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Key Factors in How Colleges Select Applicants

When thinking about college admissions, it is important to consider multiple factors. People involved in college admissions point out that there is a mix of hard factors and soft factors involved in US colleges’ evaluation criteria of applicants. There is no single answer but educating yourself on how this combination of factors applies, can help you significantly increase your chances.

Hard factors

Hard factors refer to aspects like grades and scores. This can be categorized into three main groups: GPA (Grade Point Average), college preparation course scores (AP, IBDP, A-level), and standardized test score (SAT/ACT).


Let’s begin by doing a deep dive into GPA. It goes without saying, the higher the GPA, the better. But it is hard to determine an applicants’ quality by only looking at GPA, no matter how high their scores are. There is a lot of context to grades. For instance, GPA standards can differ depending on the school’s student pool or the grading system. That is why colleges, especially high-ranked colleges, focus more on the student’s GPA percentile and their rank. If a high school tends to give out As easily, it will be difficult to gain the upper hand in the admissions race as it loses its credibility.

To expand on GPA, there are “Unweighted GPA” and “Weighted GPA.”

GPA grade scales differ depending on the school - it could be 4.0, 4.3, 5.0, or even something else. The most common scale is a range out of 4.0. In that case, an A is 4.0, B is 3.0, C is 2.0, D is 1.0, and F is 0. When the school does not curve grades for courses that are more challenging than regular high school courses, it will give you your unweighted GPA. It is calculated based on high school course categories. For the Weighted GPA, AP courses you’ve took will be taken into consideration. In this case, the GPA will be evaluated on a scale out of 5.0 scale instead. That is why you may have seen some GPAs that are 4.2 out of 4.0. Given that the average weighted GPA of Harvard students is 4.19 out of 4.0, we can’t help but acknowledge the importance of weighted GPA.

Students should aim to maintain a high rank in their GPA percentile and concentrate more on their weighted GPA. This is especially relevant if you plan to apply for an early decision. For early decisions, your GPA will include all your grades from freshman to junior year, however, the junior year grades will be given more weight. As your senior year’s first semester grade will be also included in a regular admission, it is important to not lose focus and continue to keep your eyes on your GPA. In general, you must maintain a C or above in the second semester to enroll in your accepted college. For IB, they may give you a Conditional Offer where you must maintain beyond a certain GPA to enroll. If not, your acceptance can be rescinded.

College Preparation Courses

The Advanced Placement is an American curriculum while the IBDP and A-level are part of the British curriculum.

APs allow exceling high school students to take college freshman level courses. IBs are two-year courses where classes will be as rigorous as what would be expected for a college freshman or sophomore level course. It is also divided into SL (standard level) and HL (higher level). You must select three courses from each category, and you may additionally select to do TOK (Theory of Knowledge) or an EE (Extended Essay).


What are they and which one should you take? SAT is divided into four sections: Reading, Writing (Grammar), Math (without calculator), and Math (with calculator). Similarly, the ACT is divided into four sections: English (Grammar), Reading, Math, and Science. One big difference between the two is that the ACT includes a science section.

In order to decide which one is a good fit for you, let’s explore each section of the SAT and ACT in greater detail.

For the SAT, the reading section is where most student’s stumble. Many of the questions require students to make quick conclusions about hidden or inferred meaning. You’ll have to rapidly pick up the nuances to find the right answer. That is why it is very difficult to raise your SAT reading section score in a short period of time. The writing section consists of comprehension and grammar which is comparatively easier to improve. The math sections are quite similar. The biggest difference is that section 3 does not allow a calculator while section 4 allows one to be used. In general, section 3 includes shorter word problems than the section 4.

For the ACT, the reading section is a lot more straightforward than the SAT reading section. However, the time allocated for this section is shorter and the questions are not asked in the order of the passages. This results in a lot more time pressure on the test taker. For the science section, you’ll have to read six passages and refer to included scientific information to answer the questions. The ACT math section is not very different from SAT math except the length of the word problems. They tend to be longer than SAT section 3 but shorter than section 4.

It is very important to choose the test where you can maximize your strengths. Either one of these tests can be a critical factor in admission’s evaluations. Soft factors like extracurricular activities and college application essays vary greatly from student to student. As a result, colleges tend to value criteria that is more objective. This is even more so the case for top ranked colleges which receive a flood of applications every year. SAT and ACT scores are used as important qualifiers for theses institutions.

Soft factors

Not all evaluations are quantitative though.

Soft factors can generally be categorized into three groups: college application essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendation letters. Each factor is important yet if I were to rank the importance, it would be in the following order: college application essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendation letters. These factors are all connected to each other. To write a good college essay, it is helpful to have participated in many extracurricular activities, and if you have actively participated in such activities, it is more likely your teachers will write you an amazing recommendation letter.

Now, the question is how to approach all of these.

The reason why you should participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, such as student council, volunteer work, sports, different kinds of research, and internships, is to express your social skills, leadership, and commitment to service. Top colleges have the ability to be selective about who enters. Simply being smart is not enough. They want smart students who can enrich their community as well.

Using your experience in extracurricular activities will help you create outstanding college essays. What you learned in the process and how you’ve grown is a crucial topic to write about. College essays can be broken down into two parts: the common essay and supplementary essays. For the common essay, you should describe major events in your life and who you are as a person. For the supplementary essays you will write about information related to the major you are applying for. It is important to take time to brainstorm, write, and revise the essay as many times as you need. Do not think of college essays as high school assignments. You cannot finish these at the last minute! This is the last step in college admission. You should take these essays very seriously. They matter significantly to college admission’s officers reading your essay.

Who should you ask to send your recommendation letters?

Typically, students request recommendation letters from a teacher who taught a course or courses that are relevant to their intended major or a teacher for a course they’ve excelled in. You should ask a teacher who knows you well enough to write a detailed, high-quality recommendation. Also, you will have to request one from your school’s counselor as well. In total, you will have two recommendation letters. Even though this will not be the only factor in determining your acceptance, a good recommendation letter will help colleges view you in a positive light and add credibility to everything else.

By now, you may be wondering, “What should I prioritize among these hard and soft factors?”

Based on all my experiences, the order appears..

1. GPA

2. Extracurricular Activities

3. AP Enrolled than AP scores

4. SAT

If I were to break things down even further, it would look like this:

1. Grades in all courses

2. Grades in college prep courses

3. Difficulty of curriculum

4. Admission test scores (SAT, ACT)

5. Essay and writing samples

6. Student’s demonstrated interest

7. Counselor recommendations

8. Teacher recommendations

9. Class rank

10. Extracurricular activities

11. Portfolio

12. Subject test scores (AP, IB)

13. Interview

14. Work experience

15. State graduation exam scores

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