5 Free Official ACT Practice Tests

5 Free Official ACT Practice Tests

Starting in 2005, the ACT began releasing an official full-length practice test every year. We've been tracking these over the years and have compiled easily accessible download links below.

Because of the scarcity of real ACT questions, these tests are like gold.

When using one of these tests as a diagnostic or full-length practice test, mimic official test conditions as closely as possible. This means printing the test out, strictly timing yourself, and taking it in one sitting. This will ensure you’ll get the most value out of these tests.

Below you'll find everything to get you going - official practice tests and clear instructions on how to self-administer the test.

 

Official ACT Practice Tests - Download Links

--> ACT Practice Test #1 (2005-06) - Practice Test 1

--> ACT Practice Test #2 (2007-08) - Practice Test 2

--> ACT Practice Test #3 (2009-10) - Practice Test 3

--> ACT Practice Test #4 (2013-14) - Practice Test 4

--> ACT Practice Test #5 (2015-16) -  Practice Test 5

You'll notice that there are several years of tests missing. The ACT has a habit of releasing duplicate tests. For example, the 2016-17 and 2017-18 tests are the same as the 2015-16 test. The tests above are the 5 unique tests currently available.

 

Blank Answer Sheets

The Practice Tests above include blank answer sheets at the end of each document.

 

Proctoring Instructions

If possible, a parent or 3rd party person should administer the test. Otherwise, the student can easily manage the process himself.

Here is a checklist to guide you through the process:

--> PrepMaven Proctoring Instructions_ACT

 

5 Tips

  1. Set aside an uninterrupted chunk of time - Block off 3 hours and 52 minutes (if you're doing the Writing section) or 3 hrs and 10 minutes (without Writing section)
  2. Print out the test and answer sheets - The printed version will more closely mimic test conditions
  3. Time yourself - Make sure to include the appropriate breaks as well (if you're following our Proctoring Instructions, don't worry about this)
  4. Read the Proctoring Instructions above before you start - The instructions will identify which materials you will need and exactly how to time the different sections, including breaks and 5 minute warnings
  5. Carefully review your answers after the test - Careful analysis of EVERY question you answered incorrectly (or were confused about) is important for meaningful score improvements.

 

Considering the SAT? Check out 8 free official SAT practice tests here.

Not sure which test to take (SAT vs ACT)? Ask yourself these 5 questions to find out.

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

 

Next Steps

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other useful info. Please also share using the buttons on the side.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.

 


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


10 Free Official SAT Practice Tests

10 Free Official SAT Practice Tests

The College Board has released 10 official SAT practice tests since they've redesigned the test in 2016. You can find these tests on their website, in their Official SAT Study Guide (paid), or right here down below.

Because of the scarcity of real SAT questions, these tests are like gold.

When using one of these tests as a diagnostic or full-length practice test, mimic official test conditions as closely as possible. This means printing the test out, timing yourself, and taking it in one sitting. This will ensure you’ll get the most value out of these tests.

Below you'll find everything to get you going - official practice tests, blank answer sheets, and instructions on how to self-administer the test.

 

Official SAT Practice Tests - Download Links

--> SAT Practice Test #1 - Practice Test 1 | Essay 1 | Scoring 1 |Answers & Explanations 1

--> SAT Practice Test #2 - Practice Test 2 | Essay 2 |Scoring 2 |Answers & Explanations 2

--> SAT Practice Test #3 - Practice Test 3 Essay 3Scoring 3Answers & Explanations 3

--> SAT Practice Test #4 - Practice Test 4Essay 4 | Scoring 4 | Answers & Explanations 4

--> SAT Practice Test #5 - Practice Test 5Essay 5 | Scoring 5 | Answers & Explanations 5

--> SAT Practice Test #6 - Practice Test 6 Essay 6 | Scoring 6 | Answers & Explanations 6

--> SAT Practice Test #7 - Practice Test 7 | Essay 7 Scoring 7 | Answers & Explanations 7

