Applying to college soon? Curious about what colleges are looking for in applicants, especially when it comes to SAT or ACT scores? Not sure how you stack up against other applicants at your dream school?
If you feel like you have more questions than answers about what colleges look for in admissions, you're note alone. The college admissions process can be very confusing, and it's easy to feel lost and frustrated. In this article, we'll tell you what colleges look for in admissions and how to make your application the best it can be. We'll cover:
- What colleges look for in applicants
- Why SAT and ACT test scores are important
- How understanding college admissions criteria can help your own college admissions process
Let's dive in!
What Do Colleges Look For in Applicants?
When colleges look at applicants, they're hoping to find students who will succeed in college and beyond. Most universities are looking for students who will excel in their classes, but will also contribute to the on-campus community in their own unique ways.
So how do colleges identify these amazing students? Colleges use your scores (SAT/ACT scores, GPA/transcript, class rank, and other test scores) as well as your extracurriculars, application essays, and letters of recommendation to judge your readiness to attend their school. They want to know that you'll be a good student, but they also want to ensure you'll add to their college community both now and as an alumni.
How Do Colleges Judge Applicants?
Now that we have a basic overview of what colleges look for in applicants, we'll address each part of the application and discuss how the college judges you based on that particular section.
The main value of SAT/ACT scores is that they provide colleges with a standard way to judge students. Every applicant will have a varied background: they've attended a different schools and/or and taken different classes. However, nearly every applicant will have taken the SAT or ACT.
Colleges use your SAT/ACT score as an indicator of whether you're ready to attend their school. To show you're academically prepared, you'll need to have a score within the average SAT/ACT score range for admitted students to that school ... or perhaps even higher. To give yourself the best chance of admission, you should aim for a score at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for admitted students. (We'll talk more about how to find this range a little later.)
It’s important to note that some schools don’t make taking the SAT or ACT an absolute requirement for admission. These schools, for instance, have a “test-optional” admission choice for prospective students. In addition, because of cancelled or rescheduled test dates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools have chosen to go test-optional for 2021 and 2022...and some may continue that policy in the future (like the University of California schools).
Colleges are looking at your GPA and transcript for two major reasons:
- To see what classes you chose to take.
- To see how you did in your classes.
Colleges want to see what classes you took in high school and how you performed in them to ensure you're prepared to attend their college. Based on your GPA/transcript, admissions counselors can gauge whether you're ready to take on the courses offered at their school.
To gauge your own academic preparedness, we recommend you check out the admissions profile for your dream school. See what the average GPA is for admitted students at that college. You can find it by conducting a Google search for "[College Name] + GPA + PrepScholar." That will bring you to our admissions page for that school.
Once you've figured out what the average GPA range is for admitted students, try to get your GPA into a similar range to give yourself the best chance of admission.
For students interested in competitive colleges (Ivies, Stanford, Vanderbilt, etc.), when admissions officers look at your transcript/GPA, they're hoping to see that you opted to take the most difficult classes at your high school and that you did very well in them.
So if you hope to be accepted to a top tier school, and your school offers IB/AP courses, you should be working those classes into your schedule. Top college admissions officers typically say that they'd rather see that you got a B in an AP or IB course than an A in a regular non-AP/IB course (when IB/AP courses are offered). If there are no IB or AP classes offered at your school, obviously admissions officers don't expect you to have taken any.
All that being said, what can you do to make your GPA/transcript strong? First things first: work hard and keep your GPA up. From there, take the hardest classes that are offered at your school and do well in them. (And of course, all of this requires lots of hard work!)
You'll always have a higher grade than G!
Your class rank is tied to your transcript and GPA. The higher your grades are (and likely, the more AP and/or IB classes you take and get As in), the higher your class rank will be. And your class rank will be an important admissions consideration if you plan to apply to super competitive schools.
Top tier colleges (Harvard, MIT, UPenn) really only want students who are ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. One student we talked to did a high school summer program at one of the Ivies. The program he took part in was known to accept almost all participants into the college. He was not admitted. When he asked why, he was told that it was a big deal to them that he was not ranked in the top 10% of his class.
Class rank also matters when it comes to admission to state schools, too. In some states, like Texas, students who graduate in the top 5-10% of their class are guaranteed admission in state schools. So if you do well in high school, you'll be guaranteed a spot in an in-state public school once you graduate
If you're hoping to attend a top tier school or plan to take advantage of in-state schools' admissions policies, class rank matters. Try to take the hardest classes and get your grades up to stay near the top of the class. Regardless of your class rank, however, make sure you're keeping your GPA up. You'll want to make sure it's well above average if you want to get into your dream school!
Maybe your hobby is fashion-forward jogging. Whatever your hobby is, your potential colleges want to know about it.
So what do colleges look for in admissions when it comes to extracurriculars?
