What colleges look for in High School students

By Rajkamal Rao  

According to The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the top admission decision factors for colleges are as below. As you enter high school, it makes a lot of sense to focus on the Top 5.

Source: NACAC


While most colleges worldwide accept students based on grades (or class rank) and scores on a standardized test, top American colleges are unique in how they select their future students. 

Grades, admissions test scores (SAT/ACT), the strength of curriculum (performance on Advanced Placement exams, for example), and recommendation letters are all carefully evaluated. An essential part of an application is often comprised of the non-academic portion of your profile – extracurricular activities, examples of leadership, community service/volunteering, internships, research, work, talents/awards. Along with listing them, you would humanize your experiences in college essays that are designed to explain how you grew and contributed; and what you learned. 

Race, gender, and ethnicity

As American colleges and universities move to equalize opportunities to help create a more diverse society, all of the above merit factors begin to pale in comparison to the one metric that is so hard to measure: a student's background. This huge catch-all umbrella includes various measures that a student can't control, such as gender or race, and the so-called adversity score, which measures such intangibles as family structure, housing, educational attainment of the community, and the likelihood of being a victim of a crime.

The theory is that students who overcome disadvantages and still do reasonably well in high school deserve a shot at admission to the best colleges over those students who are more privileged and may even have a better student profile overall, partly because of the privilege. Studies have shown that regardless of a student's background during high school, graduates from an elite institution such as Harvard or MIT all do equally well, get the best positions in business and industry, and continue leading productive careers. 

Elite Schools' Supply & Demand equation

Demand: There are 24,000 high schools in America, and each has a valedictorian, the student ranked #1. Besides the salutatorian, the student ranked #2 also deserves nearly the same recognition because, over four years, these two students would have often traded places with each other. This makes the group of over-achievers a total of 48,000 students. There are also 15,000 National Merit Finalists (NMF) — admittedly, some who include the class valedictorian and the salutatorian — who are chosen based on the highest scores achieved on the PSAT-11 test. The finalists must also go through additional scrutiny and a review of supplemental essays, school recommendations, and overall academic merit. This means that there are nearly 63,000 academic over-achievers across America. And our simple model here omits every other merit student outside of the valedictorian, salutatorian, and an NMF finalist.

Supply of seats:
The combined freshman acceptance of all eight Ivy League schools is about 16,000 students. Discounting this number by international students, who comprise about 25% of each incoming Ivy League class, the effective number of elite seats available to American students is only about 11,000.

During the last 25 years, the number of elite college admission seats has remained the same. So, at a macroeconomic level, this is a classic supply and demand imbalance problem, tilting heavily to the demand side while the supply stays the same.

And there's brutal competition for these prized seats. Consider Asian-American students, some of the most high-performing teenagers striving to enter elite institutions. According to the Census Bureau, the Asian-American population increased from 10.4 million in 2000 to 18.9 million in 2017, an 80 percent increase in a generation.

For the class of 2023 and in recent years, many of these superstar high school students never made it to even one of their choice Ivy League schools.

How to increase your odds of elite admission

High-school students must start carefully strategizing about their roadmap to an elite school four to five years before submitting their college applications. Students must have outstanding academic metrics: GPA, SAT/ACT scores, strength of curriculum, and class rank.

They also have to be the best in school and extracurricular activities. They must demonstrate character by being on the school's athletic or debate teams or representing their school in band, orchestra, or drama. They should show leadership by being elected to a position of importance in student government, being selected as ambassadors, or working on the school's newspaper or yearbook team. They also should demonstrate a passion for a skill or talent, such as playing the violin or creating art. 

And they must engage in community service, such as serving those in need or older adults.

Most students from privileged families strive to build impressive overall profiles, shunted from activity to activity by caring parents.

Applying Early Decision is a crucial strategy to help lift an application over the top, but doing so comes with its own drawbacks. Also, it may be better for Asian American students to not disclose their race on the Common App.

The new definition of 'student promise': Overcoming adversity factors

Americans of all stripes and colors want a fair shot at their pipe dreams. Income inequality is a real issue, and elite colleges are trying hard to address decades of systemic injustices to look at students and evaluate merit differently.

For students who face adversity at home — and who belong to under-represented minority populations — colleges generally exempt them from having to build their extracurricular profiles in the manner described above. For these students, taking care of a sibling and doing chores around the home when a single parent goes to work are far more relevant than perfecting skills on the violin. Even work experience — earning a paycheck at a McDonald's to support the family income — is weighted significantly higher than many traditional extracurricular activities pursued by "privileged" white or Asian-American students.

Because decades of data show a strong correlation between adversity and race, colleges have used adversity as a code word to admit more students from under-represented minority Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations at the expense of white and Asian American students. 

Until twenty years ago, America's elite colleges largely considered only an applicant's accomplishments. In that sense, American institutions were more like professional sports leagues. Imagine if the qualifications to be ranked as a Top-100 tennis player had a "race" component in addition to matches won or lost. Such an idea would have been immediately dismissed. 

This conflict is at the heart of the Supreme Court case against Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill, brought about by Edward Blum, founder of Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiffs in the current court cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Blum argues that elite colleges should not admit students based on race, although he favors a diverse student body based on diverse socioeconomic income classes.

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