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College Admissions

The Admissions Process, Application Options, Weight of Credentials

Applying for admission to colleges and universities has evolved from a relatively straightforward process to a complex rite of passage that causes anxiety for many high school students. Increased media attention about college admissions during the late 1980s and 1990s facilitated the growth of a booming college admissions industry. Commercial test-preparation courses, independent counselors, annual college rankings by news magazines, and a wide range of guidebooks are now a routine part of the college admissions landscape.

Despite this plethora of advice on how to "beat" the admissions process, institutions of higher education vary greatly in their selectivity. Many community colleges, for example, have an open-access policy and admit any applicant with a high school diploma or its equivalent. On the other hand, the most competitive universities admit as few as 10 to 20 percent of their applicants.

Colleges establish enrollment goals based on considerations such as tuition revenue projections, financial aid budgets, housing availability, and the number of currently enrolled students. Since many applicants apply to more than one institution, not every offer of admission that a college extends will result in a student enrolling there. Colleges therefore admit more students than they hope to enroll. The percentage of students who accept an institution's offer of admission is known as a college's yield rate. Because this number is difficult to predict from year to year, some institutions maintain a wait list for applicants. If a college has not reached its target enrollment after regularly admitted applicants accept or decline their offers of admission, it may admit students on its wait list.

The Admissions Process

The admissions process is based on the submission of written applications and supporting credentials. In the late 1990s many colleges began offering the option of online applications, available through institutions' websites or through commercial third parties. While most students use application forms specific to a particular institution, a form called the Common Application reduces the volume of paperwork for students applying to participating institutions. Most institutions require an application fee, although students with severe financial hardships sometimes obtain fee waivers with the support of their guidance counselors.

Applications usually require submission of an official high school transcript, an official college transcript if the student has completed previous college coursework, a guidance counselor recommendation, teacher recommendations, and official results from either the SAT I or the ACT Assessment. Some selective colleges require the SAT II subject tests, which they sometimes use for placement purposes. In addition, many applications require one or more essays, and some colleges require interviews with admissions staff, alumni, or current students. Additional information may be required for transfer or international students.

Application Options

Many institutions have a strict admissions timetable to which applicants must adhere. Application deadlines can range from early fall of the senior year in high school to the summer before desired enrollment. The following are among colleges' most common application options, and an institution may offer one or more of these:

  • Regular decision. Deadlines for submitting applications and supporting credentials for fall semester admission typically fall between December and March. Most institutions that follow this traditional schedule mail admissions decisions in late March or early April and ask students to notify them of their enrollment decisions by May 1.
  • Rolling admissions. Some colleges offer a rolling admissions process, in which applications are reviewed and evaluated as they are received. These institutions notify students of their admissions status as decisions are made.
  • Early action. Some colleges have a fall application deadline for students who wish to receive notification of their admissions status in December or January. Colleges may admit or deny these applicants, or they may opt to reconsider them under the regular decision process. Receiving an early offer of admission can be a relief for students, and students who are denied admission usually still have time to apply to other colleges. Some institutions ask that applicants apply for early action at only one college, while others do not have this restriction.
  • Early decision. This process differs from early action in that students agree to attend the institution if offered admission. In addition, they must withdraw their applications from all other institutions if admitted. As students may apply to only one institution using this option, it is appropriate only for students who are certain about their first-choice college. In some cases, applying for early decision can have ramifications for financial aid.

Counselors generally recommend the early action and early decision options only for students with strong academic records through the junior year. Weaker applicants may improve their applications by retaking a standardized test or improving their grades during the fall of their senior year.

Some variations exist in the above timetable. In special cases, for example, highly qualified students may be permitted to enroll after their junior year in high school. Some colleges will agree to defer an offer of admission for students who wish to work or travel for a year between high school and college. Accepting a position on a college's wait list may prolong the college admissions process well into the summer before desired enrollment. Some institutions may admit a student with provisions (e.g., asking that he or she take a summer remedial skills course prior to being fully admitted to the college).

