What Are the Most Important Criteria in the Admission Process?

The college application process is multi-layered and at times, overwhelming and complex. There are so many factors that matter throughout the admissions process, and while they all matter, some are in fact more important than others in the context of your specific application.

The most important criteria in the admissions process has to do with what step of the admissions process your application is in. If you don’t want to read any further, the answer is that your essay is the most important part of your application. But please read this whole article because you need to understand why and also we spent time writing it.

Of course, your numbers get you in the door, and then the rest of your application (namely your essay) brings you home. There are multiple rounds of admission, as we’ve discussed before, and the reason why we stress just how important it is to apply to schools that are within your academic and numerical range is because of this elusive round 1. It’s all numbers based and it’s reliant on an algorithm. You’re basically your numbers. We know, it’s frustrating, because you want to be considered for the whole, complex, interesting person that you are. We’re sorry. That time will come, but when colleges have tens of thousands of applications, there needs to be some way to sort through them without reading all of their applications.  

Let’s go step-by-step. Here’s the process: college receives 20,000 applications for its upcoming academic year. They have 1,063 spots to fill. Step 1 (round 1) is sorting through these and getting it down at least half. The easiest way to do this? Numbers.

Round 1 is anchored by an algorithm, and your grades and scores are the inputs. Of course, your grades need to be above the minimum GPA for a certain school and your scores need to be within range. The subsections of the grade input are the following:

Class selection:

This is about the amount to which you challenged yourself within your specific schooling environment. Did you coast your junior and senior year so you could focus on applications? That shows in your class selection. Schools know what is available to you to take and how you navigated the options matters.


This metric comes down to how many challenging courses you took throughout your time in high school. If your school didn’t have 12 AP courses, but only 3, and you took all 3, the college knows, and you’ll rank high on the competitiveness portion. You’re not being compared to an applicant whose school did have 12 AP courses available. You’re being evaluated on the initiative that you took throughout your high school career.

Class rank:

This has to do with how you measure up to others in your class-you may have taken 7 AP courses but if the majority of students who are in the top 20% of the class are taking 10, then you’re out of luck.

If you pass these evaluation factors with flying colors, then you’re onto round 2. Congratulations, you’re considered in the top 10% of a school’s applicants.

The second round of admissions is all about everything else. It’s more complex, and you’re more than just your numbers at this point. You have way more control over your application during the second round of admissions, because it’s all of the good stuff: your recommendations, counselor evaluation, extracurricular activities, and of course, your essays (your Common App personal statement and the supplements).

How all of those components are evaluated vary from school to school, but what we have come to understand is the following: admissions committees are looking for more personality during this round because they are crafting a class. They want a class that is diverse, hard-working, interesting, collaborative, committed to learning, and excited to contribute to a school’s community. This is not easy to do, and this is why evaluating the rest of your application takes some time. The admissions committees are trying to get a sense of who you are as a person. They do this by reading through all of your application components. And then they read through them again. So how do you make these components the best they can possibly be?

When it comes to your counselor and teacher recommendation letters, of course you can’t control what they write, but you can influence how they view you and your relationship with them. Offering your teachers ample time to write a recommendation is always best--we recommend approaching them your junior spring, before senior fall hits and chaos ensues. As for your counselor, we recommend getting to know them early on in the college process--even before it starts--and frequenting their office (but don’t annoy them). Stop in once a week or so to check in and see how they are. If you know that it’s a chaotic day (AP test registration day for example), bring them a cup of tea or something to show them that you’re grateful for what they’re doing. A little bit goes a long way, and it’s great to make an impression early.

As for your extracurricular activities, that’s something to begin considering essentially your freshman year. It’s important to display how you spend your time to the admissions committee--they don’t want students who are going to sit in their dorm rooms during their free time. They want students out and about and passionate. You can set the precedent for your activities section and your additional information section.

Finally, we come to our last and most important component. The essay, which, in our opinion (and our opinion has gotten us pretty far up to now), is the most important component of your application. We welcome anyone to challenge us.

The essay is the absolute biggest part and is your chance to truly blow them away and differentiate yourself from the rest of the applicants. There’s no way around it. You’re speaking directly to the director of admissions in 650 words. It is the one thing about your application that you have complete control over, and you have the ability to make that particular aspect amazing. Help us help you. While many other aspects of your application have the ability to bolster your overall profile, no component has the ability to make or break you like the essay does. Trust us. It’s wise to put a lot of thought, time, and effort into your essay, because it’s the most telling thing about you in your application. If your essay blows the readers’ minds, that one B that you got freshman year will all of a sudden become a distant blip on an otherwise very clear radar. Trust us. The essay is everything, so don’t slack.

If you have any question at all about any of the above, let us know. We’re here to shed some light on this complicated process, and we have a lot of information that we’d love to share with you. We can only type so fast, but get us on the phone and we’ll tell you what you need to know.