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The 12 things college admissions counselors actually look for on your application

by Joy Guss, Senior Counselor at Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School March Madness is upon us with college basketball, but there is another kind of March madness for high school seniors. March is the month when most colleges release admission decisions, and nervous seniors get to find out whether they are “in” or “out” at the colleges of their choice.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if you knew what colleges were looking for and could plan accordingly – sooner rather than later? There is a way to know, and the answers might surprise you.

The National Association of College Admissions Officers (NACAC) does an annual survey of more than 10,000 public and private college admission counselors to determine what factors they consider when making admission decisions. Twelve items regularly show up, and vary only slightly in their rankings on the list from year to year.

Here is the list of the twelve main factors*, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Grades in College Prep Courses (AP and/or IB)
  2. Strength of Curriculum Offered at High School
  3. ACT and/or SAT Test Scores
  4. Grades in All Courses
  5. Essay
  6. Demonstrated Interest
  7. Class Rank
  8. Counselor Recommendation Letter
  9. Teacher Recommendation Letter
  10. AP and/or IB test scores
  11. Interview
  12. Extracurricular Activities

Notice: GPA is not on the list. While GPA is important for merit scholarships, it’s not considered important in holistic reviews. There are simply too many different GPA scales used by different high schools for admissions departments to get a consistent picture for comparison of applicants.

What they look for instead is that students have taken challenging college prep courses and have made A’s and B’s in those courses. If students focus on challenging themselves and working for strong grades, they will have the GPA’s they need for merit based scholarships, and also have the credentials they need to be competitive in the college admissions’ process.


*NACAC. (2012, October). What do Colleges Really Look at in  Selective Admissions. Break-out session at the Annual NACAC Convention, Denver, CO.