Many factors play an important role in college admission decisions. Admission officers consider all the information in your child's application carefully because they want to make sure your child is a good fit for their institution and will likely succeed there. In general, they also want to create an incoming class that’s a mix of students with varied backgrounds and talents.
Your child's entrance exam (SAT/ACT) scores and high school transcript help the admission officer decide whether they're ready for the coursework at that college. Their application essay, list of extracurricular activities (including volunteering and part-time jobs), letters of recommendation, and college interview show off your child's other qualities, such as initiative, leadership, or athletic or artistic abilities.
Not all colleges require all this information, and different colleges use the information in different ways.
Your child's high school transcript is a complete record of the grades they’ve received and the courses they’ve taken. Most admission officers say that this is the most important part of the application.
Admission officers look at transcripts to see whether applicants have built a strong academic foundation in high school and whether they've challenged themselves academically.
Entrance Exam Scores
Admission officers look at an applicant's test scores along with their transcript to help them predict whether the applicant will succeed at their institution.
Colleges find SAT and/or ACT scores helpful because the tests measure students' skills on the same scale, while course grades given in different high schools and by different teachers may reflect different standards.
But keep in mind:
- The test score ranges on college websites are just averages—not cutoffs. There are students at every college who scored lower or higher than the scores shown.
- Some colleges consider test scores more important than others, and some, such as community colleges, don't require test scores at all.
Many colleges require applicants to write an essay, sometimes called a personal statement; some require more than one. The essay question, or prompt, may ask the student to describe themselves, explain why they want to attend the college, or discuss an issue.
Admission officers use the essay to get a better idea of the applicant’s character and strengths, as well their writing skills.
Essay prompts vary from college to college, so it’s important that your child reads the prompt carefully and writes no more than the maximum number of words, as specified in the instructions.
Letters of Recommendation
Many colleges ask applicants to submit one or more letters of recommendation written by teachers, counselors, or other adults who can vouch for the students' academic strength or personal qualities. Your child should check with their school counselor to see if their school has a process for requesting these letters.
Like your child's essay and extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation help round out the admission officer’s view of the applicant. They can also give context to test scores and grades. For example, a counselor could explain that a student had a difficult transition to high school in freshman year, but worked hard to bring their grades up over the next three years.
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For Students: How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation
Extracurriculars, Jobs, and Other Activities
Your child should be sure to list any school clubs, organizations, volunteer work, hobbies, part-time jobs, or summer programs they participate in. Admission officers look at these activities to get a better sense of your child's character, strengths, and interests. The application essay and interview are great opportunities for your child to talk about what they’ve learned from their activities.
If your child doesn't take part in activities because of responsibilities at home—for example, they take care of younger siblings or an elderly relative—this shows a great deal about their character and should also be mentioned on applications.
Keep in mind: Colleges aren't evaluating students by the number of activities they participate in, but by the level of commitment and dedication they show in those activities. They'd rather see a student be a leader in one or two groups than a passive member in five.
At a college interview, a college representative speaks with your child to get to know them better. Colleges may require interviews, make them optional, or not offer them at all.
The interview gives the admission officer a more complete view of your child's character and strengths. It's also a good time for your child to ask questions about the college and learn more about it.
Check college websites or talk to someone in the admission office to learn about each school's interview process and how to set one up.
After the Acceptance Letters
If your child gets accepted to more than one college, that's great news! Wait until you see what financial aid each college is offering, then sit down with your child to compare the colleges and decide which is the best overall fit.
Once your child decides on a college, they should notify the other schools where they’ve been accepted. That way, the colleges will know they have room to admit another applicant on their waitlist.
Waitlisted? No Acceptance Letters?
If your child is put on a college waitlist or if they weren't accepted by any college, don't lose hope. There are still college options available.