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Research Shows Course Rigor Tops in College Admissions

High school students in search of the perfect resume to get into college may be interested in the latest survey of admissions officers about what is considered most important in an application.

By far, the top factors in the admissions decision remain academic performance of high school students in college-prep courses and the strength of their curriculum. So to improve their college chances, students shouldn't skip the tough courses, according to the latest research from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Va.

But admission test scores and grades in all courses are playing an increasingly bigger role. In 1993, just 46 percent of admissions counselors said admissions test scores were "considerably important," and 39 percent felt that way about grades, compared with 2011 when 59 percent placed importance on test scores and 52 percent on grades, NACAC found in a portion of its 2012 State of College Admission Report released during a webinar today.

With a larger pool of applicants, colleges are looking more closely at "demonstrated interested." In 2011, nearly 21 percent of admissions officers felt that was important, up from just 7 percent when the factor was added to the NACAC survey in 2002. Also, the essay is gaining prominence. In the latest survey, 25 percent of respondents said the personal statement was an important factor, compared with 14 percent in 1993.

Class rank is no longer as critical as it once was, NACAC found. While it was considered important to 42 percent of colleges two decades ago, just 19 percent feel class rank is important now.

Other factors, all of lesser import, according to the report: recommendations from teachers and counselors, the interview, extra activities, work, subjects tests, state exams, SAT II test scores, and the student portfolio.

Trying to figure out how colleges assess a student's "merit" for entry is a source of great angst for many families eager to find some "formula" to guarantee admission, said Mary Lee Hoganson, an educational consultant and past NACAC president during the webinar.

"The best admissions officers look way beyond test scores and rank. They are trying to build a dynamic freshman class," she said. "Colleges are looking for students who have lived outside of the classroom, for those who have found passions and pursued those passions on an ongoing basis."

Hoganson voiced concerned that savvy, more-affluent students are coached in how to present themselves to a college, while many students without the same resources are at a disadvantage in the admissions process.

There is a growing pressure on school counselors to deal with larger caseloads and handle more applications. A bigger applicant pool means colleges are spending less time on each application, making students feel compelled to go to extreme lengths to compete, she added.

Earlier this month, NACAC released information about the dramatic rise in the number of applications submitted to colleges over the past decade. Nearly one-third of students apply to seven or more schools. At the same time, acceptance rates for four-year institutions declined slightly during the past decade, from a national average of 69.6 percent in 2002 to 63.8 percent in 2011.


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