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The Admissions Criteria that Top Schools Really Care About

Jun 24, 2024

When navigating the competitive college admissions process at Ivy League and other top schools, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of advice, myths, and speculation. Parents, school counselors, and successful applicants are often eager to share their opinions about what truly matters to admissions officers, and weeding through this plethora of information can quickly become overwhelming. While prospective students cannot know for certain what admissions committees’ deliberations look like, there are ways to gain insight into what schools value most in their admissions considerations. For instance, the lawsuit against Harvard revealed that admissions officers rate students on a scale of 1–6 (with 1 being the most desirable score) on the basis of their academic, extracurricular, athletic, and personal skill sets. While the lawsuit offered unique insight into Harvard’s admissions process that isn’t readily available for all other institutions, there are still ways to determine institutions’ primary considerations—the most accessible being the Common Data Sets (CDS).

The CDS is a detailed report compiled by colleges and universities to share their institutional data, including admission statistics and criteria. Each school’s report includes a lengthy list of admissions considerations from class rank to interviews, talent, legacy status, state residency, essays, and extracurriculars. Colleges indicate the level of importance that each item bears in their admissions process (ranging from “very important,” to “important,” “considered,” and “not considered”). While the information is not comprehensive—for instance, understanding that a school values extracurricular activities does not tell us what kind of involvement the school looks for—it can be a helpful starting point for students as they strategize for the admissions process.

Here’s what the most recent CDS tells us about the admissions criteria top colleges care the most about:

Rigor of Secondary Record

Very Important At Schools Such As: Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Tulane, UCLA
While many students focus their energy on upping their GPA, it is critical to note that top schools care just as much about the caliber of classes students enroll in. Having a 4.0 means nothing if a student is simply acing the easiest classes available to them. Almost every Ivy League and top school lists the rigor of a student’s academic record as “very important” in their CDS report. As such, students should start enrolling in the most challenging courses available at their school early in their high school careers—whether APs, IBs, or Honors classes. This is particularly important for coursework related to a student’s intended area of study.

Application Essay

Very Important At Schools Such As: Stanford, Princeton, Brown
The application essay is an important element of a student’s application because it showcases multiple facets of their candidacy—not only can it demonstrate their academic skills through their strong command of language, but it is also an opportunity for students to share the intangible elements of their candidacy such as their talents, personal qualities, and character (all factors that are listed as “very important” alongside the application essay at all of the schools listed above). Students should strive to compose essays that stand out through their creativity and originality, and that authentically represent their distinct voices.

Extracurricular Activities

Very Important At Schools Such As: Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Yale
For many Ivy League and top schools, what students accomplish outside of the classroom is equally important as what they accomplish in it. Though not explicitly stated in their Common Data Sets, we know from experience that top schools look for students who demonstrate significant involvement in a few key activities rather than superficial participation in many. This depth of commitment indicates that students can balance multiple responsibilities and contribute meaningfully to campus life. Therefore, students should start to hone their passions and identify opportunities for leadership in activities that they are passionate about early in their high school careers.

Character / Personal Qualities

Very Important At Schools Such As: NYU, Notre Dame, Carnegie Mellon
As a part of the holistic application review process, schools evaluate more than students’ on-paper accomplishments—they also care about how a student’s values, personality, and defining characteristics make them a unique fit for their campus community. What intangible qualities are colleges looking for? This largely depends on the school to which students are applying, but the best way to determine which characteristics to highlight is to read about the college’s mission and values and determine where their own personal qualities align. For example, Carnegie Mellon looks for students who demonstrate “leadership, motivation, passion and perseverance, concern and advocacy for others.”


Very Important At Schools Such As: Northeastern, Emory, Amherst
Letters of recommendation offer qualitative information about students’ academic skills and character, whereas numerical values such as GPA, test scores, and class rank provide quantitative information. They are particularly important because they are the only element of a student’s application that offers a third-party evaluation of students’ skill sets. As such, students should approach these letters with as much strategy and thoughtfulness as other elements of their applications. Every student should select teachers who have thorough knowledge of their academic skills (ideally in the discipline they intend to pursue) and who they have established relationships with over the course of their high school career. Students can also use these recommendations strategically to fill in gaps in their other materials—for instance, if a student struggled academically their junior year, a teacher can attest to their growth and progress over time; or, if a student had a challenging family circumstance, a school counselor can share how they overcame personal difficulties and flourished as a community member and scholar.

Every college has its own unique campus character and institutional values, and thus places emphasis on different elements of students’ applications. Understanding which criteria are particularly important to the schools to which they are applying will help students prepare thoughtfully and strategically throughout their high school careers, ensuring that they enter the application season with confidence and preparation.

Originally posted on Forbes.

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