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The Hidden Factors That Influence Who Gets In

Last night I gave our Application Nation - Class of 2025 group a Zoom call seminar on how to create a college list. We discussed the common and not-so-common influencers that shape a student's college list, from cost of attendance, to size of the college, to location, and much more.

I pointed out that colleges have influencers as well.

They are called institutional priorities and every single college has them. These institutional priorities are what the college cares deeply about and they absolutely influence who is admitted every single year. Some institutional priorities stay the same over time while others evolve. However, most colleges have very similar institutional priorities when selecting whom they want to admit. They all want similar things.

Here are five influencers that colleges are prioritizing right now:

1. Socioeconomic Diversity

Having students from all income levels on campus has always been a goal for most colleges. With affirmative action ending last June, socioeconomic diversity has become one of the most valued priorities for a college. Especially among the more selective colleges with generous financial aid programs, admissions officers are looking for those students who come from lower and middle income backgrounds because these students have been less represented on college campuses, historically speaking.

Admissions officers look at a student's parents' education, parents' occupations, home address, and even the student's high school to determine this. They can tell a lot about a student's socioeconomic background without ever looking at a financial aid document. First generation college students and students coming from lower and middle income backgrounds are highly desirable to colleges right now. In contrast, students coming from educated backgrounds and higher income households have higher expectations placed on them. 

2. Gender Parity

Colleges are usually not willing to admit this, but they want a balanced student body of both male- and female-identifying students on campus. Women outnumber men at almost every single liberal arts college and liberal arts program within a greater university. This can make it more difficult for female-identifying students to get admitted to these programs. On the flip side, men outnumber women in business, computer science, and engineering programs across the country. Male-identifying students tend to have a higher bar for admission because of this. This reality should not discourage students from applying to certain programs over others. That would be disingenuous. Instead, students can adjust their college list by applying to colleges with more generous acceptance rates if they represent a clear a majority in an applicant pool.

3. High Test Scores

Don't let the test-optional trend fool you. Despite most colleges remaining test-optional, test scores matter more than ever before. While few colleges are willing to share the acceptance rates of students who report test scores compared to those who do not, we have been tracking this among our Application Nation students since the pandemic began. Our data is clear. Application Nation students who report test scores (and high test scores at that) to test-optional colleges are getting admitted at rates that are two or three times higher than students who don't report scores. If you are choosing what to invest in these days, test prep would be at the top of my list if my child has strong test-taking ability and is considering highly selective colleges.

READ MORE: Are Test Scores More Influential Than Ever?

4. Geography

Just like students care about location in their college search, colleges do too. Colleges want more of what they don't have (or what they have very little of). Students coming from underrepresented states for a college are more attractive in the admissions process and can often get admitted at a higher rate than students coming from overrepresented states. If you are curious what states are underrepresented or overrepresented for a college, some colleges will list the geographic distribution of their class on the admissions website. Generally, states in the Deep South and Mountain West regions, and of course Hawaii and Alaska, are always highly desirable for a college to enroll students from. 

5. Athletics

Win or lose, colleges have always valued varsity athletics. Being a recruited athlete remains the most powerful influencer in college admissions. There are many hoops to jump through to get athletic support in the admissions process. But if a student is a top recruit for a college coach, their odds of admission can be as high as 100%. So as much as many students say they want to get admitted on their own or they turn their nose up at playing sports at incredible Division 3 colleges, they need to recognize how difficult it is to get admitted to some nationally-known colleges and universities. Getting recruited is a game-changer, especially for students looking at colleges with lower acceptance rates.
I mentioned these influencers (and more) to my Application Nation families last night for a reason. I want them to know how colleges shape an incoming freshman class. By understanding some of the institutional priorities, they can ensure their college lists are well-balanced, thoughtful, and realistic. Students can't change fundamental things about themselves like where they come from. But they can change their outcomes when they seek out colleges that value them.