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How Colleges Select Students

The college admissions process is complicated and confusing. College websites are not clearly written. High school counselors are overwhelmed and have very little time to explain the process to parents. Students share information with each other that is unreliable or incorrect.

Understanding how colleges select students is the starting point for a successful college application.

There are two basic methods used by college admissions officers: the “numbers” method and the “holistic” method. These evaluation methods are very different, and the results of these different processes can be surprising. Every year, students who are rejected by public colleges like the University of Florida are accepted by more selective schools from the Ivy League and beyond.

The numbers method is used by most public universities. Because these schools are created and funded by our government, their processes must be fair and objective. For “State U,” the starting point is a standardized test: either the SAT or the ACT. These tests allow the admissions representatives to compare students using data that is consistent and does not vary from high school to high school. In most cases, test scores create a threshold above which students are likely to be offered admission. Below the threshold, the chances are slim.

After looking at the test scores, public universities will consider each student’s grade point average, then their performance in activities outside the classroom, and then evaluate an essay. Public universities do not require – and will not consider – recommendations, interviews, or other additional materials.

To obtain admission to most public universities, one of the best things a student can do is practice and prepare for the highest possible

SAT/ACT score.

For private universities, the evaluation process is not heavily dependent on test scores. First-generation Americans are often frustrated because they don’t understand this process. No matter how perfect a square peg may be, it still won’t fit into a round hole.

Using the holistic method, private universities grade students in multiple attributes, then combine those grades into an overall grade, finally selecting their students based upon diverse qualities that each college prefers.

The three basic attributes graded by private universities are academics, activities, and human qualities.

Within the academic attribute, colleges consider everything that indicates future success in the classroom. This includes the SAT or ACT score, and also additional tests known as “subject tests.” The academic attribute also considers unweighted grade point average; weighted grade point average; AP or IB scores; class rank or county rank; difficulty of the student’s high school curriculum; achievement in academic competitions; research; honors and awards; original or published work; and even mental challenges that might affect the other data.

Within the activities attribute, colleges will consider everything a student does that is not brain-based. Activities can include formal extracurriculars, hobbies, athletics, community service, employment, or family commitments. The admissions representatives will grade student performance based upon the caliber of the effort or achievement and upon the community in which the student performs. In other words, those students with national, international or professional achievements will receive the highest scores, followed by those who compete regionally, then within Florida, then within the county or metropolitan area, and then within the high school environment. Colleges are looking for achievement, not just participation.

Finally, the human attribute evaluates applicants based upon subjective criteria such as integrity, ethics, morality, passion, collaboration, interaction with others, and the like. This information is not found in test scores, GPA’s, or extracurricular performance. Because personal qualities are difficult to quantify, most applicants fail in the holistic process by neglecting to provide good information about their human sides. The admissions essays, and especially the recommendations written by teachers, can make all the difference between receiving an offer of admission, or not.

The starting point for understanding how a particular college reviews applications is to look for what they require. If they want limited information, they’re using the numbers method. If they want more things, they’re using the holistic method.

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