10 Most Important Factors in Selective College Admission

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

The single, most common question I hear as a college advisor is some version of “What does it take to get into a highly selective college?” Here are my selections for the top 10 factors students should develop over their entire high school career, beginning with a solid academic foundation in elementary and middle school.

1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include Honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate classes.

2. Grades that represent strong effort and an upward trend. However, slightly lower grades in rigorous classes that the student feels passionately about are preferred to all A’s in less challenging coursework.

3. Solid scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT). These scores should be consistent with high school performance. Test optional does not mean test blind. The value of submission of strong test scores varies with the college.

4. Passionate involvement in several activities with significant time commitment spanning years of involvement. Depth, not breadth, is most important.

5. Letters of recommendation from teachers and a guidance counselor and sometimes an outside source which give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and a genuine interest in learning.

6. Well written essays that provide insight into the student’s unique personality, values, and goals. The application essays should be thoughtful and highly personal. Each essay should be carefully constructed and demonstrate a command of proper writing conventions.

7. Special talents and abilities. Colleges are not looking for well-balanced students, but rather in putting together a well-balanced incoming freshman class. Special talents in athletics, the fine arts, and multiple foreign languages are some examples.

8. Demonstrated leadership in activities. Colleges are excited to admit students who will arrive prepared and willing to take leadership roles in campus activities and events. But leadership can take many forms and a leadership title is not always critical—it is the work the student does, and the initiative taken, that matter most.

9. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity, maturity and advanced skills developed through reading beyond the assigned curriculum, advanced coursework, research endeavors, community service and employment. You don’t have to check all the boxes; remember, you need time to eat and sleep!

10. Evidence that the student has fully researched the college and knows exactly why it is a good match for them. This is often demonstrated by the student showing consistent interest in the college, visiting, interviewing, asking intelligent questions of the admission officers and writing a standout “Why our college?” essay.