NACAC's 14 Key Factors in the Admission Decision

The 2,600 four-year colleges in the United States are a mish mash of public, private, religious, and secular schools with their own unique, independent admissions requirements. Consequently, distilling a list of factors that might provide uniformity across their admissions practices is not easy, nor uniformly accurate. Regardless, the NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) periodically performs such a survey across this vast collegiate universe and posits the most important factors into a list called the ‘Factors in the Admission Decision.”

It’s important to never lose track of the diversity of the colleges this list encapsulates. For every factor under consideration, even the one cited as the most important by ¾’s of the US 4-year college universe, ‘GPA in college preparation courses,’ there are a quarter of colleges that don’t find this factor as important, and that’s over 600 of them. To make a finer observation, even within a university such as USC or Northwestern, if an applicant is planning to major in music performance, sometimes admissions will be looking harder at the candidate’s talent potential than his or her raw academic history. Talent and potential sometimes become weighty factors in certain admissions decisions. At the most selective colleges, grades and test scores are undeniably important, but there are always going to be cases that might lessen their weight.  

What factors do colleges hold dear for identifying academic talent? According to the NACAC Admissions Trends Survey, 2010, (with the percent of universities that identified the factor as being ‘considerably important’ in parentheses) they are the following in order of importance: 

  1. Grades in college preparation courses (75%)
  2. Strength of curriculum (62%)
  3. Admission test scores (SAT, ACT) (54%)
  4. Overall Grades (52%)
  5. Essay or writing sample (26%)
  6. Teacher Recommendation (21%)
  7. Student’s Demonstrated Interest (campus visits, contact admissions office) (21%)
  8. Counselor recommendation (20%)
  9. Class Rank (19%)
  10. Interview (11%)
  11. Subject Test Score (AP, IB) (8%)
  12. Extracurricular Activities (7%)
  13. SAT II Scores (7%)
  14. Portfolio (art, music samples) (7%)

Some factors require clarification. ‘Grades in college prep courses,’ for public schools (the UC System in particular) are grades in the a-g courses taken in sophomore and junior years. For private schools, particularly the most selective ones, many have their own formula for college prep GPA. Most of an applicant’s AP and Honors classes will be used (though some schools might throw out such classes as AP Environmental Science) in the GPA calculations. The courses in each school’s academic index calculations will vary.

‘Student demonstrated interest’ reflects campus visits, relevant contacts with the admissions office, meeting admissions reps when they visit their high school… and has shot up the list in recent years to number seven. The importance of this score strongly depends on whether a school is private (27% found it considerably important) or public (6%). For the private school, student interest is directly correlated with admissions yield, which is a key component in the school’s US News Ranking.

Public universities place great importance on ‘class rank’ and admissions test scores. The University of California guarantees a place on one of its campuses to applicants in the top 9% of their high school; individual campus admissions strongly factor in ‘standardized test scores’. Private universities factor in essays, recommendations (which the UCs don’t use), and ‘demonstrated interest,’ as mentioned, much more strongly than their public peers.

According to Mark Twain, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. The ‘Factors in the Admission Decision’ are statistics, which if misunderstood, lie. It’s a worthy task to learn, as best as possible, how each admissions department views an application. These factors serve as a basis to broadly ascertain general admissions efforts. Yet, how each factor factors into each campus’s admissions decisions is the true holy grail of the admissions process; more disconcerting, in spite of these ‘considerable factors’, many admissions decisions, to the rational eye, will continue to remain paradoxes wrapped in enigmas.