Like we mentioned earlier, colleges are looking for top notch applicants who will add to their campus communities. Extracurriculars are one way colleges can learn more about you and whether you're a good personality fit for their school. All colleges like to see that you got involved in extracurriculars, and they especially like to see that you held a leadership role in them.
Top tier colleges (Harvard, Stanford, Yale) want to see that you have an expertise in some area, and you can build that expertise through your extracurricular activities. It doesn't matter what that area of expertise is, but whatever you choose, explore it deeply. If you like science, try to win the state science fair, compete in science olympiads, and/or intern at a local lab. If you like acting, compete with your debate team in the acting categories (Dramatic Interpretation, Humorous Interpretation, Duo Interpretation), stage a play for free at your local children's hospital, and/or do regional theater.
If you are hoping to attend a top tier school like Harvard—and want to impress them with your extracurriculars—our article How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League, by a Harvard Alum discusses this in more depth.
But having great extracurricular activities on your college applications is important for everyone, no matter which colleges you apply to. To learn more about what extracurricular might be good for you, check out this article.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation give admissions officers an important glimpse into how others perceive you as a student, community member, and person. Because these letters are anonymous, they're often seen as authentic and honest glimpses into who you are and whether you're ready to succeed in college.
NOTE: Some colleges don't require letters of recommendation nor personal essays, so make sure to check the admissions website for your target colleges.
You want to have great letters of recommendation that rave about who you are, what your passion is, and how great you are at what you're passionate about. Check out these examples of great letters of recommendation and the breakdown of what makes them so great.
Like a letter of recommendation, your personal essays (if required) should reveal who you are and what you want from your education and beyond. These essays give admissions counselors more insight into who you are as a person, and how you'll fit into their unique campus.
These are an important part of your college application, so be sure to start them long before they're due. But don't worry: we have tons of college admissions essay resources to help you out! Check out these example college personal essays along with tips to create a memorable one. And of course, don't miss this blog that goes over everything you need to know about writing a personal essay in the first place.
What about AP/IB tests? How do those scores affect your admissions?
Other Test Scores
Other test scores include AP/IB exam scores, SAT Subject Tests (these only apply through June 2021—after that they are being discontinued), and any other non-SAT/ACT exams that you've taken that you're choosing to include on your application. Just like the ACT/SAT, colleges look at these to evaluate your readiness for their college. Additionally, many schools award college credit or placement if you score high enough on AP or IB exams.
Colleges use these other test scores to double-check that you're ready for their school. If you got a perfect SAT score but failed every AP exam that you took, then an admissions officer may question if you're prepared for their coursework. Basically, don't let your other test scores be a red flag. Take your other test scores seriously but know that they won't hurt your chances unless the scores are really low (failing for AP or IB exams).
That said, don’t stress about one not-so-great AP test—your AP test scores will only hurt you if they are all bad. Just try to get the highest scores you can on your AP and IB exams so that your high scores give colleges another reason to accept you!
Why Is Your SAT/ACT Score so Important?
There are two main reasons that your SAT/ACT scores are important to colleges. Let's discuss each reason one at a time.
Reason #1: Your SAT/ACT Score Is How Colleges Compare You to Other Applicants from Around the World
While applicants to one college will come from different backgrounds, will have attended different high schools, will have taken different classes, and will have done different extracurricular activities, all of the applicants will have taken the SAT and/or ACT (at least at non-test optional schools).
Your SAT/ACT score reveals whether your GPA and transcript are accurate representations of your preparedness for higher education. Colleges use your SAT/ACT score to figure out if your high school grades were inflated or accurate. For example, if you have a 4.0 GPA with a perfect SAT or ACT score, colleges will likely be impressed and think your GPA is reflective of your academic potential (since your scores were so high). However, if you have a 4.0 GPA with 1000 SAT score or 20 ACT score, colleges may think your course grades were inflated.
Additionally, a high SAT/ACT score can also make up for a lower GPA. If you have a 3.0 GPA with a perfect SAT/ACT score, colleges may be willing to overlook your lower GPA and consider your SAT/ACT score as an indication that you're prepared for college.
As mentioned above, some schools don’t require applicants to have taken either exam. But, even test-optional schools may use SAT and ACT scores to compare applicants. For instance, if you have a 4.0 GPA but no test scores, but another prospective student has a 4.0 GPA and high test scores, this student has provided more proof of their academic potential than you (and may get chosen instead). So, your best bet is to take the SAT or ACT, even if your target school is test-optional.
Colleges use SAT/ACT scores to compare apples to oranges ... or, you know, students to other students!
Reason #2: Colleges Are Judged by Their SAT/ACT Score Ranges
Yes, the SAT/ACT is important to schools because they use it to judge your readiness for college. However, it's also important to schools because if you're admitted, your SAT/ACT score will be incorporated into their yearly SAT/ACT statistics.