--> SAT Practice Test #8 - Practice Test 8 | Essay 8 | Scoring 8 | Answers & Explanations 8

--> SAT Practice Test #9 - Practice Test 9 | Essay 9 | Scoring 9 | Answers & Explanations 9

--> SAT Practice Test #10 - Practice Test 10 | Essay 10 | Scoring 10 | Answers & Explanations 10

Blank Answer Sheets

The SAT has 4 sections and 1 Essay. Use the answer sheets below when completing your test:

--> Blank Answer Sheet - Sections 1 to 4

--> Blank Answer Sheet - Section 5 (Essay)

 

Proctoring Instructions

If possible, a parent or 3rd party person should administer the test. Otherwise, the student can easily manage the process herself.

It's surprisingly difficult to find simple instructions on how to self-administer the test, so we've put together a checklist to guide you through the process:

--> PrepMaven Proctoring Instructions - SAT

 

5 Tips

  1. Set aside an uninterrupted chunk of time - Block off 4 hours and 10 minutes (if you're doing the essay) or 3 hrs and 10 minutes (without essay)
  2. Print out the test and answer sheets - The College Board and Khan Academy provide an online version of the tests, but the printed version will more closely mimic test conditions
  3. Time yourself - Make sure to include the appropriate breaks as well (if you're following our Proctoring Instructions, don't worry about this)
  4. Read the Proctoring Instructions above before you start - The instructions will identify which materials you will need and exactly how to time the different sections, including breaks
  5. Carefully review your answers after the test - Careful analysis of the questions you answered wrong (or were confused about) is important for meaningful score improvements.

 

Considering the ACT? Check out 5 free official ACT practice tests here.

Not sure which test to take (SAT vs ACT)? Ask yourself these 5 questions to find out.

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

Next Steps

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other useful info. Please also share using the buttons on the side.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.

 


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


Confused

5 Things Asian Parents Get Wrong About College Admissions

5 Things Asian Parents Get Wrong About the College Admissions Process

Tiger ParentsLove it or hate it, the concept of the “Tiger Mother” – or of any “Tiger Parent” in general – has elements that ring true for many families, both Asian and otherwise.

Not every parent is like Amy Chua, the author who popularized the term in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But, it is true that many parents have very high, and very specific, expectations for their children.

What happens when you combine these high expectations with an incomplete understanding of the college admissions process?

You get well-meaning parents who pursue strategies that are counterproductive to their goal of admissions to the top schools in the country.

Over the past 12 years, Kevin and I have worked with thousands of families – about half of whom are of Chinese, Indian, or Korean ethnicity, and who span a wide range of experiences from recent immigrants, to longtime citizens, to those who live in Asia while their children study here in the US.

Throughout our work with such families, we find ourselves answering the same questions over and over again. This has enabled us to identify several common misconceptions that parents hold about the college admissions process.

Below, we address those misconceptions and provide tips for overcoming them, based on the insights we’ve developed over the years – through both our personal and professional experiences.

While this article largely references our experiences with Asian families, the advice presented here is applicable to everybody.


The Admissions Process is Not as Secretive as You Think

Tip #1 - The admissions process is not as secretive as everybody thinks

Universities have to be careful with how much information they divulge about their judgment process.

Give away too much information and people (i.e. high-priced admissions consultants) will undoubtedly try to game the system, placing less affluent applicants at more of a disadvantage. Don’t reveal enough, and the schools are criticized for not being transparent.

It’s also easy to get caught up in the marketing hype of admissions consultancies that claim to “reveal the secrets” or “pull back the curtain” of the admissions process.

The reality is that a lot of this information is out in the public. The range of available resources includes multiple books by former admissions officers, behind-the-scenes accounts by journalists, interviews with current admissions officers, and so on.

The caveat is that you have to tease out the good info from the mountain of bad info. And, take advice from current admissions officers with a grain of salt, since one of their many responsibilities is to get as many people as possible to apply to their schools.

