Here’s a FAQ for college applicants I’ve prepared based on many meetings I’ve had with college admission officers. Let’s jump right into some key questions.
- Admission Test Scores Versus Grades
Everyone knows that the safest position to be in when applying to college is to be a student who has BOTH high test scores and good grades from high school. What do colleges say about what they are looking for when they can’t get both?
Over and over and over, what college admissions officers claim to look at most closely as the main admission factor is a student’s “transcript.” Note that the word is “transcript,” NOT “grade average.” A Yale admission officer says, “We will look holistically; we will look at everything in your application. . . . We look at how much challenge you have provided yourself.” An MIT admission officer says, “What correlates best with grades in the junior and senior years of college is taking the toughest courses in high school. Most students admitted to MIT have a healthy mix of A’s and B’s.” A Duke admission officer says, “Duke asks the question, ‘How have you challenged yourself?’” A Harvard admission officer says, “The most important is high school courses and grades. Take good, tough courses. We can tell if you are not challenging yourself.” The Harvard viewbook (page 47 of this year’s edition) says, “The Admissions Committee recognizes that schools vary by size, academic program, and grading policies, so we do not have rigid grade requirements. There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them.” Another Harvard admission officer says, “We’re trying to understand your high school. A grade of B+ is not the end of the world. We want to know how you avail yourself of resources. It’s our job to understand the different high schools in our area.”
A high grade average is NOT impressive if it is gained by taking wimpy courses. One of the Harvard admission officers says, when asked about weighted versus unweighted grade averages, “When I see a grade average like 6.85, the first question I ask myself is, ‘What does this really mean?’ I look at the rest of the applicant’s file and especially at the applicant’s activities to find out if the applicant is the real deal.” A Vanderbilt admission officer answering a similar question says, “The G.P.A. has become the most meaningless number in college admissions.” Don’t hunt for a high G.P.A. at the expense of avoiding intellectual challenge in your course selection and extracurricular involvements–that won’t fool anyone.
If you are a high school senior, make sure you are keeping up in all your hardest courses. Senior year grades DO matter. If you are a junior, plan to take the most challenging courses you can and take those courses seriously. If you are younger, plan to meet the prerequisites for the toughest academic path at your school and look for opportunities to self-study or to take summer courses to get ready for tougher academics as you get older. All colleges expect all applicants to submit COMPLETE transcripts for all secondary level or college-level courses the applicant has taken anywhere. A college admission office will consider what courses you have taken even if you haven’t had those courses recorded on your main high school transcript. If you have high grades, even if you have low test scores, consider retaking your tests, but meanwhile apply boldly to a range of colleges of varying selectivity.
Colleges look at standardized tests as the one thing that is comparable among all applicants. A Harvard admission officer says, “There are a lot of A’s; test scores help us distinguish among applicants.” Admission officers claim to consider your test scores in light of your family socioeconomic background and home language and other factors. If you have high test scores, even if you have low grades, work on building up your grades, but meanwhile apply boldly to a range of colleges of varying selectivity. See
for more about the role of standardized tests in college admission. “Superscoring” SAT scores or ACT scores (taking the highest section scores from different administrations of the test and combining those for admission consideration of each applicant) matters much less than students think. Superscoring is only beneficial if you have some ups and some downs on section scores between two sessions of the test. If you go up on all sections, your better scores are considered, period. NO college regards your lower scores more than your higher scores, whatever order your scores came in, if all the scores are from the same session of the test. Superscoring ONLY matters if a student has an increase on one section but a decrease on another as two sessions are compared. All colleges always give students the benefit of their highest scores, at least as to comparing sessions (in whatever order the test sessions occurred) and as to comparing brands of tests (the ACT is not preferred to the SAT, nor the other way around).
Never take a standardized test without taking it seriously. Always use the sample test you get when you register for a test (most students can get free sample SAT or ACT tests from their high school counseling office, or online) under actual test time-limits, and learn the timing and style of questions on the test before taking the test for keeps. Check your answers from the sample test and analyze what mistakes you made. You can do best on a test by being relaxed and confident and not worrying too much about your score. ALL colleges in the country, without exception, admit students who made mistakes on some test questions. Harvard’s viewbook says, “Harvard does not have clearly defined, required minimum scores”.
Even if your test scores AND your grades are in the middle-to-lower range, apply to one or two “reach” colleges for you that you like. Emphasize your other desirable characteristics on your application. You just might get in, and you can only get in if you apply.
ALL applicants to ALL colleges need to send official ACT or SAT score reports to the colleges that request scores. Colleges don’t think what you self-report or what may be written on your high school transcript is an official report of your scores. Designate recipients of official score reports from your testing organization before you take the test, if you are taking the test as a senior. Don’t put yourself under deadline pressure by putting off reporting the scores.
- Reporting AP and IB and SAT Subject Test Scores
A few colleges require applicants to submit SAT Subject Test Scores. Those should be sent directly to the college on an official report from the College Board. Take SAT Subject Tests seriously. A Harvard admission officer says, “Standardized tests are comparison tools. The better predictors are SAT II Subject Tests and AP tests. They are more important than the SAT I or the ACT. You may have read that colleges are expressing doubt about standardized tests, but I’ll give you a clue: We won’t be cutting back on tests. We might require five SAT II tests. Those are less coachable than the SAT I. Working hard as a student is more important than taking tests.” From the New York Times:
"Although coaching would no doubt continue if subject tests replaced the SAT, at least students would be focused on content as much as test-taking strategies, Mr. Murray said. There would also be pressure to improve local high school curriculums so that students were prepared, he wrote.
