A 2014 study of admissions trends at highly selective colleges indicated that these colleges focus entirely on academic qualifications first, and then consider other factors. The study found that the most common winnowing process for highly selective colleges is some measure of academic merit. This may be based on grades, class rank, rigor of high school courses, standardized test scores and research conducted by the student.
At highly selective schools, competition is fiercer than ever. Application rates have risen rapidly over the last decade, with the number of slots available to freshman remaining relatively stagnant.
Take, for example, the admissions information for students admitted to Georgetown in 2016. Only 50% of students ranked 1st in their class were admitted, and students ranking in the top 5% of their class (still an impressive achievement) faced a much tougher 16% acceptance rate. :