Reputable ArticlesIn general, books written by reputable authors are safe bets. Be more discerning when it comes to online resources, especially online forums where fellow parents or students provide advice.

How would you figure out whether an author is reputable? Take a few seconds to Google the author name and publisher.

How would you tell if an online article you saw on WeChat is credible? Click through to see which publication published the article. If it’s not a nationally known publication then does it at least get linked to by big names like The Washington Post?

Our in-depth guide What College Admissions Officers Look For is highly rated by college counselors and is a good place for you to start your research process.


Standardized Test Scores Are Just One Part of the Equation

Tip #2 - Standardized test scores are just one part of the equation

We are often asked questions like, “My child scored a 1580 after three tries. How can I get him to perfect 1600?

On the one hand, yes, SAT and ACT scores are very important. After all:

  • You want to score at least within the median range for the schools you are applying to in order to be competitive.
  • In terms of time spent vs. impact, test prep arguably provides the greatest ROI out of all the application components.

Plus, we are well aware that:

  • A controversial 2009 study suggests Asian students must score 140 points more than otherwise similar white applicants in order to have the same chances of admission.
  • Families in some Asian countries are used to the tradition of a single exam (e.g. the gaokao in China) as the main factor in determining a student’s college choices and future job prospects.
  • So, it’s understandable why many Asian parents place outsized importance on standardized tests.

However, the more selective institutions practice “holistic admissions.” This means that in addition to academic achievements, schools also consider extracurricular distinction and character/personal qualities in the admissions process. We refer to these three components – academics, extracurriculars, and character/personal qualities – as the “3 Pillars of Successful Applicants.”

3 Pillars of Successful Applicants

Focus too much on the academic pillar, and your student might be among the many valedictorians or perfect standardized-test scorers that admissions officers reject.

If you’re looking for a way to distinguish yourself, try identifying your strengths and interests. Then, think about how you might use those strengths and interests to help others.

We encourage you to read Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 report called “Turning the Tide.

The report shares a vision of college admissions that emphasizes not just individual achievement, but also concern for others and the common good. It is endorsed by over 80 college admissions officers and other key stakeholders.


Improve Your Reading Comprehension and Writing Skills

Tip #3 - Improve your reading comprehension and writing skills

Technological innovation is changing the world around us and there has been an increasing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.

In 2011, economics, politics, and history were the most popular majors at Princeton.

Guess what the most popular major at Princeton is now? Computer Science. This is pretty amazing.

With all this going on, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of writing and reading comprehension skills.

Communication is a super powerThe ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a superpower that will never go out of style and will improve performance in all of your other classes as well.

Whether or not there is actual race-based discrimination in college admissions offices, there is no denying the existence of the stereotype that Asian students are good at math and science, to the detriment of other disciplines.

If you happen to fall within that stereotype, you’ll want to work hard at also developing your verbal skills.

This goes beyond simply improving your college admissions chances. These are skills that will improve your general success in life.

Taking a coding class after school? Great. But don’t forget to pick up a book and read something. What should you read? Fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, newspaper articles…anything! Moreover, don’t read just for pleasure, read for comprehension as well.

If you’re having trouble or want to improve faster, get some outside help from a teacher or tutor. There are techniques that anyone can learn to improve their reading comprehension and writing skills.


There is No Magic Formula for Guaranteed Admissions

Tip #4 - There is no magic formula for guaranteed admissions

“What do I have to do to get my child into Harvard?”  That’s the question so many of our clients ask.

There are definitely things one can do to increase chances of admissions to Harvard and other ultra-selective colleges.

However, more often than not, this question is asked in a way that implies there is a magic formula or pre-determined set of achievements one can accomplish that will guarantee admissions.

In addition, this mindset sometimes leads to an over-engineered high school career and forced activities that are counterproductive.

No Magic FormulaThere is no guarantee.

There is no magic formula.

Sorry.

Perfect test scores and valedictorian status are not guarantees. Being first trumpet or star quarterback is not a guarantee. A combination of all of these is not even a guarantee (although very compelling).

