Deferred or Denied? Learn about Ivy Coach's PostMortem + Letter of Continued Interest

The Ivy Coach Daily

August 13, 2004

How Applications Are Evaluated and Decisions Are Made

Learn how applications are reviewed in admissions offices at our nation’s elite universities.

Of the 1,800 accredited colleges and universities in the U.S., only about 35 are considered highly selective. This highly selective category is reserved for schools that typically admit less that one-third of all their applicants. To determine a college’s degree of selectivity, one needs to know the number of students who were admitted in the most recent class and divide that by the number of students who applied. The smaller the percentage of students admitted, the more highly selective is the college. For example, for the Class of 2008, in the hope of forming a freshman class of 1,310 students, Yale University received 19,674 applications and admitted 1,950 applicants, thus making their application-admit ratio 9.9%. However, as applicant pools (the number and quality of the applicants) change each year, so does the college’s degree of selectivity.

When competition is as keen as it is with these highly selective colleges, many factors play a role in the admissions process, but the two most important factors continue to be exceptional academic and personal accomplishments.

Academic Criteria

The best predictor of a student’s academic success at a highly selective college is that student’s academic success in high school. Yet along with grade point average and the intensity of high school courses (including honors and advanced placement classes) are rank or decile and standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, SAT IIs, and AP Examinations). The competitiveness of the high school and the letters of recommendation from the guidance counselor and the teachers who know the student the best are also considered other highly significant academic factors. Nevertheless, all too frequently we hear stories of how valedictorians with perfect SATs may just not be good enough. When these students are denied admission it is often because their application makes them sound as if they have achieved a level of entitlement, and consequently they come across as pompous and one-dimensional.

Who Gets Accepted

Talent – Applicants who get accepted to the highly selective colleges are those who have not only achieved academic success and have respectable standardized test scores, but who also have demonstrated strength or talent in one particular area. When a college has received almost 20,000 applications, a talented oboist is only competing against other talented oboists with similar grades and standardized test scores. Since these most competitive colleges are always seeking to form a well-rounded class of talented or angular students, this particular factor can become of major significance in the admissions process.

Legacy – When a student’s parent graduates from the college to which the student is applying, that student is considered a legacy and as such has a significant advantage over other applicants. Since alumni are responsible for the huge endowments at these highly selective colleges, legacy status can become an important factor in the process. It’s only natural that a college would want to continue to make their alumni happy so that their alumni would continue to contribute. The student who applies as a legacy then competes with other students who are legacies. It is not unusual for a highly selective college to accept 15% of all its applicants but 65% of the sons and daughters of their alumni.

Development – When an applicant’s family has pledged to build a new library or make a significant contribution to a scholarship fund, a college would find it difficult to deny acceptance to the applicant from this family.


Ethnicity – Up until the early 1990s, colleges used Affirmative Action to admit minority students. Now in the twenty-first century, because of recent court decisions that have challenged Affirmative Action cases, many colleges, though they no longer call it “Affirmative Action,” will continue to racially balance their freshman classes. Having a diverse student body is what college admissions counselors look to achieve. An applicant’s ethnicity, especially if that applicant is an “underrepresented minority” (URM) is one factor that admissions counselors can use to put together a class of diverse students. Applicants who are members of certain minority groups are more desirable to some colleges than members of other groups and each college weighs minority representation differently. An Asian American student applying to Cornell University may not be representing the smallest minority group, but that same Asian American student may fill a void at Amherst College.

Geographic – A student from Nebraska may be the only one applying to Dartmouth College and if the admissions counselors at Dartmouth are looking to form a freshman class of students representing all fifty states, that student will have an edge in the admissions process.

Socioeconomic – Socioeconomic factors play yet another role in diversity. Students who have an edge in the admissions process are those who have parents who never attended college and who are blue collar workers. The admissions committee will want to accept these students knowing that they have lacked many of the advantages of the affluent candidates who are also applying for admission.

Additional Factors

Early Decision / Early Action – When students apply Early Decision to their number one choice school, they are telling admissions counselors at that college that if they are accepted they will attend. They have signed a contract and they agree to adhere to the rules. At most highly selective colleges, Early Decision applicants have a consequentially higher acceptance rate than do Regular Decision applicants. For instance, for the Class of 2008, the University of Pennsylvania accepted 33.5% of their Early Decision applicants while they only accepted 17% of their Regular Decision applicants. Early Decision not only benefits the student, but it also benefits the college since the college can then partially fill the incoming freshman class with students who have pledged to attend.

When a college offers Early Action instead of Early Decision, although the student if accepted is not obligated to attend, there are enough similarities to the process and thus advantages to applying Early Action. For the Class of 2008, Harvard University received 3,889 Early Action applications, and accepted 23.3%, while in Regular Decision Harvard received 15,861 applications and accepted 8%.

Interest Quotient (IQ) – Many admissions counselors from the highly selective schools rate students on the interest they’ve demonstrated. Interest translates to campus visits, emails, and phone calls. Since colleges want to accept students who will ultimately attend, the interest quotient, or IQ, can become yet another significant factor in the admissions process.

Declared Major – Declaring a major can sometimes work to an applicant’s advantage or disadvantage, depending upon the popularity of that specific major and depending upon the applicant pool. With some colleges, however, declaring a particular major will have no effect on the decision. If a prospective student has serious thoughts about a particular major then that student might want to speak with someone from either the admissions office or that specific department. The student may want to ask if accepted as an undeclared major, would the department later accept upper-class students. Since each college evaluates this aspect of the application differently, it is up to the applicant to find out if declaring a specific major, or an area of interest, will help or hurt the chances of gaining an acceptance.

Activity Record – College admissions counselors are adept in detecting the truly committed and involved student as opposed to the student who has simply gone to a few meetings in a dozen different school clubs. Admissions counselors, in seeking students for their upcoming class, are looking for students who have maintained or enhanced their involvement over their four years of high school. Students who are involved in extracurricular activities generate a more involved student body on the college campus, and accordingly can add to that college’s selectivity the following year.

Interview – A good interview can humanize the admissions process. The applicant should try to view the interviewer as a resource with whom to have direct contact and someone who may help to enlighten the applicant about the college. At colleges where the interview is optional, the student should arrange for an interview if the student feels that that the interview will improve the chances of admission, or if the student has any specific questions that need to be answered. Making a good impression on the interviewer can definitely help a borderline candidate. It is important to come to the interview prepared with answers to common questions, prepared with questions to ask, and to leave the interviewer enthused.

Essays – Excellent essays can make all the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. When admissions counselors read the essay portion of the application, they want to feel as if they just had lunch with the applicant. The essays are the one part of the application over which the student has total control. Therefore, it’s important to make the most of the essay portion by expressing individuality and by making the essays come alive. Excellent essays can inspire the admissions counselors to want to know more about the student. Excellent essays can even help to make admissions counselors vote to accept the applicant.

Who “Makes the Case”?

Through high school transcripts, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, essays, activity sheets, and personal interviews, students who have demonstrated intellectual curiosity, personal initiative, and those who have made an impact on their school and community will have a much greater advantage in the admissions process. Students need to be who they are but to work at making a difference!

You are permitted to use (including the content of the Blog) for your personal, non-commercial use only. You must not copy, download, print, or otherwise distribute the content on our site without the prior written consent of Ivy Coach, Inc.


If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s college counseling,
fill out our free consultation form and we’ll be in touch.

Get Started