College Admission FAQ

How do colleges make admission decisions?

One of the most difficult things in the entire admissions process is waiting patiently for admission decisions once a student has submitted his or her applications. Much of the students’ and parents’ anxiety stems from the sense that admission decisions are unfathomable and arbitrary.

While most college admission officers are sensitive and humane, their professional loyalty lies with their own college and its various constituencies. They seek not only the best and brightest scholars, but also the most talented artists, athletes, and leaders. They want to balance their populations geographically and ethnically. They want to remain attractive to their alumni – and their children. For these reasons, colleges may give preferential treatment in their admissions decisions to candidates who possess certain talents or who come from certain families or backgrounds. What this means is that the process is not always clear – you might feel that someone else whose academic credentials appear weaker than yours has unfairly gained admission to a school to which you have been denied entrance.

Generally, a college selection committee will evaluate a number of factors about a student, listed below in order of importance.

Academic Performance

A student’s entire high school academic record is the most important factor in the college admissions process. If the work does not reflect genuine effort, intellectual ability, and a real interest in learning, the record will be a liability. Selective colleges are interested not just in strong grades, but in a challenging course load. They want to know that a student has taken the most difficult courses that he or she is qualified to take and has met that challenge.

Standardized Test Scores

A student’s SAT or ACT scores tend to be the second most important factor in college admissions (for colleges that require scores). Chances for admission are best if the score is above the midpoint of a college’s mid-50% score range for students admitted last year. A list of colleges that do not require test scores can be found at

Extracurricular Activities & Work Experience

Rather than looking for well-rounded students, colleges are seeking angled students – students with a passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership, initiative, creativity, service, impact… and an angle. Extracurricular and summer activities as well as work experience will allow a college to see how productively a student uses free time. A student can gain a competitive edge with a detailed résumé that showcases accomplishments, leadership, initiative, creativity, outreach, and impact.

Community Service

Service should demonstrate genuine concern for others. Commitment to one substantial project is far more meaningful than participation in several mini activities. A student’s résumé should reflect the impact of the service.

Application Essay

A well-written essay that provides insight into a student’s personality, values, and goals is key to a successful application. An essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should exemplify careful and well-constructed writing.

Recommendations from Teachers & Guidance Counselors

Many colleges require recommendations, typically from your guidance counselor (or other school official) and two academic teachers. A student should request these recommendations – preferably of an anecdotal nature – by the end of the junior year so they will be ready in time for application season in the fall. ONE additional letter from someone else who knows the student well, but in a different capacity, may also help.

Anything Special That Makes You Stand Out

If appropriate, an application may include writing samples, evidence of unusual talent or experience, or anything special that makes a student unique. Does the student have demonstrable success in art, music, drama, speech, or creative writing? Put together a portfolio or website to showcase the work. Overall, colleges are seeking a talented and well-rounded freshman class whose members will make contributions to the college community.

Personal Qualities

Colleges want to know that each admitted student is a "good" person. They want to know that each student is essentially honest, responsible, and thoughtful, with concern for his or her peers. Thus, the application and recommendations should reveal these qualities, as should an interview, which some colleges recommend.

Demonstrated Interest in the College

Most college admission counselors feel that direct contact from a student (phone, e-mail, or snail mail) – rather than a parent or a counselor – is a reflection of the student’s sense of responsibility, organization, courtesy, and good judgment. Admission officers are bothered by overzealous parents who call frequently, trying to give their children a perceived advantage. A pre-arranged official visit to a college campus, especially if it is a private university, can be an important factor in the admission decision.

Intellectual Curiosity

Demonstrated intellectual curiosity beyond the classroom is essential for admission to a highly selective college. A successful student’s application might reflect summer study or research on a college campus; completion of additional courses for credit through Florida Virtual School, another distance-education provider, or Score At The Top; and an appetite for reading or doing research.

How do I develop my college list?

The "Good" Fit

You should be ready to start seriously talking to your parents about college considerations by the beginning of your junior year.

As you start to investigate colleges and think about what type of college might be a good "fit" for you, keep in mind that there may not be one perfect choice. In reality, there may be a number of colleges where you will be able to find happiness and fulfill your intellectual and social needs.

