Anyone who’s applied to college remembers the fear of getting that dreaded rejection letter. (For the record, I got two—and they both stung. A lot.) But what if you could calculate your chances of college acceptance before you applied?
The good news is that you can! Our college acceptance calculator uses your GPA and SAT/ACT score to estimate your likelihood of getting accepted to a particular school. But aside from GPA and test scores, what other critical factors affect your chance of admission? Read on to learn what schools look for during the admission process as well as how you can raise your chance of acceptance by submitting a strong application.
What Factors Affect Your Chance of Acceptance?
College applications have several components, with each part playing a crucial role in determining whether or not you'll be admitted. But just how important a role one part plays ultimately depends on where you're applying.
Below, we go over the major factors that can influence your chance of admission to college, starting with the most important ones.
#1: GPA and Rigor of Coursework
Many experts agree that your GPA and the rigor of your course load are the most important factors in the college admission process.
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) 2019 State of College Admission report, 75% of the schools surveyed rated grades in college prep courses, as well as grades in all courses, considerably important, and 62% said the same for the overall strength of a student's high school curriculum. As these statistics indicate, most colleges consider grades and rigor of coursework extremely significant factors in admission.
Good grades are so important because they emphasize your overall diligence as a student. But it's not always just about getting straight As; rather, schools want to see that you're consistently challenging yourself to learn complex concepts. Your ability to perform well in upper-level classes indicates your preparedness for college-level coursework. So for some colleges, a B in an AP class might be viewed just as highly as, if not higher than, an A in a regular class.
#2: SAT/ACT Test Scores
Another critical factor for admission—ranked considerably important by 46% of schools in the NACAC survey—is SAT/ACT test scores. Generally speaking, admission test scores are just as, or nearly as, important as grades and rigor of coursework.
But according to a US News interview with college-admission experts, the overall significance of SAT/ACT scores varies depending on the school. Some schools, particularly highly selective ones, largely emphasize test scores during the admission process. As a result, being able to hit your goal score on the SAT/ACT is often necessary for admission to these schools.
Nevertheless, not all schools believe SAT/ACT scores are that important. In fact, many liberal arts colleges and national universities (even some highly ranked ones!) are test optional, meaning you are not required to submit test scores. Test optional schools have become even more common since the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students couldn't take standardized tests and, as a result, many schools became temporarily or permanently test optional.
#3: Personal Statement/Essay
Next up is the admission essay, or personal statement. This essay is a critical component of your application, as it offers a personal glimpse into who you are as a person—something your transcripts and test scores can’t do alone.
By allowing you to address and explain specific challenges you’ve overcome and accomplishments you've made, either in your personal life or academic career, the personal statement gives you the opportunity to distinguish yourself from your peers. This is especially helpful as many applicants often look alike on paper, with similar grades and test scores.
In the NACAC survey, 56% of schools rated the personal statement either moderately or considerably important for admission. Clearly, you'll need to write a great essay if you hope to raise your chances of admission!
Extracurriculars? Well, for one, I was the slowest runner on my cross-country team.
#4: Extracurricular Activities/Resume
Most schools will require you to submit a resume or evidence of any extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, clubs, etc.), volunteer work, and/or part-time work you’ve completed outside of school. What this resume does is introduce to schools your general interests and non-academic accomplishments.
As you create your resume, remember the key motto: depth over breadth. Basically, you’re far more likely to stand out as an applicant if you're deeply focused on honing a certain skill or contributing to a certain cause than if you're simply jumping from one activity to another. More than anything, schools want a resume that highlights your ongoing passion and commitment.
According to NACAC, 49% of the schools surveyed considered extracurricular activities moderately or considerably important. So hopefully you've got a couple of interesting hobbies or experiences you can add to your resume!
#5: Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are often a vital component of college applications. If required, you'll usually need to submit two letters. However, many large state schools, such as the University of Washington and the University of Texas, do not require letters of recommendation, so make sure to check your schools' application requirements to see whether you'll need to submit any.
Your letters should come from teachers whose classes you've taken (core classes, such as math and English, are preferable) and/or your school counselor. Although you won't be able to read what your teachers have written about you, a good letter will positively address key aspects of your personality and work ethic in a detailed and thoughtful manner.
You should always choose letter writers who know you well enough to comment on specific accomplishments you've made. Teachers who don’t know you that well are more likely to write lukewarm letters that don’t say anything unique about you and don't mention anything that isn’t already explicit on your transcripts and resume.
Letters of recommendation can play an important role in the admission process but are generally secondary to transcripts, test scores, and resumes. According to the NACAC survey, a little more than 40% of schools considered both teacher recommendations and counselor recommendations moderately important, while about 14% considered them considerably important.
#6: Additional Test Scores (AP and IB Tests)
The NACAC survey reports that 53% of schools said AP and IB tests were of limited or moderate importance. So while AP and IB test scores aren’t usually requirements for admission, scoring highly on them could give a small boost to your application. In fact, 41% stated that AP and IB test scores were of no importance at all to them.
I wasn't ranked No. 1 at school, but I'm always No. 1 in Mario Kart.