Why not? Don’t schools assign numerical ratings to applications?

Yes and no. While many colleges assign numerical ratings to your application in an effort to add some quantitative rigor and to quickly sort record numbers of applications, the admissions reading and judgment process is still a messy and emotional process.

For example, Princeton assigns academic and non-academic ratings on a 5-point scale. The application is read several times by individual readers and then discussed in a group during committee.

Your scores are simply used as a starting point, not as the final say, in these (sometimes heated) discussions.

Another explanation has to do with “Institutional Priorities.” These are strategic needs that a school has underscored, and which may change over time, as the school considers how to build its incoming class.

Examples of institutional priorities are:

  1. Legacies – children of alumni
  2. Faculty – children of faculty members
  3. Development – children of big-money donors
  4. VIPs – children of famous people and well-connected/influential people
  5. Exceptional Talent – superstar athletes, artists, musicians
  6. Diversity – ethnic/cultural, socioeconomic (especially first-generation students), geographic (both domestically, and internationally)
  7. Departmental/Programmatic Needs – for example, female computer scientists

Each school has different sets of priorities, but if you happen to have one of these “tags” or “hooks,” your chance of admission to that particular school increases.

Institutional priorities are just one example of the many X-factors in the admissions process that are out of your control.

Focus on the things that are in your control. Work hard, develop your passions, and try to distinguish yourself academically and extracurricularly. Just as important, maintain good moral/personal qualities – you don’t want to be like these guys.


Try Not to Overemphasize Rankings & Ivy League Schools

Tip #5 - Try not to overemphasize rankings & Ivy League schools

A mother contacted us for advice one day. Her daughter was accepted to Berkeley and several other really great colleges, but got rejected from Princeton. So, the daughter took a gap year and re-applied to Princeton. She got rejected again. The mother was contemplating having her daughter take another gap year and re-apply to Princeton for a third time...

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attend a top-ranked school. Everyone values different things.

However, the danger lies in focusing single-mindedly on these rankings.

If your only goal is to have your child attend the highest-ranked school possible, then that’s fine.

However, I would argue that for most parents, the larger goal is to ensure that your child becomes an independent and successful adult.

The confusion we’ve seen is that many parents equate an Ivy League education or school prestige with guaranteed success later in life.

Ivy League Education Does Not Equal Success

Jeff Bezos is not successful because he went to Princeton. Bill Gates is not successful because he went to Harvard (and dropped out). They are successful people who just happened to go to those great colleges.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, and one of the richest men in the world, got rejected 10 times by Harvard. He’s doing just fine.

Economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale have done research into the payoff of attending more-selective colleges. In one study, they conclude:

Quarterly Journal of EconomicsStudents who were accepted into highly selective colleges, but who chose instead to attend less selective colleges, earned the same amount of money as those who attended the highly selective colleges.

The college is not what makes you successful. It is YOU that makes you successful.

This is a very subtle but very important difference that should inform your college admissions strategy.

So what are top colleges looking for?

Top colleges select students who demonstrate qualities that lead to future success.

Said in another way…

DiamondTop schools pre-select students, through highly selective admissions, who demonstrate the potential to achieve greatness. Selective schools don’t find rocks and turn them into diamonds. They polish diamonds into shinier diamonds.

The most successful applicants demonstrate achievement and distinction in all areas of their life. For high school students, these areas are academics, extracurriculars, and character/personal qualities (our “3 Pillars”).

So what should your strategy be?

Even though we encourage parents to consider the bigger picture, let’s say that your ultimate and only goal is acceptance to the highest-ranked colleges.

What should your strategy be?

Try to forget about gaming college admissions and focus on personal development and growth. That means figuring out:

  • How can you be the best version of yourself, in all aspects of your life?
  • How will you make an impact, contribute to the community, and help others?

This is what colleges are actually looking for (and is easier said than done).

By focusing on developing characteristics that will make you successful, you will not only lay a foundation for long-term success, you will also maximize your chances of college admissions success at the top schools.