There are nearly 2,500 colleges from which to choose the one where you will spend four years of your life. Most students have not been faced with this sort of decision and are perhaps in awe of its magnitude. Much of the concern can be lessened by considering the following factors when choosing a college to add to your list:


  • A small college with less than 2,000 students, where you’ll have opportunities to stand out, develop close ties with professors, and actively participate in discussion-oriented classes
  • A large university with over 10,000 students, where you can be anonymous in lecture-style classes with hundreds of students, explore a wider variety of courses, and cheer for nationally recognized teams
  • A medium-size college that offers many of the same opportunities as the large university, but with the intimacy of the small college


  • A liberal arts college with its emphasis on the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences – a place to explore a variety of options
  • A conservatory where you can completely focus on your talents in the arts
  • A combination liberal arts/conservatory-style environment, where you can develop your talents while pursuing academic interests
  • A college with a pre-professional focus where you can immediately begin to pursue your life goals in fields like business, engineering, or communications

Student Body & Lifestyle

  • A college with students whose cultural/religious background is similar to yours, where shared family values, heritage, and spirituality will make you feel right at home
  • A college with a diverse student body that provides cultural alternatives from which you can benefit
  • A co-ed campus that provides opportunities to study and socialize with students of both sexes
  • A single-sex school where you can take leadership roles and focus on your education without social distractions in the classroom
  • A college where students share your political beliefs or special lifestyle

Academic Life

  • An environment that provides the right level of challenge for you, appropriately balancing academics and social life

Extracurricular Interests

  • A college where you can continue your active involvement in sports, student government, community service, debate, etc.
  • A college with an active Greek system
  • A college where you can pursue your creative interests in writing, acting, dancing, singing, or instrumental music

Special Services

  • A college with a pro-active support program for students with different learning styles
  • A college with a drop-in tutoring center for students who occasionally need extra help
  • A school that provides many opportunities for internships or foreign study
  • A school that facilitates cross-registration at a nearby college whose unique offerings appeal to you

Location & Environment

  • A college that’s comfortably close to home, or one that’s far enough away to let you live independently in a different environment
  • A college that’s part of a major metropolitan area, allowing you to take advantage of its cultural, recreational, and social opportunities
  • A school in a rural setting where you can enjoy the peaceful security of the countryside
  • A school where you can bask in the warmth of the sun, or one where you can enjoy the exhilaration of nearby ski slopes


Because the cost of attending a private college for four years can exceed $200,000, financial considerations may be paramount. Public universities tend to be financially attractive at $15,000-$30,000/year. However, financial aid and merit-based scholarships can put the cost of an expensive private college within reach.

Effective College Visits: Why? When? How?

Although most college admission officers do not publicize it, the college visit plays a role in the admission decision – especially for private universities! Colleges want to admit students who are most likely to accept the admission offer, and thus increase the college’s “yield” (the percentage of admitted students who say “yes!”). A high yield typically means a happy and more successful student body – and a better ranking. The best way to show your interest in a college is to make an official campus visit.

Most college admission officials agree that nothing substitutes for a campus visit when it comes to selecting a college. But what constitutes a successful campus visit? A successful visit begins with careful advance planning on your part and good communication between you and the admission office. For you to get the most out of a visit, you need to spend some time thinking about just what you want to accomplish. Colleges are eager to assist in the planning of a campus visit to make certain that you have every opportunity to evaluate the areas that are most important to you.

Campus visits fall into two categories.

The Informational Visit

Informational visits tend to take place before your junior year. Call the admission office in advance to reserve a spot for the information session and campus tour. During this visit you’ll get a feel for the college and determine whether or not to keep it on your list.

The Investigative Visit

The investigative visit should take place in your junior year or at the beginning of your senior year – when school is in session. Plan it at least a month or two in advance. In addition to an information session and campus tour, an investigative visit should include other considerations:

  • If the college offers interviews, sign up for one. Be sure to research the college enough so you can ask some insightful questions.
  • Ask the admission office to schedule you for a class or two. That’s a first-hand way to determine if the college’s academic program will suit your needs.
  • Arrange to meet with a faculty member to discuss a specific program in which you have an interest. You might just create an advocate for yourself!
  • If you're an athlete, you should certainly take time to talk with the coach of your sport.
  • If you have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder and need support services or accommodations, make arrangements to meet with a staff member in the college’s learning center.
  • Eat a meal in the student center. This isn't just to find out what the food is like. You can get a chance to see how the students interact with one another in a social setting.
  • Spend some time wandering the campus on your own. Read the college newspaper and posters on bulletin boards to judge the level of student involvement, to learn about the hot issues on campus, and to get a sense of the variety of social options.
  • If your religion or heritage are important factors in your life, make arrangements to meet with the head of Hillel or Chabad, Newman Catholic Fellowship, Black Student Union, Muslim Students’ Association, International Student Organization, etc.
  • Ask the admission office to arrange an overnight visit for you. You can see the integration of academic, social, and cultural life; the interaction of students with one another; and their level of academic interest.
  • Check out the surrounding neighborhood. Are there places you can easily walk to in order to satisfy your hunger for sushi, shopping, or movie-going?

