As a college admissions consultant, I am often asked by families what priorities they should emphasize to best help their high school students qualify for college. I would like to suggest ten priorities to families in our community, based on Admission Trends Surveys 1993-2009 from The State of College Admission 2010 Report, from The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC).
1. Grades in college prep courses (87 percent). In NACAC’s survey, this factor drew the highest percentage (87 percent) of colleges attributing “considerable importance” to its impact in admission decisions. GPA demonstrates not only a student's raw smarts, but discipline and hard work over the long haul.
2. Strength of curriculum (71 percent). Straight As are great, but is your student enrolled in honors or AP (Advanced Placement) courses? Colleges want students that seek to challenge themselves. High schools’ advanced course options vary widely, but admissions officers want to see that your teen took advantage of the offerings in the school he or she attended.
3. Admissions test scores (58 percent). SAT or ACT scores are relatively more important in public versus private institutitions (but high priority in both). This factor was viewed of "considerable importance" in 54 percent of privates versus 71 percent of publics. This difference is probably driven by the ratio of admissions staff to number of applications. Public universities need to rely more on quantitative applicant qualifications like test scores than private colleges.
4. Grades in all courses (46 percent). Grades in electives count, too, especially if electives are in subject areas in which your student plans to major.
5. Essays (26 percent). Private colleges and universities place a higher priority on the essay (31 percent) versus state schools (13 percent). This difference is also probably driven by the ratio of admissions staff to number of applications. Private schools, particularly small liberal arts colleges, are able to focus on labor-intensive evaluation of candidates, such as reading essays.
6. Demonstrated interest (21 percent). This factor has only been measured since 2003, when it was 7 percent. Demonstrated interest has rapidly become a hot button for admissions people required to maximize their yield.
7. Teacher recommendation (17 percent). Encourage your student not to hide in the back of the class. Getting to know a teacher personally not only makes it easier to ask for recommendations, but may translate into an enriching mentoring relationship.
8. Counselor recommendation (17 percent). The guidance counselor not only writes the cornerstone recommendation for each applicant; he or she is the spokesperson for the applicant with every college. It most high schools, the counselor-student ratio does not naturally lend itself to getting to know one's counselor well. But encourage your teen to make every effort to keep the counselor informed of his or her achievements, and any issues, throughout the four years.
9. Class rank (16 percent). Class rank data is downplayed in some high schools, to dial down competitive attitudes. But you know vaguely where your kid is. This factor should help gauge how realistic your student’s target schools are.
10. Extracurricular activities (9 percent). So this is where all the hours of playing varsity sports and rehearsing for the winter musical goes, at the bottom of the top ten list?
Yes. So unless your child is a Div I athlete or a classical violin prodigy, extracurricular activities should be undertaken for personal development and fun. Not as an “ace in the hole” for college acceptance! College is an academic institution, which is why, on the NACAC list, grades are at the top and activities are at the bottom.