Offers of admission to high school seniors usually include the stipulation that the student must maintain satisfactory academic performance. Colleges may revoke offers of admission to students whose grades decline significantly during their second semester.

Application review procedures vary widely by institution. Some colleges have admissions officers independently rate applications, while others utilize committees comprising admissions personnel, faculty, or current students. Institutions are legally bound to adhere to their publicized admissions standards, honor their admissions decisions, and refrain from unjustifiably discriminating on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, or citizenship. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the legality of affirmative action, one of the most controversial practices in college admissions, began to be challenged in the courts.

Weight of Credentials

No particular set of credentials guarantees admission to the most selective institutions, as these colleges receive many more qualified applicants than they are able to admit. The process is subjective, and often several individuals will review each application.

Colleges usually identify the high school transcript as the most important credential. They consider rigor of coursework, grade point average (GPA), and sometimes class rank. Institutions typically publish their minimum expectations for applicants' high school curriculum. In evaluating the transcript, most colleges highly regard honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Some colleges look primarily at the number of years a student has studied each subject (e.g., three years of foreign language); others look to see that a certain course level has been attained (e.g., completion of Algebra II). Many colleges view applicants' coursework in the context of what their high schools offer. Most high schools send colleges a profile that includes information about grading practices, curriculum, extracurricular opportunities, and the socioeconomic environment of the school. This gives admissions officers a way to judge the work of students at high schools with which they are unfamiliar. Institutions vary as to whether they will consider GPAs and class ranks that are weighted for honors, AP, or IB courses; some re-calculate GPAs to be consistent across applications. Likewise, institutions differ as to whether they include nonacademic courses, such as physical education or fine arts, as part of the applicant's GPA.

Standardized tests, especially the SAT and ACT Assessment, continue to play an important role in the admissions process at most colleges, despite concerns about the differential performance of disadvantaged students on these tests. Some institutions, especially public universities, use admissions formulas that combine standardized test scores and grade point average. Most institutions, however, consider standardized tests as only one aspect of a student's application. Standardized tests provide a uniform yardstick against which all applicants are measured–unlike grades, which may reflect differences in high schools' academic rigor.

Institutions look to counselor and teacher recommendations to better understand an applicant. While an outstanding counselor recommendation can hold great weight with an admissions committee, admissions officers recognize that guidance counselors may not know each individual applicant well. Teacher recommendations help with this situation, as teachers tend to have more face-to-face contact with individual students. Recommendations can help colleges to understand the challenges that applicants have faced and the extent to which students have contributed to their high school communities.

Good essays also help admissions officers better understand applicants or see a side of the applicant not evident in the rest of the application. Admissions officers judge essays with an eye toward content and quality of writing. Colleges expect essays to be the applicant's own work.

Applications usually include space for students to list their extracurricular activities. Some institutions allow applicants to submit videos, slides, or other materials that document special talents in areas such as sports or the arts, and many colleges give special consideration to applicants with extraordinary talents.


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HERNÁNDEZ, MICHELE A. 1997. A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges. New York: Warner Books.

HOOVER, ERIC. 2002. "New Attacks of Early Decision." Chronical of Higher Education January 11:A45.

HOSSLER, DON. 1984. Enrollment Management: An Integrated Approach. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

KAPLAN, WILLIAM A., and LEE, BARBARA A. 1997. "Admissions." In A Legal Guide for Student Affairs Professionals, ed. William A. Kaplan and Barbara A. Lee. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

MCDONOUGH, PATRICIA M. 1997. Choosing Colleges: How Social Class and Schools Structure Opportunity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

SKRENTNY, JOHN D. 2001. "Affirmative Action and New Demographic Realities." Chronicle of Higher Education February 16:B7.


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COLLEGE BOARD. 2002. <www.collegeboard.com>

COMMON APPLICATION. 2002. <www.commonapp.org>



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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)