How colleges pull all these parts together and weigh them varies. For most colleges, the order of importance goes something like this:
Your academic record—the rigor of your curriculum, the grades you've earned, and the pattern of grades over four years
SAT or ACT scores (and to a much lesser degree SAT Subject Test scores)
Your personal qualities and extracurricular record as revealed in your application and essay (as well as through
comments in recommendations and interviews)
Letters from the school (teachers and counselor)
Any one of these factors, if unusually strong or unusually weak, can become more important than it might otherwise have been. Intellectual curiosity, motivation, discipline, creativity, originality, warmth of personality, self-awareness, maturity, thoughtfulness, and concern for others are all qualities that can be factored into a committee decision. In the end, however, it is subjective synthesis of all these factors, not a predictable formula that will determine admissions decisions.
FACTORS BEYOND THE FOLDER
One of the most difficult and frustrating things to accept about the world of highly selective admissions is that the schools are not just looking for qualified candidates. At the most selective schools, the vast majority of applicants are “well-qualified.” Many other factors, beyond the control of the individual candidate, can come into play in an institution’s final admission decisions. Perhaps over-enrollment in the previous freshman class means that a school must accept a smaller class this year. A dramatic increase in the number of applications this year means that the school must become even more selective. Each institution has enrollment goals that it tries to meet, whether it’s replacing a horn section in an orchestra, finding a goalie for the soccer team, or achieving a racially, socio-economically, and geographically diverse community.
All colleges and universities want to maximize both the number of applications they receive and their yield on acceptances. They want the students they ultimately admit to enroll in high percentages. With the Common Application, it is easier than ever for students to apply to schools they know little about and aren’t considering very seriously. As such, many schools track what they call ‘demonstrated interest.’ If you visit campus, arrange an optional interview, meet with a representative who visits AOC, send a thank-you note after a tour or meeting, and/or write a supplemental essay that shows that you know a lot about the school, the admissions office has more reason to believe that you will enroll if admitted than another student who has done none of those things. Note that larger schools can’t manage to track demonstrated interest within their super-sized applicant pools and that schools that accept fewer than 10% of their applicants tend to assume their own popularity such that demonstrated interest doesn’t play much of a role in their decisions.
Most private colleges try to respond to the loyal support of their graduates by giving an edge to the children of alumni in the admissions process. Being the child of an alum will not make much difference for candidates whose numbers are well below the competitive average, but for otherwise competitive candidates, it could provide an extra nudge. Legacies policies are changing in
response to national conversations about equitable access.
Colleges are interested in special talents. If you have unusual talent in visual or performing art, you should consider submitting an art supplement. Look for special instructions in application materials; these will vary from school to school. Talk with your art, music, dance, or drama teacher about how to create an appropriate submission. Some schools have different (and earlier) deadlines for submission of such material. Other material, such as writing or independent research projects, should be discussed with your counselor for its appropriateness for submission. If you are applying to major in a specific art, music, theater or film program, you may be required to submit additional materials or to audition. In these cases, your portfolio or audition will likely hold more significant weight than if you were simply supplementing your application with these materials. That being said, you will still need to meet the academic standards of the particular institution to which you are applying.