Every year, colleges publish their freshman admissions profile (see an example from Princeton). In this profile, colleges provide the data on their admitted students. This data includes either the 25th/75th percentile SAT/ACT scores (sometimes referred to as the middle 50%) or the average SAT/ACT scores of admitted students. The 25th percentile score means that 25% of admitted students scored at or below that score (and therefore 75% of admitted students scored above). The 75th percentile score means that 75% of admitted students scored at or below that score (and therefore 25% of admitted students scored above). The average score is just what it sounds like, an average of all the admitted students scores.
The general public looks at this data to perceive the selectivity of the school (the higher the range, the more competitive or "better" the general public thinks that college is). When you think of top-tier schools such as Dartmouth, Brown, or Columbia, you likely think, "Wow those are good schools!"
But why do you think they are good schools? You might think of their alumni or campuses. However, many lower ranked schools such as Denison have beautiful campuses with famous alumni like billionaire Michael Eisner. You might think of their low admissions rates, but there are other colleges with comparable admissions rates to the Ivies, and their rates don’t necessarily reflect the academic excellence of students they admit.
One of the main reasons you associate top tier colleges with prestige is because of their published SAT/ACT score ranges and their ranking among other colleges. When doing research on applying to schools, you likely came across the US News & World Report ranking of US colleges. Each year, US News & World Report assembles their rankings based on several categories including the SAT/ACT scores of admitted students.
If you're admitted to the school, your SAT/ACT score will be factored into that school's overall national ranking in US News & World Report. Top tier colleges such as Princeton, Yale, and Stanford want your SAT scores to be good so that it reflects well on them. Even "second tier schools" such as Vanderbilt, USC, and Emory care about this because they hope to continue to rise in the US News & World Report rankings.
The majority of college applicants are high school seniors, and most of the college application advice out there is aimed at them. But what do you do if you don't fall into this narrow category? Our eBook on how to prepare for and apply to college as a nontraditional student will walk you through everything you need to know, from the coursework you should have under your belt to how to get letters of recommendation when you're not a high school senior.
What Does This Mean for You?
If admissions officers are judging you so heavily by your SAT/ACT score, you want to get a score that will meet their standards. As I mentioned earlier, colleges are hoping to admit students who are in or above their SAT/ACT score range (or at or above the average).
Here at PrepScholar, we recommend that you try to get your score at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score of admitted students to give yourself the best chance of admission. Let's set that as your SAT/ACT score goal.
Setting a Score Goal
To give yourself the best chance of being admitted to your dream school, you need to set a score goal that is at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for that school.
How do you find out what the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for that school is? Here at PrepScholar, we've created a very cool resource to locate each college's 25th/75th percentile score and to calculate your chance of admissions to a given school based on your SAT/ACT score and GPA.
To access this resource, simply Google Search, "[College Name] [ACT or SAT score] PrepScholar." For example, I looked for Emory University page:
The first two search results are both from PrepScholar. The Admission Requirements page give GPA, SAT, and ACT data. The second page only gives information about the SAT and GPA.
Start by looking at our complete admission requirement articles for your target colleges to get a sense of the SAT and ACT scores of admitted students. Here's a sample of our Emory University admissions guide:
Scroll down, and you'll find the SAT and ACT data:
As we mentioned before, aim for a score at or above the 75th percentile score, so for Emory, that would be a 34 or above on the ACT or a 1520 or above on the SAT. Why aim so high? You want to give yourself the absolute best chance of admission. You want to be in the top group of applicants. You want the admissions officer to see your application and say, "duh, they should get in." Okay, they'll likely say something more eloquent, but you get my point.
You might be thinking, "25% of admits score below the 25th percentile, can't I just score slightly below the 25th percentile and get in?" In theory, yes, you can. In reality, it's unlikely.
Colleges will admit certain applicants with lower SAT/ACT scores because that college needs that student for some reason. For example, colleges sometimes accept athletes, legacies, or students with another exceptional talent (the #1 ranked debater in the US or a world-class violinist) who have lower SAT/ACT scores. Also, colleges sometimes accept students with lower scores who are the children of significant alumni donors or the children of other wealthy or famous people.
Unless you fall into one of the above, try to aim for a score at or above the 75th percentile score. While these students may not make up 25% of the admitted students, it's better to be safe than sorry. Get your score at or above the 75th percentile to give yourself the best chance!
Planning Your Prep
Now that you've set your SAT/ACT score goal, you need to create a plan to reach it. Check out our guide to planning your study based on the amount of improvement that you're hoping for and based on the amount of time you have to study.
Interested in learning more about the college admissions process? Learn about how to get a college application fee waiver, learn about the best extracurricular activities for your college app, and plan your college application timeline.
Not sure where you'd like to go to college? Figure out how to find your target school.
Still not sure whether the SAT or ACT is right for you? Let's help you pick the right test for you!
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.