What Does A Highly Selective College Look For?

Top colleges evaluate candidates using a holistic review, which means they consider every aspect of the application, from test scores to extracurricular interests to special accomplishments—and everything in between. By evaluating an application from a holistic perspective, the college gets to know applicants as people, not as numbers.

Here’s what admissions officers at highly selective colleges are looking for in their holistic review:

Strong academics

Grades and strength of curriculum carry the most weight in admission to highly selective schools. Excelling in these areas will qualify an applicant for a second read (i.e., a more in-depth read by a full-time admissions reader rather than a temporary, seasonal reader hired by colleges to manage the huge number of applications).

What does that mean, in practice, for your student?

  • Having high A’s in a majority of courses. Of course, being Valedictorian doesn’t make your student a shoe-in, but it certainly helps advance them to the next stage.

  • Taking the most rigorous courses their school offers (e.g., AP and IB courses).

  • Being in the top 5-10 percent of their high school class in terms of GPA.

Test scores

Holistic review doesn't mean a student can perform poorly on standardized tests. Your student needs to have ACT or SAT scores well within the middle 50% range of the college. Strong SAT Subject Test and AP scores can also factor in to admission at highly selective schools

There is an exception to the rule: Highly recruitable athletes for team sports can sometimes get a pass if the coach feels they can make up for lower scores with other, higher academically performing recruits.

Depth of resume

Once your student has met the high academic threshold, depth of involvement in one or more activities is critical. This an incredible opportunity for your student to stand out from the pack.

Whether it’s music, athletics, an academic interest, or independent project, community service, art, creative writing, or entrepreneurship, your student's extracurricular involvement and impact can make a difference in admissions if they're already academically exceptional.

Remember that participating in the activities isn't enough for highly selective colleges. Your student needs to be a leader, showing initiative and ideally having an impact on their community.

An application that stands out

A great application highlights the cohesive narrative arch of a student’s achievements throughout the application. The activity section and the essays should complement each other so a reader comes away feeling like they understand the “why” behind the accomplishments.

Great essays, in which a student authentically reflects rather than rehashing their resume, are crucial. For example, if a student gave a TED talk on a national level (listed in the activity section), they might write an essay about what inspired them to be so fascinated with the topic. The goal is to showcase your student's personal experiences and perspective so that they stand out as unique.

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. :