College Admissions Officers Weigh Academic Excellence Over Personal Characteristics, Report Shows

On Nov. 8, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released its annual report State of College Admissions. It details which qualifications colleges and universities consider most important in making admissions decisions, including factors such as standardized test scores, race, and ethnicity.

To compile the report, researchers surveyed admissions officers at nearly 500 higher education institutions across the U.S. They were asked to rate whether specific academic qualifications and personal characteristics have “considerable influence,” “moderate influence,” “limited influence,” or “no influence” on their decisions.

The vast majority of colleges — 80 percent — reported that a student’s grades in high school were the most important factor in admissions decisions. Approximately 70 percent of institutions reported that an applicant’s success in college preparatory classes also has “considerable influence” on whether they will be accepted.

Students’ scores on the SAT and ACT were the third most influential factor, with 52 percent of institutions placing these scores in the “considerable influence” category. However, the overall emphasis on standardized tests has steadily declined in recent years as, in 2007, approximately 60 percent of schools reported that the ACT and SAT had “considerable influence” on admissions, according to NACAC. Researchers speculate that this decline stems from the fact that many highly selective schools have made standardized tests an optional part of the application process.

When it comes to personal characteristics, most institutions said they give greater consideration to first-generation status than to race or ethnicity. Just over 4 percent of schools said first-generation status has “considerable influence” on admissions decisions, whereas only 2.4 percent attributed this level of importance to race or ethnicity. Nearly 64 percent of colleges said race had no bearing whatsoever on admissions decisions.

The NACAC also found that more students are applying to college and that acceptance rates are relatively high. The number of students who applied to college in 2017 increased by 4 percent from the previous year. In addition, four-year colleges and universities admitted, on average, nearly two-thirds of applicants, according to the report.

A growing number of students are also applying as early-decision candidates, meaning they agree to enroll in an institution should they be admitted before a certain date. Between fall 2016 and fall 2017, institutions reported an average 4 percent increase in early-decision applicants. The numbers of students choosing early-action applications — which allow applicants to learn of admissions decisions early in the school year but do not require that they commit to enrolling — increased by 9 percent during this timeframe. Both early-decision and early-action admissions are most common at highly selective colleges and universities.

NACAC also assessed the strategies that U.S. institutions of higher education use to recruit prospective students. Online recruitment via emails and college websites was found to be the most common.