Is College Admission Subjective or Objective? What Experts Say
While colleges and universities often say they look at applications objectively, the truth is there are many factors at play—beyond an applicant’s grades and essays.
US News recently spoke to experts who highlighted some of the aspects of college admissions that are outside of students’ control and how applicants can stand out.
Every college has institutional priorities at play when admitting a freshman class. These priorities typically consist of certain criteria—from gender makeup to personality.
“There’s a whole mix of things that go into the class that they’re trying to form,” Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting, tells US News, “and that class that they’re engineering is so much bigger than any one applicant.”
Simply scoring high on the SAT, for instance, doesn’t mean you’ll gain admission.
“Under holistic admissions, there is no guarantee that the highest-scoring students will gain admission, in part because the number of students with such accomplishments can outnumber the number of spots available in a first-year class,” Julie J. Park, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data, says. “Furthermore, top universities are generally interested in pulling together a class with a greater range of traits and talents than the ability to get the absolute highest test score, which makes sense given the pervasiveness of SAT prep among the upper middle class and some ethnic groups. Being the valedictorian may reflect well on a student, but it is no guarantee of admission.”
School fit, or how well your goals and values align with a school’s, matters quite a bit. This is where personality and traits tend to play into admissions decisions.
“Choosing a freshman class is actually a very subjective task: Besides good grades and test scores, the admissions office is generally seeking personal characteristics and abilities that will produce a well-rounded student body with diverse talents that fit with the school’s mission,” Cole Claybourn, of US News, writes.
HOW CAN YOU STAND OUT?
While many factors of college admissions are out of your control, there are a few things you can do to ensure your application stands out. Grades are one factor that is in your control.
“Your record for your college application starts the first day of ninth grade,” Ivey says. “For ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, your job is to build your credentials. Once you get basically to the summer before 12th grade, you need to make a mindset shift from building your credentials to presenting your credentials.”
Another aspect is extracurriculars. Your extracurriculars help illustrate who you are—beyond the grades and test scores.
“In the last few years, the landscape has shifted – admissions officers know that leadership and extracurricular involvement looks a little different today than it did before the pandemic,” Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California, says.
Lastly, showing interest in the college and demonstrating why you’re a good fit can help make your application worth considering.
“The foundation of admission decisions is the academic preparation,” Mike Pichay, master college admissions counselor for IvyWise, says. “They want students who they believe will thrive at their institution. Beyond that, they want to be able to evaluate the personal characteristics of students to see how they would contribute to the campus.”
Sources: US News. JSTOR Daily
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