“These arguments make sense to Mr. Fitzsimmons [dean of admission at Harvard], who said, ‘People are going to prepare anyway, so they might as well study chemistry or biology.’ He added that ‘the idea of putting more emphasis on the subject tests is of great interest’ to his group.”
For years some colleges have asked students to self-report AP test scores or IB test scores on their application forms, and beginning in 2008, the Common Application has lots of space for students to self-report AP (or IB) test scores for all the applicants to all of the hundreds of colleges that use that application form. Self-report your scores–all of them. Anyone who has an AP or IB score to self-report from junior year or earlier when applying to college is in a good position when applying to college. Colleges are going to see every which possible combination of scores, high and low, and it will generally be better to have scores to report than not to report any scores at all. You only need to send an official score report to the one college that admits you, but self-report those scores to all the colleges that ask about them on their application forms.
- Self-identifying with an Ethnic Group
All colleges everywhere claim to cherish diversity, and whatever your background, there will be many colleges that will welcome you to enroll. A detailed FAQ
explains that self-identifying with an ethnic group is ALWAYS optional, by federal law, and you may decline to self-identify if you wish. The FAQ also explains the federal definitions of each ethnicity and race category tracked by federal statistics.
But don’t miss the chance to explain what other forms of diversity you bring to each college. An admission officer from Duke says, “We are looking for truly diverse students–and I’m not just talking about ethnicity–with a wide range of interests, who in the future will succeed in many different occupations.” So mention any unusual place you have lived, any unusual hobby you have, any unusual career goal you are pursuing, and anything that makes you different from other applicants. Take advantage of every college’s pursuit of diversity.
- Financial Aid as an Admission Barrier
Some colleges definitely depend on tuition payments by students as their main source of revenue.
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If the college raises its tuition by $10,000 per year, and then starts offering its top students $8,000 per year merit scholarships, maybe those students aren’t really getting such a great scholarship. Some colleges may not admit you unless they think you can pay most of the cost of attending from your own funds. I’m still trying to find out if colleges mostly prefer to admit wealthier students.
Scholars are still investigating this issue. But some colleges claim to be “need-blind” in admission, and you might as well put those colleges to the test, especially if you need a lot of financial aid to go to college and are worried about being admitted. Apply to a wide range of colleges, from colleges with a low list price to colleges that are famous for providing lots of financial aid and not considering need for aid as a barrier to admission. Once you get admission offers from all the colleges you can, then compare offers. Don’t take colleges off your application list too early.
- Recommendation Letters
Remember to provide each teacher from whom you ask for a letter of recommendation some written information about yourself, so the teacher has something to adapt into the letter, the forms the college asks the teacher to fill out, addressed envelopes and postage, and plenty of time to write the letters. Teachers are busy. Letters of recommendation are not a right of every student but a privilege teachers grant to their better students. See
for a huge thread with tips about letters of recommendation.
- Interviews Are Important
Interviews are only rarely a make-or-break aspect of a college application, so don’t worry about your interview, but do take the opportunity to be interviewed if that is offered. An MIT admission officer recommends that you get an interview from each and every college that offers an interview. MIT applicants who accept interviews have a much higher base acceptance rate than applicants who decline the opportunity to be interviewed. In most college interview situations, the interviewer becomes your advocate to the admission committee. Relax and be yourself. A long thread about college interviews
has many more specific tips.
- Make Your Essays Personal
A Duke admission officer said in September, “It’s September; please start your essays NOW if you haven’t already. The essay has to be your best writing. We receive more than 20,000 applications a year, so we’ve seen it all. We can tell when an essay has been written by an adult. Your distinctive voice makes an essay stand out.” A Harvard admission officer said, “It’s always nice to read a well-crafted application essay. Write about what is important to you. Give yourself at least a week to write and rewrite your essay.” At two other moments in the same information session, that Harvard admission officer said, “We read applications in the order in which they are received beginning on the 1st of December. The earlier 250 applications are more exciting to read than the later 1,000.” [there were laughs from the audience] and “I read about 1,200 essays last year. But I enjoy the last 250 less than the first 250, unless something really sings out.” Not all colleges read applications in the order they are received, but don’t take so long to write your essay that you put things off to the very last minute before the deadline. A Vanderbilt admission officer says,
"Your essay is an important part of your application. Everything else is someone else talking about you; your essay is your chance to tell us who you are.
“Always be yourself. Always talk about yourself. If I cross out your name and dump all the essays on the floor, anyone should be able to pick out your essay. Write in your own voice.”
One specific tip is to show your essay to two different people. One should know you very well, and comment on whether or not your essay sounds like the real you. The other should not know you well, and comment on how your essay makes you look to an unfamiliar reader.
My basis of knowledge for these observations is many college information sessions
I have attended since 2008, and college visits around the country since 1985. I have heard from admission officers of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Chicago, Duke, Penn, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and other colleges on repeated occasions at their college information sessions, as well as meeting many other college admission officers at college fairs or on their campuses.
Please post follow-up questions as needed.