How U.S. Colleges Choose Their Students

The reason why not all "perfect" students get in, and how you can navigate your way through admissions.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons

I don’t understand how her son got into Stanford and mine didn’t. My son had perfect grades! Her son’s grades were lower.

Oh, you got perfect SAT scores? That’s wonderful. You should apply to Princeton. You are a shoo-in.

If you want to get into an Ivy League school, you should be involved in as many extra-curricular activities as possible. Play a sport, write for the school newspaper, and be the student body president. And don’t forget service!  You must have a service-oriented activity. The Ivy League wants well-rounded applicants.

Everyone knows the “perfect” student, the one who gets all A's, perfect SAT scores, and plays for a youth orchestra while spending summers in Africa building homes for the homeless.  Every year, we hear about such students not getting into Harvard, while other “less accomplished” applicants make it. For frustrated parents and applicants, it may seem that the entire college application process is almost random. Someone got in and another similar student didn’t. How do U.S. colleges decide which students get in and which ones don’t?

Unlike many colleges in other countries, there is no single process that U.S. colleges adhere to when selecting their students. Each college uses its own method. Most colleges practice what's called "holistic admissions." They don’t simply get the students with the best grades and the best test scores. They want to get a good blend of students from a variety of backgrounds to make their incoming freshman class as diverse and as interesting as possible. 

To understand the process better, it may be good to think of it in terms of the two questions admissions officers ask when deciding whether or not to admit a student:

  1. Does the student have the academic preparation and performance to succeed in his or her chosen program of study at our university?
  2. Will the student be able to contribute to our community? Is this person going to be an asset?  To put it another way, is this person going to participate actively in class, be someone his classmates can learn from not just in the classroom but in the dorms and in the dining halls as well? Is he a good fit for us and are we for him?

The first question is more important. If the student can’t succeed academically at an academic institution, the second question is moot. The student’s academic record in high school addresses the first question, primarily the grades and the rigor of the high school curriculum. If the student is proposing to study engineering, then the university will be looking at what level math and science the student took in high school and the grades he or she got in them. The SAT scores simply support the grades of the student and may give a bit of context to those grades as well. Most students can look at their grades and scores and compare that to what the university typically accepts and decide if it’s worth the trouble and the expenses to apply. Because of this, most students (about 85 percent) who apply to even the most selective institutions are academically acceptable to those schools.


It’s the second question that’s a bit trickier and where the process becomes more qualitative. How does an institution decide if a student is a good fit?  This is where the college application essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews (if any) come in. The admission committee is trying to build a three-dimensional picture of the student and the better the job a student does through his or her essays and recommendation letters, the clearer the picture the committee gets to decide about him or her being a good fit. Unfortunately, many students don’t pay much attention to their essays, usually writing them at the last minute during Christmas break, and letters of recommendation from teachers are not as illuminating as they can be. They don’t give a complete or perhaps even give a less than flattering picture of the applicant. This is where many students stumble and may be why the “perfect” student gets rejected.

Another less obvious factor in the admissions equation is something called “institutional priorities.”  Simply put, the university is also looking out for students who fill a certain need or niche in the university. If the university is fielding a top-flight basketball team, it’s always going to want top-notch players.  If the faculty needs more female science majors, then female science majors might find it a bit easier to get in for a particular year. Maybe in the next year, they’ll need left-handed clarinet players for the orchestra, who knows? There is no way to predict “institutional priorities” from year to year so applicants have no control over this part of the admission puzzle.

Given all this information, how do you maximize your chances of admission to a U.S. college?  Address the two questions they ask as positively as you can.  Study hard, get the best grades you can in the most challenging curriculum in your high school.  Try to do well on the SAT while keeping in mind its supporting role in your application. Pay careful attention to your essay, take the time (and get the help) to write a good one. Do your research and apply only to schools that you feel are a good fit for you. If you can’t articulate the fit between you and the university, do you expect them to do it for you?


Finally, be authentic.  Be yourself.  Do activities that genuinely interest you and don’t do a host of activities just to impress colleges because they won’t be impressed. They’ll see right through it and it won’t look good for you. If your authenticity isn’t good enough for Stanford, then so be it. Move on. There are a lot of choices out there that are just as good, if not better, for you.

Armed with this knowledge of the U.S. college application process, go forth and craft the best application you can.

About the author: John Sy is a Manila-based professional U.S. college admission counselor. He received his certification from UCLA in 2013 and is primarily interested in helping students from non-international schools reach their goals of going to college in the U.S. He is a former math and physics teacher, a former international student in the U.S., and the proud father of a son studying mathematics in Canada. He is available for counseling and consultations. Contact 0917.833.3825; [email protected]universitasph.com.

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