In college admissions, the criteria colleges consider varies from school to school. However, there are few broad approaches most schools take. The primary elements colleges look at are:

  • Academic Grades
  • Test Scores (SAT, ACT, SAT 2, AP)
  • Extracurriculars
  • Personal Statements

For many schools, especially state universities, unless an applicant has an extraordinary extracurricular activity they are involved in, the admissions criteria can often boil down to a roughly 50-50 breakdown between grades and test scores. Colleges will often claim that there are many other factors, and we wish that were true more often. In some cases they may also look at some other extraordinary extracurricular activities, like leadership or sports. For example, California State Universities primarily look at the grades and test scores. What this can mean in some cases is that the SAT and/or the ACT, whichever one your teen does better on, could potentially weigh as much as all of their grades from high school combined. It’s strange, but from the college’s perspective it limits the impact of grade inflation and provides another important metric for evaluation.


Many parents are surprised to realize how significant the SAT and ACT are, and wonder why these tests aren’t more emphasized in their schools. If you think about it, high schools are primarily concerned with graduation, then secondarily with college. It’s not their responsibility. College is essentially optional, and must be sought and earned. As a result, teens have to go above and beyond high school minimal requirements to go to college. Many more competitive American schools–including top schools like the UCs, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale–will look at your grades, your test scores, extracurriculars and personal statements together and more holistically. For top schools grades account for roughly a third, the SAT/ACT a third, and personal statement and extracurricular activities a third. Again, in situations like this the SAT/ACT can carry as much weight as all of the grades from high school combined (usually 10th to the first half of 12th grade).


That extracurricular category can include an array of activities. More selective colleges want to see to what degree your teen has deep and focused interests in leadership, sports, theater, music, arts, or something else–and that your teen can articulate in writing why this activity is meaningful to them. Colleges and universities are typically looking for a diverse student body, but they’re not necessarily looking for students with that much diversity of interests. In other words, most colleges want students with deep and focused interests that together make up a diverse and dynamic student body. Teens should not try to do every activity under the sun, as this shows a more superficial interest in many activities. Overall, top colleges seek students that have it all.  Students with high GPAs should have test scores that match.  At the same time, students with lower GPAs can tilt the scale in their favor with higher SAT/ACT scores, and make themselves stand out in their applications.  In this way the SAT/ACT can offset a modest or a low GPA.  Many school rely on an index comparing grades and SAT/ACT scores for both admissions and merit based financial aid (often reduced tuition).


Teens can also dramatically impact their college application when personal statements are accepted along with the rest of the application.   Careful attention should be given to the personal statement, because for schools that consider this it can carry a lot of weight. A few very selective schools will integrate interviews in the admissions process as well, though these do not often sway admissions staff, except in very unusual circumstances.  They often act as a confirming source of information for the rest of the application. We coach college bound teens on the SAT, ACT, and personal statements and can help your teen get into the school of his/her choice. We also provide coaching for study skills, time management, and test anxiety. The first step for most families is to sign them up for SAT prep in the Accelerated SAT Mastery online course with live expert coaching. For more information, and to discuss your personal situation, contact our office.