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  • Writer's pictureAllison Styffe

How do colleges select students?

As high school counselors and college advisors, we are frequently asked what is the most important element that will get a student into college. As we all know, there are no absolutes when it comes to college admissions.

So how do colleges select students? It’s not one of the great mysteries of life, even though it sometimes looks that way. While there is no precise formula for how a student gets admitted to a college, admission departments typically provide their admission criteria, which may include all or some of the following:


Course rigor and grades

Your transcript will list every class that you have taken in high school and the grade you received in that class. Colleges will not only take your grades into consideration, but will be looking to see whether you took challenging courses or whether you opted for the easier route. For the most selective institutions, college prep courses (college level/dual credit, AP, and honors) count more than those of regular courses.

Standardized test scores

These include the results of the SAT or ACT, the SAT Subject Tests, and Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Colleges will let you know which of these tests you will need to submit. The SAT and the ACT scores are the two most requested.


Almost every application will ask you to submit an essay or personal statement based on a question the college provides. You usually choose from several questions. Your essay is your opportunity to put a “personality” behind the application and share something new about yourself. The essay gives you a chance to say why you want to attend that particular college. A good essay can tip a decision in your favor. Need some inspiration for your college essays? We encourage you to take a look at Connecticut College Essays that Worked for some helpful hints and great, real-life winning essays.

Extracurricular commitment

What you do in your spare time says a lot about you. Maybe you’ve pursued a sport, spent years developing a talent, or made a strong commitment to work or volunteering. Perhaps you dedicated your time to caring for family members or participating in clubs. What counts most to colleges, especially highly selective colleges, is how long you have been involved, how much time you allot each week, and the character traits you've developed as a result.

Demonstrated interest

Whether it’s showing up for a college visit, calling admission officers, or an enthusiastic interview, showing that you really want to attend a particular college can help your chances at getting into it, especially at private colleges.

Letters of recommendation

Although not all colleges ask for them, some colleges require that you ask certain teachers, your high school counselor, and other adults (coaches, mentors, etc.) to submit to colleges recommendation forms as a testimony of your character and capabilities. They are meant to be letters of praise, so look for faculty with whom you’ve had a good history, who know you well and who can vouch for your likelihood of academic and professional success.


Most schools don't require them, but it never hurts to ask a college whether this could be an optional addition to your application portfolio. Speaking directly with an admissions rep is a great way to add a face, voice, and personality to your written application. It also demonstrates soft skills, like your ability to hold a conversation, think on your feet, and ask good questions — all important qualities that colleges are looking for in future students who will participate in their classrooms.


If you'd like help with any of the pieces of the college application puzzle, reach out to your career/college counselor or advisor. We would love to walk you through building the strongest application you possibly can!

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