What it Takes to Achieve Highly Selective Colleges

A few weeks ago, America’s most selective colleges told their applicants who would be offered admission--and who would not. As some students bask in the afterglow of success, while others cope with disappointment, it is evident that the admissions process is not linear. Is there any logic behind such a seemingly arbitrary process?

Actually, there is. Highly selective schools base their admissions decisions on more than just numbers. Most selective private universities select students using the holistic method, grading across multiple attributes and selecting students based upon diverse qualities that differ from college to college. The three basic attributes graded by private universities include academic potential, extracurricular achievement, and “human” qualities.

Within the academic sphere, colleges consider everything that indicates future success in the classroom. This includes the SAT or ACT score, as well as SAT Subject Tests. The academic attribute also considers grade point average; AP or IB scores; class rank or county rank; the difficulty of the student’s high school curriculum; achievement in academic competitions; research; honors and awards; original or published work; and even mental challenges that might affect the other data.

When evaluating achievement within activities, colleges consider extracurriculars, hobbies, athletics, community service, employment, and family commitments. The admissions representatives grade student performance based upon the caliber of the effort or achievement and upon the community in which the student performs. In other words, those students with national, international or professional achievements will receive the highest scores, followed by those who compete regionally, then within their state, then within the county or metropolitan area, and then within the high school environment. Colleges are looking for depth of achievement, not just participation.

Finally, the human attribute evaluates applicants based upon subjective criteria such as integrity, ethics, morality, passion, collaboration, and interaction with others. This information is not found in test scores, GPA’s, or extracurricular performance. Because personal qualities are difficult to quantify, many otherwise-qualified applicants fail in the holistic process by neglecting to provide good information about their human sides. The admissions essays, interviews, and (especially) recommendations written by teachers can make all the difference between receiving an offer of admission or falling short.

The holistic method attempts to assess everything the student has to offer, not just whether the student does well on standardized tests. While the holistic method does makes individual admissions decisions harder to predict, it does help schools build better-rounded classes by considering everything each student offers.