10 College Admissions Secrets: An Inside Look From an Elite College Counselor

With high school seniors in the thick of the college application process, speculation abounds about how college admissions committees make decisions, what it takes to get in, and whether or not student A is more qualified than student B.

The Web enables this frenzy, with students and their families turning to message boards and forums to post their stats in an effort to gain insight as to whether they have a shot at their top-choice college.

As a college counselor with more than 17 years of experience guiding students through the admissions process, I come across many families who have a lot of misconceptions about how it works and what goes on behind closed doors. Each week, my team of ex-deans and former admissions officers from some of the country’s top colleges get together for our roundtable review to evaluate applications and provide feedback to students.

Through these meetings — and my experience in admissions at Yale — I’ve gained first-hand knowledge of how this complex series of steps works at a number of prestigious universities, and what parents and students should understand about the admissions process at highly selective colleges.

Here are 10 college admissions secrets that parents and students need to know.

1. Many colleges follow a rubric when evaluating applications.

There’s so much that goes into college applications: essays, grades, recommendations, extracurricular résumés, and more. How do colleges weigh it all?

The review process includes evaluating factors that sometimes aren’t quantifiable, so many colleges use a rubric to help determine the strength of a particular application and whether or not it meets the school’s admission standards. When evaluating individual elements, like grades, test scores, and essays, the readers establish a benchmark, usually founded on the previous year’s entrants’ components. Applicants are then given a score for each category compared to that standard.

For example, a student can get a score of one if her test scores are below the established benchmark, a two if her scores meet the benchmark, or a three if they are higher than the benchmark. Different schools use different rubrics and evaluation strategies, but this is the general approach many colleges take.

2. Your ability to pay tuition can affect admissions decisions.

Many colleges and universities have need-aware admissions policies, meaning that a student’s ability to pay can be taken into consideration when deciding whom to admit. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that need-aware colleges are only going to admit super-rich applicants who are able to pay the full sticker price. The practice is more nuanced than that, and can actually benefit students who need a significant amount of financial aid.

The lesson to take away is that for some students on the cusp of meeting admissions standards at a given school, not applying for financial aid can help. Enrolling students who can pay full tuition without loans or grants can help colleges’ bottom line and allow these institutions to provide more aid to students who need it. It’s a trade-off.

3. Class rank does not matter as much as you think it does.

For the past few years, the importance of class rank in the college admissions process has been steadily declining. According to the 2014 NACAC State of College Admission survey, only 15 percent of colleges rated class rank as of considerable importance (most called it moderately important). This is a steep decline from 10 years ago, when 31 percent of colleges rated it as considerably important.

The truth is, while it is something that many colleges will look at, it’s not an impressive metric for admissions officers. Just because a student is number one in her class doesn’t mean she is automatically a more competitive applicant than someone who ranked in the top 15 percent of her class. High schools are not standardized enough to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

Students should focus less on where they rank relative to their classmates and more on studying for the most demanding classes their high school offers — ideally, AP and college prep courses. The same NACAC document states that achieving and maintaining good grades in challenging classes is the most important factor colleges consider.

4. Demonstrating an interest in a school serves the college more than you.

Managing enrollment is a big part of the college admissions process. A school’s goal is not just to build a great, well-rounded class, but also to ensure that these admitted students attend. Colleges want a high yield, or percentage of admitted students who enroll. And admitting students who show a deep interest in the institution is one way to manage that.

While demonstrated interest — visiting campus or submitting a thoughtful, detailed application — is ranked as moderately important by most colleges, it’s a tool that, in the end, serves the school’s interests. By telling a college how badly you want to attend, you’re showing your hand and allowing it to assume you’ll matriculate if accepted.

5. Colleges have institutional needs, and special applicants are sometimes given priority to fill these needs.

As you’ve seen throughout this list, college admissions is rarely as simple as “the smartest students always get in.” There’s a lot that goes into building a class, including taking into account a school’s goals and institutional needs.

These requirements often prioritize special groups of applicants, like legacy students, development cases (students from wealthy families likely to make large donations), student-athletes, and more. This doesn’t mean these types of students are automatically admitted, but such status markers can add extra weight to their applications.

This is intrinsically unfair, since applicants can’t help that their grandmother or father attended or didn’t attend a given school — but it’s a fact. It’s important to remember that every school needs certain things from their incoming classes, and it’s necessary for the institution to meet these demands in order to serve all students on campus.

