage Early Decision and Early Action Plans

Leveraging early admission programs such as early decision and early action offered by some colleges and universities helps increase one’s admissions chances by up to 60% at times, although the advantage tends to become less and less substantial as the selectivity level of ED and EA institutions drops further.

Even colleges themselves admit to having a penchant for early applicants.

“As expected, colleges with early decision policies reported a higher acceptance rate for their ED applicants as compared to all applicants (61% versus 49%)” (Clinedinst, 2019).

The College Board, which created and administers the SAT, says that there are approximately 450 American institutions of higher education that offer early admission programs, which allows students to apply earlier than their peers well before the regular decision round as well as hear back sooner from the schools of their choosing.

Needless to say, the non-profit organization adds that it can also increase a student’s chances of getting accepted.

It is believed by many that there are 3 main reasons why applying via an early admission program such as ED and EA may help boost the admissions chances of college-bound high schoolers, and they are discussed below:

  • Smaller application pool – According to a report by Inside Higher Ed, many colleges fill the majority of available slots in their incoming classes from the early application pool — Barnard College, for instance, admitted enough early applicants in 2022 and 2023 to fill 60% of the incoming first-time, first-year class in both years. Fewer students apply early decision and early action than regular decision, which helps increase their chances of getting in.
  • Demonstrated interest – Earlier, we talked about how showing demonstrated interest can help students get into certain colleges, particularly where it’s a part of a holistic review process. Commonly, students apply early to their top-choice schools, which means that they are likely to matriculate if accepted. Since ED and EA applicants are likely to help increase a school’s yield rate, admissions officers may favor more of them better than RD applicants.
  • Little to no admission officer burnout – A concept first developed by the Ivy Institute, admission officer burnout is characterized by the pessimism and exhaustion admissions officers tend to experience as the college admissions cycle progresses. Weeks of reading application materials after the other may impact applicant evaluation by admissions officers. Early on in the admissions process, admissions officers may review applications more favorably.

Other than increased admissions chances, applying ED or EA also increases the amount of financial aid an applicant may receive from the college given that, more often than not, most aids are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

Getting in via a binding early admission plan, particularly early decision, unfortunately, may also keep a student from bringing down the overall cost of attending college by comparing financial aid offers from other schools and attending the one with the most generous package — ED admits must attend the college no matter what figure the financial aid award letter states.

With regard to better admissions chances, it’s also a must for any high school student who is planning on applying to a college via an early admission program to bear in mind that most, if not all, early decision and early decision applicants are happy with the overall strength of their applications, which is usually all it takes to get an offer to enroll.

As such, applying early may do more harm to a student’s admissions chances than when applying RD.

Waiting to take the SAT or ACT one more time or for the final grades to make it to the computation of the GPA, in some instances, is better for a high school teen who is looking to get accepted to college.

How to Get Into College With Bad Grades

Getting into college with low grades is possible, provided that students apply to institutions with a holistic admissions policy and make the rest of their applications, such as test scores and application essays, strong. They may also consider applying to colleges where their GPAs are the average for admits or where 100% of all applicants are accepted.

College-bound teens should consider academic, cultural, geographical and socioeconomic factors when choosing a degree-granting institution to increase the likelihood of ending up attending the best-fit college.

It’s also important, however, to ensure that they will get accepted by the school in the first place.

Therefore, applicants should also know their chances of getting an offer to enroll. Since, in most instances, it’s the GPA that has the most weight in the admissions process, students can avoid wasting their resources by applying to colleges where the grades of admits are similar to theirs.

Otherwise, a rejection is very much likely.

Applying to colleges that accept all applicants is an option, too — commonly, these institutions are open admissions where a high school diploma or an equivalent is the only requirement.

Below is a list of some colleges with the highest acceptance rates:

Academy of Art University100%
Bismarck State College100%
City University of Seattle100%
Covenant College100%
Dixie State University100%
Granite State College100%
Indian River State College100%
Metropolitan State University100%
Montana State University – Northern100%
University of Maryland100%
University of Pikeville100%
Utah Valley University100%
Wayne State College100%
Weber State University100%
Wilmington University99.90%
Nyack College99.80%
Montana State University – Billings99.70%
Cameron University99.60%
CUNY – College of Staten Island99.20%
Missouri Western State University98.50%
Lyndon State College98.30%
Shepherd University98.30%
Washburn University98.20%
East Central University98.10%
Walden University98.00%
Schools with the highest acceptance rates

Being able to complete high school, in some instances, usually makes one eligible for college, especially if the application is sent to the right institution, such as something that makes an undergraduate degree accessible to all.

What do colleges look for besides grades?

Colleges, particularly those who apply a holistic policy in their admissions process, consider numerous factors other than the high school grades of applicants, including academic criteria such as test scores and recommendations and non-academic ones like extracurriculars and work experience.

Open admissions colleges, meanwhile, only look for a high school diploma.

In most cases, the GPA and various academic factors have the most influence on admissions decisions.

Students with bad grades and poor performance in the classroom, in general, may count on their non-academic profile when looking to get into a college where a number of factors are taken into account by admissions officers.

Earlier in this post when finding an admission hook was being talked about, the steps to take to check out the academic and non-academic admissions factors considered by a school as per its CDS were enumerated — the same steps may be done by college applicants to determine the most important criteria in a college’s admissions process.

Partaking in meaningful activities or volunteer work, for instance, may be done by a student with a bad GPA if the said factors are deemed very important by a college to increase his or her chances of getting in.

Does your major affect admission?

Some colleges do not consider a student’s chosen major when reviewing his or her application, while others do.

Usually, it depends on whether or not the program of preference is competitive.

There are postsecondary institutions that say outright which majors are competitive, and most of them prefer to see high school courses and extracurriculars that relate to those.

Intended major — it’s the discipline an applicant intends to study in college.

When applying to college, students are asked to indicate a major or several ones, although they usually do not have to declare any major until before they start their junior year of college.

Although the intended major does not typically impact an applicant’s chances of getting in, there are instances where selective ones can have a bearing on whether or not an application is good enough.

A program must be selective if the school requires the submission of additional materials or, at times, even a separate application altogether.

At Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, its School of Computer Science is so competitive that getting into its College of Fine Arts or School of Architecture is up to 5 times easier.

What if I don’t get into any colleges?

Failing to get into any college does not and should not keep a high school graduate from attaining success.

For some individuals, pursuing things other than an undergraduate degree, such as entering the workforce, establishing a business or considering alternative schooling, is the key to achieving their dreams and making worthwhile accomplishments.

Gone are the days when going to a 4-year institution is the norm after earning one’s high school diploma.

Now more than ever, there are alternatives to a traditional college education, which are suitable for individuals who cannot afford college or have other priorities or goals than becoming bachelor’s degree holders.

As far as earning qualifications go, some of the most popular options these days are found below:

  • Community colleges
  • Vocational schools
  • Online schools
  • Certifications
  • Bootcamps
  • Apprenticeships

For those who would like to start earning after high school, some possibilities are as follows:

  • Entry-level positions
  • Paid internships
  • Starting a business
  • Content creation

Some people might need time to find who they are, and here are some things that they may do:

  • Traveling
  • Doing volunteer work
  • Pursuing a hobby or passion
  • Trying experiential learning
  • Joining the military

Check this article talking about the reasons why college isn’t necessary to be successful, which includes lists of jobs (and their respective annual salaries) that do not require a degree as well as some millionaires and billionaires who do not have any college degree written on their resumes.


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