Throughout your visit, keep asking yourself, “Can I be comfortable here for four years?”

What does it take to get into a state university in Florida?
What are the Common Application Essay requirements?

excerpted directly from the Common Application. 

Personal Statement

Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

    • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
    • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
    • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
    • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Other Essays: The Writing Supplement & Member Questions

 Some Common App colleges also require one or more additional essays. They can be found on the college’s QUESTIONS page and/or WRITING SUPPLEMENT. Every college has a QUESTIONS page and some colleges have a WRITING SUPPLEMENT; both are easily accessible from the MY COLLEGES screen.

You may find essay questions that ask you to explain what has led you to apply to a particular college, why you are a good match for that college, what you will contribute to that college, or why you have selected your major. Several colleges include a question asking you to elaborate on one of your activities. And more than 180 colleges give you the opportunity to upload your resume through the SUPPLEMENT or QUESTIONS page.

Is Early Decision for you?

By early October of your senior year, you should determine if you are interested in applying to college through an Early Decision or Early Action plan.

Many colleges offer an Early Decision or Early Action option whereby you apply early in your senior year, typically by November 1, and you’re notified by the middle of December with one of these decisions:

  • Accepted
  • Deferred into the regular admissions pool
  • Denied

In recent years an increasing number of colleges have been taking more and more of their classes early… In most cases, the early admits reflect anywhere from a third to half of the entering freshman class. Because of numbers like these, more students than ever are applying early.

College Early 
Acceptance Rate
Acceptance Rate
Acceptance Rate
Early Action 
or Decision
Brown 23.5% 9.5% 10.8% Early Decision
Columbia 20.2% 8.5% 9.8% Early Decision
Cornell 36.7% 17.2% 19.1% Early Decision
Dartmouth 25.9% 10.8% 12.0% Early Decision
Harvard   7.3% 7.3%  
Penn 31.5% 14.4% 17.1% Early Decision
Princeton   9.9% 9.9%  
Yale 13.4% 5.9% 7.5% Single-Choice
Early Action

Figures above are for the Fall 2009 entering class 

Harvard & Princeton ended their early admissions programs following the 2006-2007 application season, but
reinstated them (single-choice early action) in the 2011-2012 application season.

Keep in mind that an acceptance at a school where you have applied Early Decision is BINDING — you must enroll if you are accepted!

Issues to Consider Before Applying Early Decision (ED)

  • Because of the binding nature of ED, only students who have made an extensive college search should consider applying early. Early decision will affect you not just for the next four years, but for the rest of your life.
  • If you apply early, you cannot improve your profile (GPA, scores, activities). Does the profile you have compiled thus far match the requirements of your ED college? If your grades have been rising steadily, chances are they will also go up in the fall of your senior year. This improvement may be what it takes to get into the college through regular decision.
  • Until you hear from your ED college, you should operate under the idea that you will not be accepted. Continue to investigate other colleges so that if you are not accepted, you will not be starting from scratch. Preparing yourself this way will make it much easier for you to get your applications and essays together to meet January or February deadlines.

Who Shouldn't Apply Early?

  • If your record is mediocre when compared to a college's traditional applicant pool, then applying early will not give you any better chance of admission.
  • How well can you handle rejection? Rejection can put you into a real panic when it comes to applying during the regular round. The trauma of being rejected in December seems to be worse than the trauma of being rejected in April because you won't have the acceptance letter from another school there to soften the blow.
  • If you are interested in applying early so that you can “blow off” your senior year, forget about it! Students who spend their senior year disinterested in their school work are not only miserable, but they make others miserable as well. And they risk joining a growing number of seniors who, after initial acceptance by a college, find that their admission has been rescinded by the college when the final high school transcript arrives.
  • Students who also apply for financial aid may be giving up a tactical advantage by applying early. Those who apply regular decision can shop around among the colleges accepting them to see which one offers the best financial aid package. For those who apply early, the only option is to accept the financial aid package offered by the ED college.

Early Decision II (ED II)

Some colleges – like George Washington University and Emory University – offer a second early decision deadline (ED II) which allows a student to apply in January with notification by March 1. This may be a viable option for students who were not accepted during ED I and who would still like some certainty before the spring, and for students who make a later decision to commit to one particular college. Any student considering this option should heed all of the same warnings listed above.

