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Colleges Most Interested in Applicants' Grades, Course Rigor

Just what are admissions officers looking for when they review a college application?

The top factors (in order of importance) are students' grades in college-prep courses, the strength of their high school curriculum, scores on standardized admission exams (SAT or ACT), and overall high school grade point average, new survey data show.

The 2013 State of College Admissions report, released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, finds that indicators of academic performance in high school trump factors on the application, such as the quality of students' essays, demonstrated interest in a school, counselor and teacher recommendations, class rank, and extracurricular activities.

The report is based information gathered by the Arlington, Va.-based association through surveys sent to public and private high schools (966 responded) and postsecondary-institution members of NACAC (446 responded), as well as data from the College Board Annual Survey of Colleges, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

About 25 percent of colleges rated race/ethnicity, first-generation status, and the high school attended as at least moderately important as a factor in admissions, the report says.

Other highlights of the report:

  • Application volume mixed: About 64 percent of colleges reported an increase in total applications, but 27 percent experienced decreases. Among the fall 2012 freshmen, 28 percent submitted seven or more applications, down slightly from 29 percent the year before.
  • Overall enrollment dips: For the first time since the early 1990s, college enrollment declined slightly as of 2011, with 21 million Americans attending some kind of postsecondary institution. Fewer students at for-profit colleges and two-year public colleges drove this trend, while enrollment at public and private nonprofit colleges expanded. After a 37 percent increase in enrollment in the past decade, the long-term projection is still for overall growth through 2021 to 24 million.
  • Colleges face yield uncertainty: Fewer students are accepting offers from college and universities, making it more difficult for schools to predict their enrollment numbers. In the fall of 2012, about 37 percent of students who were admitted to an institution accepted. The yield rate has steadily declined from nearly 43 percent in 2009.
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