#7: Class Rank
In 2006, 23% of schools surveyed by NACAC regarded class rank as considerably important, but by 2019 this number had dropped to just 9%.
Despite this, if your school does calculate class rank, your rank will likely be fairly important to your colleges. Even with its drop in importance over the past decade, 63% of schools still consider class rank moderately or considerably important.
#8: Other Factors
Several additional factors can influence your chance of getting accepted to college. These factors vary with different schools, but here are some of the most common ones:
- Supplemental essays: Some schools might ask you to supply a supplemental essay detailing why you want to attend this particular school (we call this a “Why This College” essay).
- Portfolio: A portfolio is generally only required if you’re applying to an art-oriented program or school.
- Interview: Not many schools require interviews, but those that do want to see that you’re enthusiastic about the school and are as strong a candidate in person as you are on paper. Most Ivy League schools require evaluative interviews, while other selective schools might require or strongly recommend them.
- Legacy: Many schools, such as Harvard and Brown, will take into consideration whether you are a legacy student. (In most cases, "legacy" means that one or both of your parents attended the school for undergrad.) Legacy can be a tipping factor for schools trying to decide between two equally qualified candidates.
- Ethnic background: Many schools practice affirmative action and will therefore take into account your racial and/or ethnic status with the intention of increasing student diversity.
- Geographic location: Schools might also take into account where you come from so as to create a diverse class of students from a variety of states and countries.
- Athletic skills: Your athletic skills might play a role in admission at certain schools. Some schools even recruit highly successful student-athletes based on their high school athletic careers.
- First-generation college student: Being a first-generation college student means that your parents did not attend or complete college (regardless of whether your siblings did). Much like legacy, this can be a tipping factor in your favor during the admissions process.
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College Acceptance Calculator: What Are Your Chances?
While you can’t know for sure whether you’ll get into a school or not, you can use our college acceptance calculator tool, along with what we know about admission factors, to roughly calculate your college acceptance chances.
First, go to Google and search for “[School Name] PrepScholar” or “[School Name] PrepScholar admission requirements.” You’ll want to find your school’s admission requirements page in our PrepScholar database.
For example, here’s what came up when I searched for “pomona prepscholar”:
Once you've clicked the link to your school’s admission requirements page, scroll down to the section titled “Admissions Calculator.” You can also use ctrl + F to search for “calculator” to jump to the section more quickly.
On Pomona's admission requirements page, here's what the admissions calculator section looks like:
As you can see in this screenshot, our calculator takes your SAT/ACT score and (weighted or unweighted) GPA to give you a percentage estimating your chance of acceptance. Note that this percentage, though helpful, is based only on your GPA and test scores and doesn't take into account other critical admission factors, so it can't be considered 100% accurate.
The default SAT score and GPA on the calculator will be whatever the averages are for your particular school. In my example above, the average SAT score for students admitted to Pomona is 1470, and the average GPA of admitted students is 4.05.
To calculate your chances of college acceptance, choose your test and then toggle the calculator so that it shows your test score. You can also type your score directly in the box to the right.
Next, repeat these steps for your GPA. Note that the GPA scale here goes up to 5.0 to account for weighted GPAs. Input your GPA exactly as it is, regardless of whether your school uses a weighted or unweighted scale. So if your school uses unweighted GPAs (i.e., out of 4.0) and you have a 3.5, input 3.5 on the calculator. If, on the other hand, your school uses weighted GPAs and you have a 4.2, then you'd input 4.2.
Let’s say I took the SAT and got a relatively high score of 1430. In addition, my (weighted) high school GPA is 4.5. According to our tool (and based purely on GPA and test scores), my chance of admission to Pomona would equal about 16%:
As you can see, it'd be particularly tough for me to get into Pomona based on my current GPA and SAT test score alone. Even though my GPA and SAT score are quite high in this example, Pomona is an extremely selective school with only a 10% admittance rate. Therefore, in order to increase my chances of admission, I'd need an extremely impressive SAT score and GPA (not to mention quality letters of recommendation, a strong personal statement, and a great resume!).
Despite my low chance of admission, there's no guarantee that I couldn't get into Pomona with my current SAT score and GPA. What our college acceptance calculator shows is that it's simply unlikely for me to get accepted with my current stats.
As you use our college acceptance calculator, be aware that your test scores and GPA are not the only factors schools will consider during the admission process. Unfortunately, no college acceptance calculator can take into account the strength of non-quantifiable application components, such as your personal statement and resume.
The best thing to do, then, is to work on ensuring that the rest of your application is equally strong, if not stronger, than your GPA and test scores.
What's worse than a low chance of acceptance? A constant low battery.
What If Your Chances of College Acceptance Are Low?
What's considered a low chance of admission will vary depending on where you're applying. As we saw above, with highly selective schools—even if your SAT/ACT scores and GPA are quite high—your chance of admission could be low due to the low acceptance rate of the school.
If you've used our college acceptance calculator but discovered your chances of admission aren't as high as you'd hoped they'd be, you’ll need to put extra effort into your application to increase your chances of getting accepted.
Here are five ways you can improve your application and give yourself a better shot at admission:
#1: Retake the SAT/ACT
Though you can't change your GPA all that much, you can make big gains on your SAT/ACT test score with a little—OK, a lot—of elbow grease.