You May Apply Early Decision to Only One College!

However, you may apply to one college ED I, and then to another college ED II only if you are deferred or denied by the first college. Once deferred, your application is no longer “binding.” If you are denied during ED, you cannot reapply the same year. In most circumstances, you can also apply to other colleges Early Action. However, you must check each individual college’s EA/ED rules.

Early Action (EA)

Several colleges – such as the University of Miami – offer an EA option. Unlike ED, an accepted applicant is not bound to the college and may apply to other colleges. EA still offers you a tactical advantage – your chances of being accepted EA tend to be better at many colleges than your chances of being accepted in the regular pool. Besides, an early acceptance can help relieve the tension of the application process. Therefore, you should always take advantage of EA for any college that offers it and where the percentage admitted through EA is higher than the percentage admitted in the regular pool!

The original intention of the EA plan was to enable students to apply to multiple colleges under an EA plan, and even apply to another college under an ED plan. In most cases, that is still true. However, there are some colleges that have “Restrictive” early plans – including Boston College, Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale – which restrict your ability to apply to other colleges either EA or ED. Thus, it is up to you to check each college’s EA/ED rules.

University Restrictive EA Plan Comments
Boston College Can apply to other colleges EA 
Cannot apply ED
Competitive candidates who are not admitted will be reconsidered for Regular Decision; 20% of those candidates will then be admitted.
Georgetown Can apply to other colleges EA
Cannot apply ED
Admit or defer (no deny); 10-15% of those deferred will eventually be admitted

EA acceptance rate very similar to regular-decision acceptance rate
Stanford Cannot apply EA or ED anywhere, except if it is a requirement for a special program or scholarship  
Yale Cannot apply EA or ED anywhere, except if it is a requirement for a special program or scholarship and the notification for that program or scholarship occurs after Jan 1

What mistakes do seniors most commonly make on their college applications?

1. Missing deadlines.

Because there are so many dates to remember – early action/decision, regular admission, scholarship, financial aid – put them on your Outlook or Google calendar to remind you when things are due. Make a spreadsheet of your deadline dates, sort them chronologically, and tape it to your refrigerator so your parents can help (nag) you!

2. Spelling/grammatical errors.

Using spell check is a must, but don’t stop there. Proof your application and essay for grammar and syntax mistakes as well. Little errors in grammar and syntax can make a big, undesirable impression.

3. Not following the directions.

Read all directions carefully. For example: if the application asks for county make sure you don’t list your country (a common mistake). Don’t exceed the word limit for any essay by more than 10%.

4. Not correctly prioritizing your activities.

Don’t list the activities you think colleges want to see, but include the activities you are most involved with and most passionate about, starting with the most important. The length of your activity list doesn’t matter; it’s the level of commitment, initiative, leadership, creativity, and impact that colleges really care about. Depth over breadth! And if you list too many activities, it can create an impression of a dilettante.

5. Using an inappropriate email address.

Most colleges communicate with students via email. Create a professional-sounding email address, preferably one that includes your name. An email address you created when you were ten won’t be appealing to an admission counselor.

6. Having your parents fill out your application – or, worse yet, write your essays for you.

After reading so many applications, admission counselors can tell the difference between adult writing and teenager writing. It is important that you fill out your own application and write your own essays (with appropriate guidance, of course) to give the college a true idea of who you are. A DDI (Daddy Did It) essay can be spotted a mile away!

7. Mentioning one college’s name in an essay intended for another college.

Telling Duke “… and that’s why I want to go to Wake Forest” is the kiss of death! Proofread carefully.

8. Applying to a college for the wrong reasons (for friends, parents, etc).

You are your own person and you have your own dreams and goals. Don’t choose a college primarily because it’s where your friends are going or because your parents went there.

9. Not applying because of the price.

Don’t discount a college because of the price. Many colleges, especially the highly selective ones, have generous scholarship programs. Search online databases for scholarships and grants that apply to you, and have your parents submit the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE in a timely manner to help ensure your eligibility for financial aid. Also, research your local community; many businesses have programs set up to help students pay for college

10. Fabricating information.

Never lie on an application! Many colleges do quality control checks on students’ claims.

11. Applying to a college without telling your guidance counselor.

Tell your guidance counselor which colleges you are applying to so he or she can prepare and send required documents, such as your transcript and letters of recommendation.

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