As high school seniors wrap up the 2023-2024 admissions cycle and juniors gear up for the application process, delving into the college admissions criteria schools use to evaluate prospective applicants becomes paramount. The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) annual survey, “Factors In The Admission Decision,” remains a valuable resource, providing insights that serve as a guidepost for students and parents navigating the complexities of the college admissions landscape.

1. High School Grades in College Prep Courses (77%)

Despite a slight decrease from 82% in 2012, the importance of earning high grades in rigorous subjects remains substantial at 77% in 2023. Colleges employing a holistic review approach are likely to prioritize this criterion, particularly when assessing the quality of student performance in relation to their academic objectives.

Insight from a college admissions expert: “The student’s high school context matters when evaluating performance. Applicants should check school-based systems, such as Naviance and Cialfo, to assess their performance relative to their college objectives.”

2. Overall High School Grades (74%)

A shift from 81% in 2017 to 74% in 2023 suggests a trend toward valuing specific academic strengths. Public colleges, especially those with larger applicant pools, might still emphasize overall performance to a greater extent. Notably, some colleges are exploring the use of AI to review applications, transforming datapoints like GPA into a scoring system.

Insight on AI in college admissions criteria: “Some colleges are moving toward using AI to review applications, particularly at large institutions. These automated rubric reviews can take datapoints, such as GPA, and reduce them to a point or scoring system.”

3. Curriculum Strength (64%)

The importance of curriculum strength fluctuated to 64% in 2023, up from 51% in 2017. This criterion holds particular significance in the admissions process of private colleges, aligning with their focus on academic rigor and institutional priorities. A 2005 Sociology of Education study highlighted that chances of acceptance may be reduced if the student comes from a high school with relatively more highly talented students. This means that if the high school offers many Advanced Placement courses, but you are not taking as many as another applicant, you may be at disadvantaged despite taking a rigorous courseload. Rather than add AP courses for the sake of outrunning the competition, students should instead take classes that align with their academic strengths and college goals.

Insight from a study: “Chances of being accepted are reduced if [the student] comes from a high school with relatively more highly talented students.”

4. Essays And Writing Samples (19%)

The significance of essays and writing samples remains relatively consistent but modest, hovering around 19% in 2023. Private colleges, in particular, give more weight to these application materials when assessing a student’s fit, personality, and connection with institutional priorities.

Insight on the evolving role of essays: “With the advent of ChatGPT, I anticipate the weight on essays will continue to have modesty in importance despite their ubiquity.”

5. Demonstrated Interest (16%)

Holding steady at around 16% in recent years, demonstrated interest may be more relevant in private colleges. Institutions valuing traditional demonstrated interest often use Customer Relationship Management tools to assess a prospective student’s enthusiasm for attending. An even more effective strategy than clicking and opening emails is making efforts to strategically connect with college representatives.

Insight on demonstrated interest: “Colleges that value traditional demonstrated interest frequently use Customer Relationship Management tools to assess whether or not a prospective student will actually attend the college if admitted.”

6. Recommendations And Extracurriculars (12% and 7%)

Another college admissions criteria to consider is how counselor recommendations declined from 17% in 2014 to 12% in 2023, while extracurricular activities remained low at 7%. Despite this decline, private colleges, especially the most highly selective universities, still regard these aspects highly for a holistic understanding of the candidate.

7. Standardized Test Scores (5%)

This criterion saw a dramatic drop from 58% in 2013 to a mere 5% in 2023, reflecting the significant shift toward a test-optional approach in both private and public institutions. However, limited available data for test-optional colleges suggests that some schools may prefer students who submit high scores.

Insight on test-optional approach: “Limited available data for test-optional colleges suggests that some schools may be preferencing students who submit high scores over those who do not submit.”

8. Other Factors (Portfolios and Interviews – 5% and 4%)

The importance of portfolios and interviews remained low, around 5% and 4% respectively in 2023. These elements might be more significant in private college admissions, especially for specialized programs, as well as in conveying aspects of the student’s candidacy that the essays cannot. For example, as I previously reported on Forbes, Michigan Ross uses artifacts as part of its admissions review. Given the advent of ChatGPT, students should consider using three-dimensional means to more effectively convey their candidacy.

Insight on using three-dimensional means: “Given the advent of ChatGPT, students should consider using three-dimensional means to more effectively convey their candidacy.”

In conclusion, the NACAC survey offers invaluable insights into the evolving priorities of college admissions. For students and parents, the survey underscores the importance of not only academic excellence but also the cultivation of a strategic approach to admission. Now is the time for applicants to strategize and align priorities with these emerging trends, understanding and adapting to the nuances of the current admissions landscape.

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