How colleges make admission decisions

So, what actually goes on behind closed doors as admissions officers review the hundreds of thousands of applications to choose their incoming freshman class, which they may only have a few hundred spots for?

For many students and parents, the admissions process is a mystery. We know the college examines the academic and personal accomplishments of a very anxious teenager hoping for admission.

After a period of way too much time, the student is accepted, denied, waitlisted or maybe even deferred to a later round of decisions. These decisions are based on criteria that most colleges take into account in their evaluation process.

Rigor of high school curriculum.

Grade Point Average (GPA) and Rank

Work hard to raise your cumulative GPA as you progress through each year, freshman to sophomore year, sophomore to junior year, and junior to senior year. Your rank is used by colleges to show how you are performing compared to other students in your class.

Test Scores

Research to see how your best SAT/ACT test scores compare to the most recently admitted freshman class at the college. Tests seem more objective to colleges because they are independent of the varying grading standards of high schools.


Colleges expect students to not only be strong academically but also to be interesting contributing members of their school and wider community.

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges want to know what you are passionate about. What do you do with your time outside of the classroom? What have you invested your time in over an extended length of time?

Service to Community

This is another area you can demonstrate what is important to you. Just as in extracurricular activities, sustained involvement over an extended amount of time is a big plus, and a time commitment will have more impact on your application than one that is less extensive.

Work Experience

Paid work can nicely complement a student’s special interests. Work can also demonstrate leadership ability, if the student has a job supervising others.


Colleges seek an insight into the person behind the paper.

The Essay

While an essay may not guarantee you getting into a college, a good one can really help. The most important ingredient of a good essay is…YOU! Essays are your chance to add dimension to those numbers and checked boxes on your application.

Letters of Recommendation

Some colleges will require letters from a student’s high school counselor and/or teachers. The best letters distinguish the student from the pack of other students by illustrating the student’s leadership skills, character, integrity, intellect, and participation in the classroom.

The process of college admissions is indeed a complex one. There is no magic formula for students, nor for admissions staff. I once asked a college admissions director what he liked most about his job, to which he stated, “I love seeing the faces of newly admitted students,” then I asked what he disliked most about his job, “That I cannot admit every student.”

Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college adviser for 13 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, and find the college that’s right for them.