How Colleges Make Admissions Decisions (Part 1)

As students put final touches on early action and early decision applications, and rush to complete their University of California applications, it’s time to talk about how admissions decisions are made.

Grades, rigor of curriculum and standardized test scores are key factors in college admission decisions. But there are also tip factors, which for students with similar grades and test scores could influence the decision either way, and these include extracurricular activities, essays, and even demonstrated interest.

Involvement in activities helps if a student has shown commitment and increasing responsibility. Joining four clubs in senior year doesn’t do it. Long-term involvement and leadership in one or two organizations is the way to go.

While admissions officers say the transcript is more important than test scores, at the Ivies and other elite schools, there are so many students with SAT scores above 700 on both sections that even a student with 4.5 GPA and six AP courses, without those scores, would have a tough time being admitted.

Some admissions offices recalculate GPAs, using only “academic” courses, eliminating classes like physical education, band, and life skills. Other colleges use whatever GPA is on the transcript. Most schools will look at the trend, so that a student whose grades improve each year will be viewed favorably.

The University of California and Cal State University recalculate GPA, using grades from the “a-g” courses in 10th and 11th grades. Up to eight semesters of UC-certified honors and AP courses receive extra points, and some UC campuses will re-calculate GPA to include more than eight semesters.

Highly selective colleges may not require physics, calculus or four years of the same foreign language, but so many applicants do have these courses that a transcript without them suffers by comparison. Even a few “C” grades on a transcript greatly reduces the chance of admission at these schools. Not because the student isn’t capable of doing very well at the college, but as one admissions officer told me, when there are thousands of applications without a “C,” why wouldn’t they choose those students? There are certainly students who are admitted with less than perfect transcripts, but they will have some other edge, whether it’s winning the Intel Science Talent Search or being a talented musician or athlete.

For the UC, students who meet basic eligibility are guaranteed admission to Merced. Other campuses use a comprehensive review or holistic process. Each admissions office uses its own method, but points may be awarded for academic and non-academic criteria, including number of a-g courses beyond the minimum required, special talents, leadership, first-generation college attendance, challenging personal circumstances and other factors. Depending on the applicant pool, a cutoff is determined and students with enough points are admitted.

While the most competitive public universities, including University of Michigan, University of North Carolina and University of Virginia also do holistic review, admission to California State University campuses, as well as many other state schools, is by the numbers. Grades and test scores matter, extracurricular activities are unimportant, essays and recommendations not required.

Liberal arts colleges don’t normally consider a student’s choice of major in the admission decision, and the same is generally true when applying to the arts and sciences schools at UC campuses. In certain majors like performing arts that require auditions, or engineering, applicants are competing against others for spaces in those programs.

Next time: More on admission decisions

Success Stories

  • Melissa M., Studio City
    “I am happy to say that I was accepted into 11 of the 13 schools to which I applied. I made it into UCSB, UCSD, UC Berkeley, Rice University, Washington University in St. Louis, Duke University, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Brown University, University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University! ... Thank you so much for all of your help.”
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