You can have your cake and eat it too.

Next Steps

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other in-depth guides like this.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


Admission Movie with Tina Fey

How Colleges Read Your Application: A 4 Step Process

How Selective Colleges Read Your Application

Send ButtonDo you know what happens after you submit your application?

In our post What College Admissions Officers Look For, we took a high level look at what colleges look for in students. In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into how they read and process your application.

This guide will focus mostly on the mechanics and structure (vs judgment methodology) of the admissions reading process at selective schools.

What Data Did We Use?

Many parents are surprised when we explain that a lot of information about the admissions process is publicly available. Like burger chain In & Out's "secret" menu, much of the process is not so secretive anymore:

  • Numerous former Ivy League admissions officers have written books and articles revealing the “secrets” of the college admissions process
  • NYU admissions officers share their experiences on an official school blog
  • New York Times reporter, Jacques Steinberg, was given behind-the-scenes access of the admissions process at Wesleyan University and wrote a book about it
  • Lawsuits against schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University claiming discrimination in the admissions process have produced detailed and publicly available information about the admissions process about those schools

For this article, we reviewed the above sources (and more) and dug into the admissions process of several schools, including:

  • Dartmouth College
  • Duke University
  • Hamilton College
  • Harvard University
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Wesleyan University

Note: These sources were published between 2002 to 2017. While certain details might now be different, the overall process should not have changed much.


THE ADMISSIONS READING PROCESS - AN OVERVIEW

The Admissions Reading Process

Each college has its own specific way of judging applicants but the general process of the schools we researched is remarkably similar.

Selective admissions typically takes the following form:

  1.  Screen & Sort - organizing the apps and sending to the appropriate admissions officer
  2.  Individual Reads - one, two, three, or more individual reads to form initial impressions
  3.  Committee - deliberation of applications among a group
  4.  Final Decision - the lucky few are selected, financial aid packages are created, and acceptance letters are mailed out

1. SCREEN AND SORT

Screen & Sort

Selective schools can receive upwards of tens of thousands of applications.

2016 Applications and Admittances

National University # Applications # Admitted Admissions Rate
Princeton Logo Princeton University 29,303 1,911 6.5%
Harvard Shield Harvard University 39,041 2,106 5.4%
UChicago Shield University of Chicago 31,411 2,498 8.0%
Yale Shield Yale University 31,455 1,972 6.3%
Columbia Shield Columbia University 36,292 2,193 6.0%
Stanford Logo Stanford University 43,997 2,114 4.8%
MIT Logo Massachusetts Institute of Technology 19,020 1,511 7.9%
Duke Logo Duke University 32,111 3,432 10.7%
UPenn Logo University of Pennsylvania 38,918 3,674 9.4%
Johns Hopkins Shield Johns Hopkins University 27,094 3,234 11.9%

The first part of the admissions process is to get the application data properly organized and sorted before sending to the right staff member. This usually means sending the application to the appropriate regional team.

Admissions officers are often assigned to a geographic region. In addition to reading applications from their region, they are also responsible for recruiting students and getting to know the local high schools and guidance counselors.

Numerical Scoring

Numerical scores are sometimes calculated for each applicant in an attempt to incorporate some sort of organization and scientific rigor into a very qualitative process.

How are these scores generated? Depending on the school, a staff member or regional coordinator may scan the application and apply the initial scores before the first read, initial readers may be responsible for generating this score, or the scores may be computed automatically by a computer system.

The Academic Index for Recruited Athletes

If you are a recruited athlete in the Ivy League (and increasingly in other schools as well), you are also assigned an Academic Index that is calculated based off standardized test scores and high school GPA. Academic Indexes range from around 170 to 240.

The purpose of the Academic Index, or AI, is to ensure that:

  1. Every recruited athlete meets a minimum AI of at least 176
  2. The academic credentials of recruited athletes is no more than 1 standard deviation below that of the rest of the student body

Ivy League institutions have agreed to uphold these standards to keep the athletic playing field competitive while maintaining high academic standards. Just like the other ratings used in college admissions, a high AI is great but won't guarantee admission.