Let's look back at my example with Pomona. You can see that my initial chances of admission—with a 1430 SAT score—are about 15%. But let’s say I retake the SAT and score far higher the second time around. How much would my chances of admission increase as a result?
The answer to this depends on how big of a point improvement I'm able to make. If I were to improve my SAT score by 100+ points and get a near-perfect score of 1580, my chance of admission, according to our calculator, would increase by a whopping 36%!
Ultimately, what this means is that you might be able to dramatically increase your chances of admission by simply retaking the SAT/ACT and scoring higher on it. This is partly because SAT/ACT test scores are such an important part of college applications. (Remember, as the NACAC survey revealed, test scores are usually one of the most important factors, along with GPA and coursework difficulty.)
But getting a higher SAT/ACT score isn’t always easy. To help you out, we offer completely customizable SAT and ACT prep programs. You can also read our guides on how to improve your SAT or ACT score, and on how to get a perfect SAT or ACT score.
#2: Get Feedback on Your Essay
Sometimes an excellent personal statement or “Why This College” essay can sway an admission committee’s decision in your favor, so it’s imperative you write a compelling and technically correct essay.
Getting separate pairs of eyes to analyze your writing is key to ensuring your college essay is high quality. Ask your teachers, parents, and/or counselor to look over your essay and offer detailed feedback on how you could improve it and what you could change to make it more impactful.
Make sure you, too, meticulously check your essay for any glaring errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation before submitting it.
For additional help, our guide offers 100+ samples of stellar personal statements. These essays will give you ideas as to what you should discuss in your essay and how you might want to organize your thoughts.
#3: Get Letters of Recommendation From Teachers You’re Close With
For your recommendations, ask teachers who know you well and who are guaranteed to write passionately and enthusiastically about you in their letters. Ideally, you’ll have already pinpointed the teachers with whom you get along best and have forged a solid relationship. You should also have received consistently high marks in their classes.
The best letters are those that can speak to positive qualities you possess and achievements you’ve made—in other words, elements about you that aren’t evident in your transcripts and test scores. You should aim to obtain letters from primarily (if not only) core-class teachers, including one whose field you're interested in studying in college.
Remember, although letters of recommendation won't necessarily be the most important part of your application, they still play a valuable role in showcasing your accomplishments to colleges. In the end, a glowing letter can really boost your application and might even help get you into some of the toughest schools out there, such as Harvard.
The teachers you're close with = those whom you can take cool, hipster, Inception-y photos with.
#4: Get High Scores on AP, IB, and/or SAT Subject Tests
If your SAT/ACT test scores aren’t as impressive as you would've liked, you can try to make up for them by submitting high AP or IB test scores.
Most schools do not require AP scores but will view them if submitted. You’ll usually self-report these on your application, which allows you to select the specific AP scores you want (and don't want) to report to your school.
For example, if you scored 5s on AP US History and AP English Literature and Composition but only a 2 on AP Bio, reporting only your highest scores—and omitting your AP Bio score—will let you present yourself in a more flattering light.
On a related note, if you scored relatively high on an AP or IB test whose field is related to the major you want to do, definitely report this score on your application. This score will indicate to your school that you have the basic knowledge and skills necessary for success in your chosen field of study.
#5: Ace Your Interview (If You Have One)
Most schools do not require evaluative interviews. But if your school is one of the few that requires or strongly recommends an interview, doing well on it can strengthen your application and produce a clearer, more well-rounded picture of who you are and what you hope to accomplish in college.
Treat the interview as an opportunity to showcase your demonstrated interest in the school. According to NACAC, half of respondents ranked “Student’s Demonstrated Interest” in a school as moderately or considerably important for admission. So as you answer questions during the interview, be clear about how the school will help you attain your academic goals and why you’ve chosen this particular school. Most of all, be sincere.
Recap: What Are Your Chances of Getting Accepted?
There are many factors that affect your chances of getting accepted to college. Generally speaking, the most important factors are your GPA, the rigor of your coursework, and your SAT/ACT test score. Secondary factors include your personal statement, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and class rank.
To (roughly) calculate your college acceptance chances, look for your school’s “Admission Requirements” page in our PrepScholar database and use its “Admissions Calculator” to see what your chances of getting in are, based on your current GPA and SAT/ACT score.
Note, though, that our college acceptance calculator can only give you a rough estimate of your chances of acceptance. Because there's no way to take into account non-quantifiable factors such as your personal statement and letters of recommendation, no college acceptance calculator can ever be 100% accurate. That said, you can use our calculator to help determine whether you might need to work on strengthening other areas of your application.
If your chances of admission are low, try to improve your application as best you can. Some options to consider are retaking the SAT/ACT and aiming for a higher score, obtaining strong letters of recommendation from teachers who know you well, and getting feedback on your essays.
In the end, it's impossible to know for sure whether you’ll get accepted to a certain school or not. But by putting forth your best application possible, you can give yourself a far higher chance of acceptance—not to mention the satisfaction that you gave it your all!
As Tim Allen once said, "Never give up, never surrender."
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.