Are you looking to get into a good college and wondering what steps you have to take? In this blog, we’re going to share with you the ingredients to and the game of getting into a good school. We think that understanding how the system works is super critical to putting your best foot forward and having the best chance you can of having the outcomes that you want.
Most colleges and universities are going to be looking at six things in your college application. But one thing we will say is that colleges usually all have different opinions on how much each of these things matters.
The first thing you have to have is great grades. Grades are on the rise; a lot of people have excellent grades, and the majority of students applying to competitive colleges are going to have a 3.7 or above. What that means is that you’ve got to be studying, doing your best, and achieving in school.
Our second point is academic rigor. The idea behind this is that you need to be challenging yourself. If you want to get into UCLA, for example, and you decide to just take all regular classes because it will be easier to get straight A’s, it might not be the right decision. Colleges want you to be challenging yourself, so they want you to be taking AP, IB, honors, and dual-enrollment classes. You want to take as many of those as you think you can handle because you want to be enriching yourself and your mind, and doing the hard, not the easy, path. There is a balance between grades and academic rigor, but make sure you’re challenging yourself in school.
The third ingredient is test scores. We know that the majority of colleges and universities in the United States are test-optional, so that means if you have test anxiety, the world of college is not shut to you. But we will say that too many students right now are thinking they don’t need a SAT or an ACT score, and they apply to all of these colleges thinking they’ll be accepted into more than they end up getting. So be aware that your test scores, even in a test-optional environment, are still important. In fact, the majority of colleges and universities are still listing them in the very important and important categories in their common data sets. We’re not seeing schools pull back from emphasizing these as a metric in admissions, and if you’re applying to big state schools, we see even more emphasis on test scores.
It’s also true that the majority of competitive colleges are “activities-optional.” But would you really expect to get into a competitive college or university with zero extracurricular activities? It’s the same thing with test scores. If you want to give yourself the best edge possible, you should at least be taking these tests, trying your best on them, and using them as a tool to try and prove yourself, because they can still create an advantage in the admissions process.
Remember, test scores aren’t just SAT and ACT: they’re also AP exams. AP scores are increasingly being used at schools that are “test-blind.” For example, CalTech and UCLA are test-blind, but they will likely still look at your AP scores. So just because a school is “test-blind,” it does not mean tests have gone away; it just means that maybe they switched which tests they are looking at if you have that test available. If you don’t have AP tests, don’t worry; that shouldn’t be held against you. But it is probably all the more reason to, if you’re applying test-optional, take the SAT and ACT and try to do your best.
Fourth is letters of recommendation. A lot of schools are going to look at letters of recommendation—not all of them are—and it tends to be an important factor at a lot of colleges. So it’s important that you build relationships with the teachers that you have, and it’s important that your school counselor knows you a little bit so that he or she can write a good letter for the colleges and universities that are going to require it.
Next on our list is activities. There are different levels of activities that are going to impress different colleges and universities as well as different levels of importance for these activities. But you want to be involved and explore your interests. Rather than doing something for the sake of doing something or just showing up to the activities fair at your high school and signing up on all the clipboards you want, think about how you can explore things that matter to you. For example, if you’re interested in writing, maybe you should join the newspaper.
What kind of activities matter is going to depend on what kind of school you go to. Stanford loves the wow-factor and amazing feats that make you seem like you’re super extraordinary. So that would be something like winning national competitions or being the best trombone player in your state. If you’re applying to a place like UCLA, you might not need something so impressive. If you want to go somewhere like Ohio State or you want to get into your state flagship, you still want to be involved in some way. So find a way to join activities, make a mark, and, above all, explore your interests. Figure out what you might be interested in doing for the rest of your life and what kinds of activities you can do to try to explore that in some way.
Finally, the last thing is your personal statement or your personal essays. Your personal essays are a way that you can reflect on who you are, what matters to you, and your personal character. And these kinds of traits are also things that are important to many colleges and universities.
How to Get In
So those are the ingredients, but what do you do after all that work? What is this system that you’re trying to get into and what’s the right way to approach it?
We’re not saying that you need to be Machiavelli, and we’re not proponents of cheating the system. That’s not what this is about. Anytime you’re trying to accomplish something, there’s a system that you have to work within, and if you can understand that system, you can execute on your goals more effectively.
One piece of information that might be helpful is the common data set. Common data sets are really helpful because they help you figure out where you have a better chance of admission. This information is released by the majority of colleges and universities, but not all of them. There are a few outliers that refuse to share their data with us.
In a school’s common data set, there’s a table of the relative importance of multiple academic and nonacademic factors in first-time, first-year, degree-seeking (freshman) admission decisions. When we look through this data, we see that academic GPA is going to be very important at almost every college and university.
But some of the factors won’t be important at all in some universities. For example, UCLA doesn’t care for letters of recommendation. Other things that UCLA doesn’t care about are interviews, alumni relations, religion, and racial and ethnic status. They’re not going to look at standardized test scores at all, because UCLA is test-blind. You can see in UCLA’s common data set, extracurriculars, talent, character/personal qualities, volunteer work, and work experience are all important. First generation, geographic residence, and state residency are all in the considered column, and are going to make a difference.
So when we say “understand the game,” this is all part of understanding the game. If there’s a student that’s not an Olympian or curing cancer, but has solid extracurriculars, great grades, not the best test scores, is maybe from an overrepresented minority or is white, and is in-state from California, all of these checkboxes are going to mean the student has a better shot of getting into UCLA than other schools of the same caliber.
If we go to Stanford’s common data set, we can see that the parameters change. Recommendations are very important, whereas UCLA didn’t even look at them. Standardized test scores are also in the very important column. And if you have a science project that cures cancer or are one of the most amazing piano players in the world, Stanford cares about your talent and ability more than UCLA does. So, having this wow-factor might help you more at Stanford than at UCLA.
For Georgia Tech’s common data set, the level of an applicant’s interest (also called demonstrated interest) is in the very important column. If you want to go to Georgia Tech, a good way to get in is to apply early. It’s a way to tell them that you’re really interested, and your application odds will shoot up.
So when you know what schools care about and what they’re looking for, you can position yourself to show them you have what they want. This is all just the tip of the iceberg because we just wanted to share a little bit of this system, but understanding how all of this works can really help you get into a good college or university.