6. Admissions officers don’t like gimmicks.

Writing weird essays, sending in materials the college didn’t ask for, or any other gimmicky effort to stand out is usually not the way to grab admissions officers’ attention. In fact, it may even hurt your chances of acceptance.

Admissions officers are busy; each person in the office may read thousands of applications in a given cycle. Creating extra work for them will only set these professionals back in their timeline. This is something they can’t afford. It’s also difficult to get a holistic view of a student when trying to decipher whatever strange materials she sent in. And, in most cases, it doesn’t come across as genuine or relevant.

Leave the gimmicks at the door; write compelling, thoughtful essays, and don’t send in anything the college didn’t ask for. Doing so will indicate that you haven’t followed the application directions and requirements, which is a red flag.

7. Just because you don’t get in doesn’t mean you weren’t qualified.

Last year more than 42,000 students applied to Stanford University, which had a 5 percent admission rate for the class of 2019. It’s hard to imagine that the remaining 95 percent of applicants were not qualified. In fact, most top-tier institutions would be able to fill a second, and maybe even a third, class with applicants who are just as qualified, diverse, and well-rounded as those students they accepted. But it’s just not possible.

Colleges can only invite a certain number of freshmen to matriculate each year, and while it’s tough to turn away thousands of excellent applicants, it’s necessary. There’s just not enough room for everyone who is qualified to be there.

8. Diversity means much more than race and ethnicity.

When building a diverse class, some people assume race is the only benchmark used to gauge diversity. However, while race and ethnic diversity is important, there’s much more to the issue than that.

Gender is an important consideration in meeting diversity targets, as more girls are applying to college than boys. However, in certain male-dominated majors, colleges will seek to correct the gender imbalance by trying to admit more females who express an interest in these fields.

Diversity also extends to a student’s hometown. Where you’re from can affect how your application is read and evaluated. Another marker of diversity, beyond hometown, is home country. Many admissions offices feel that international students can bring a new perspective to a campus, and from a financial standpoint, they’re attractive because they often pay more to attend than domestic students.

Diversity can also include simple attributes that make a student stand out. Maybe an applicant was homeschooled and spent her high school years traveling the world; perhaps she’s coming off a gap year after doing extensive community service; or she’s a virtuosic cellist. The questions to ask yourself are, “What experiences or passions do I have that influence the way I see the world? What can I contribute to a campus and how can I help improve it?” Answering these questions can enable you to find the best school or schools for you, rather than the best school in a magazine’s ranking.

9. Some admissions decisions are arbitrary.

In admissions at selective schools, there comes a point when many of the highly qualified applicants all start to look the same, and admissions officers will look at every little detail in an effort to distinguish among these students and determine who is the best fit for an incoming class. At this point in the process, anything can affect whether a student gets in or doesn’t. Again, not every qualified student can be admitted, especially at top-tier institutions that receive tens of thousands of applications each year.

Sometimes these tough decisions can hinge on something as arbitrary as an officer having a personal preference for one applicant over another. Maybe one applicant’s reader argued more passionately for her acceptance than another applicant’s reader did. These decisions are tough, and sometimes there’s no clear reason why someone got in and a comparable peer didn’t. What’s important to remember is that everyone admitted is qualified to be there; but it’s impossible to admit everyone who’s qualified.

10. Admissions officers get disappointed when a student they love doesn’t get in.

College admissions is a very human process. When reading applications, admissions officers get to know students on a pretty personal level — through communications with them, their essays, recommendations from instructors, and more. It’s not the cutthroat, cold process that many assume it to be. Often, admissions officers spend time advocating for students they think are a great fit and plead their case to their colleagues. Unfortunately, the decision isn’t always left up to that reader, and if a student she pushed for doesn’t get in, it can be personally disappointing.

In the end, admissions has a lot of moving parts, many of which are out of the control of those vying for spots. It’s important for students to remember that, as long as they do diligent research and apply to a balanced list of colleges that fit their qualifications and goals, they will get into a school where they will be successful and happy.

While it’s beneficial to know the nuances of the college admissions process and how decisions are made, it’s more important for high schoolers to focus on fit and putting together the most genuine applications that reflect who they are as students and citizens — this will offer the best chance of admission to their top-choice schools.

Read more free advice about applying to college from Noodle Experts like admissions advisor Dr. Katherine Cohen. You can also find the schools that match your interests by using our customizable college search feature.