How Colleges Evaluate Applications

What Are Admission Officers Looking For in a Candidate?

The application review process varies from college to college. Some larger public universities make admission decisions using a computer formula that measures the extent to which students have met minimum grade, testing, and course credit requirements. At the majority of private colleges and the more highly selective public institutions, admission officers base their decisions on careful, multiple readings of applications, considering numerous factors beyond the quantitative information provided. This is often referred to as a “holistic evaluation.”

Ranges of selectivity and admission patterns at individual colleges can vary from year to year as applicant pools increase and decrease in size and as colleges modify enrollment targets or admission criteria. Thus, predicting admission is not a precise science. Most colleges publish freshman class profiles that provide useful statistics about their applicant and admitted student pools. These profiles often make it possible to compare your test scores and GPA with typical statistical ranges to get a general sense of where your credentials might fall in a college’s applicant pool. Our “Family Connection” web-based software program also provides in-depth and personalized comparison data.

One area to familiarize yourself with is the middle 50% of standardized test scores and GPAs of students whom colleges have previously admitted. This again is not an exact science, but another measure that can help you think about prospects for admissibility. While middle 50% ranges and other statistics are useful guides, remember that other more subjective factors may also be incorporated into the decision process.



Colleges look first and foremost at the strength of the candidate’s curriculum. When colleges evaluate your transcript, they focus on the program of study and the level of achievement. You should take the strongest program that your academic background suggests you can handle successfully. Taking the toughest courses and doing poorly will not serve your best interests, and neither will enrolling in a less demanding set of courses to assure strong results; colleges are looking for students who are willing and able to accept a challenge.

Admission offices recognize the rigor of Eastside Prep’s academic program and the depth of student talent here. We also submit a School Profile with each application. This document provides all admission offices with very specific information about EPS’s Upper School academic requirements, course offerings, student GPA and standardized testing ranges, and school policies. So, even admission offices that may not be as familiar with Eastside Prep can and do learn a great deal about our program from the school profile—and they read it closely. It is helpful to know that when reviewing a candidate’s academic credentials, an admission officer uses the school profile hand-in-hand with the student’s transcript.

Thus, students are evaluated within the context of their own school’s curriculum, not against the curriculum or GPA of students at different or less rigorous high schools. Our school profile and your student transcript are available at your request.

When taking into account a student’s overall GPA, college admission officers are attentive to grade trends. While lower grades in the freshman and sophomore years might weaken an overall grade average, an upward trend in grades in the junior and senior years will make a strong and positive statement.


Most colleges accept scores from either the SAT or ACT test, with a small number being “Test Optional” schools. It is important to verify the specific testing requirements of each school.

Standardized tests carry more weight in the selection process at some colleges than at others, but colleges do not typically base an admission decision on scores alone. At no time do scores outweigh the importance of your program of study and grades. Admission tests provide a college with a nationally standardized measure of academic aptitude and background that helps frame a comparison of applicants who come from diverse secondary school settings.

Most colleges will use the best verbal and math scores drawn from multiple SAT test sittings, which is called “super-scoring.” They also use the best SAT Subject test or ACT scores if a student repeats a test.


Extracurricular involvement is one of many elements a school will look at when evaluating your application; it almost never outweighs the importance of program of study, grades, and testing (exceptions are evident in cases of “the special talent” – see the following section on “other admission factors.”) Thus, it is not necessary or desirable to boast a resume with endless clubs and activities but without depth. Choose a few pursuits, pursue them to their fullest extent, and enjoy them. Colleges don’t have an investment in how many extracurricular activities a student pursues, but they do want to know what interests YOU.


Recommendations from the college counselor and teachers help define your accomplishments and potential. A strong recommendation demonstrates the writer’s personal awareness of you and reflects direct, specific knowledge of your accomplishments, character, and ability. An additional recommendation from a source such as a coach or an outside activity leader can add positively to your application—if it adds different insight and if you have demonstrated interest, talent, and the desire to continue to be active in these areas.

You should be aware of the expectations that each college has for recommendations. For example, some colleges require one recommendation from a math or science teacher and another from a humanities/arts teacher.


Writing an essay is one of your opportunities to make the application process more personal. Discussed in a later section of this handbook, we provide you with guidelines and recommendations for writing essays.


  • In-State / Out-of-State Admission Status: If you apply to a public institution, state residency sometimes will give you an admission preference over out-of-state applicants. Many state institutions publish both in-state and out-of-state requirements. While policies vary from college to college, some public universities consider the children of alumni within the parameters of in-state admission standards. Out-of-state student enrollment quotas and admission standards vary greatly from institution to institution.
  • Legacy Status:  At some colleges, sons and daughters of alumni are given preferred status in the selection process. Because colleges define “legacy” in different ways, preferred status sometimes does not extend to siblings, grandchildren, or cousins of alumni. Nor does an alumni connection matter significantly at all (or even most) institutions. While legacies are accorded preference in different ways by colleges, an admission committee still typically must be able to predict a legacy’s success in its academic program in order to offer admission. Whether or not an alumni connection affects the admission decision, it never hurts your case to make sure that the college knows that you have a connection to the institution.
  • Demonstrated Interest in the College: Colleges appreciate students who have expressed interest in attending, and they assess this interest in a variety of ways: campus visits, email contacts, on-campus or alumni interviews, attendance at high school visits, meetings at a college fair, and so on. It is wise to inform a school that you are interested through the means listed above. Continued contact with the school is important, but be sure not to overwhelm them with your communication.
  • Minority Students:  Recognizing the advantages of multicultural diversity in the collegiate setting, colleges seek an ethnically and racially diverse population, and under-represented minorities are actively recruited. Different campuses define the under-represented population specific to their institutions. While a college will be looking for evidence of achievement and a prediction of success, minority student status may be an advantage in the admission process.
  • First-Generation Students: A first-generation college student is defined as a student whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree.
  • The Special Talent:  A student with exceptional ability in an area and who meets basic academic standards may receive special admission consideration. Examples of a special talent include a winner of a music competition, an all-state distance runner, a published writer, ore a highly talented artist. Colleges in all of the NCAA’s various divisions have an interest in recruiting talented athletes. Admission officers are seeking to admit a diversely talented student body. If you have a special talent, speak about it with your Process Coach, write about it in your application, and communicate with the appropriate person on college campuses.