2. INDIVIDUAL READS

Individual Reads

First Read

1st ReadThe main job of the first reader is to pass an initial, fair judgment on a new application.

First readers have varying levels of experience. Some are hired part-time to supplement the admissions team. Some are fresh out of college.

Immediately after graduation, my college roommate served as an admissions officer for Princeton University, responsible for first reads in his region. This was his first job, and he was 22 years old when he started.

After the first read, which often takes less than 10 minutes, an initial idea of how competitive the candidate forms. In some cases, a written recommendation of ‘Accept’, ‘Deny’, ‘Likely’, or ‘Unlikely’ (or some verbal or quantitative variation) gets placed on the application file.

The first reader is sometimes responsible for creating an application summary card and creating detailed notes for each application.

Application Summary & Notes

Reader CardThe application summary card lists key details about the applicant. Admissions officers are responsible for reading thousands of applications over the course of several months and will often review an application file at various times, so summary cards are essential for allowing a quick scan of an application and refreshing their memories.

Note-taking is also essential. Admissions officers often take important notes on a card that follows the application from officer to officer and ultimately to committee. Nowadays, physical reader cards might be replaced with digitized versions but the idea is the same.

If the application goes to committee, the first reader may be responsible for presenting/summarizing the application to the committee group and advocating for the applicant.

Second and Third Reads

2nd and 3rd ReadsSome schools (e.g. NYU) will go to committee after the first read. Many other selective schools have two or more reads before the next stage of the process.

Admissions readers and officers go through intensive training to provide standardized and objective judgements. However, they have varying levels of admissions experience and their assessments and opinions might be shaped by their individual backgrounds and preferences.

Or, perhaps the first reader was having a bad day and missed something. Maybe he has more knowledge about science achievements and extracurriculars, while a colleague has broader knowledge about music and athletic achievements.

The second and third read can be thought of as a validation or second opinion for the first read.

This additional perspective is especially helpful for more subjective and difficult to judge scenarios....

  • How do you rate an underrepresented minority at an under-resourced school with a great essay but okay grades and little extracurriculars because he was working after school?
  • How much to value the impact of certain “hooks” like alumni legacies, 1st generation students, exceptional talent, departmental needs?
  • How to make subjective judgments about character and personal qualities to determine “fit” for the class?

According to a Dartmouth admissions officer who kept her identity a secret,

Anonymous“You expect it to be more numbers driven than it is, but the message we always got was to make sure we consider everything else in the application...There's a high degree of subjectivity, at least in the first read, but that's what the second and third read are for. The probability that you get 2 people in a bad mood is ... lower than the probability that you get one person in a bad mood."

Many schools make sure most applications receive at least two full reads before going to committee.

The second reader will add additional input and notes to the applicant’s file. The second reader often agrees with the comments and recommendations of the first reader but sometimes they will disagree.

Team Reads

The first and second reads (and third reads, etc...) are usually done individually and at home on the admissions officer's own time.

Faced with an increasing number of applications, admissions teams from schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore are implementing a newer, team-based method of reading applications to further streamline the process.

According to the Daily Pennsylvanian:

UPenn Logo"Under Penn’s new regimen, admissions officers split into teams of two and read one application at the same time in the office. Then they discuss the application together and come to a consensus before passing it along.

After the team of two screens the application, it is given to admission officers responsible for the geographic region where the applicant lives. An exceptional applicant may skip this step and be handed immediately to a selection committee that includes school-based representatives. This committee will make the final decision on a potential acceptance."

Not Everybody Goes to Committee After Individual (or Team) Reads

Some schools can make a decision after the initial reading process without sending the application to committee.

For example:

  • Fast TrackExceptionally strong or exceptionally weak applicants often get ‘fast-tracked’ to the top for a chance at a quick decision
  • Schools with very quantitative admissions processes (e.g. large state schools) can make decisions without significant group deliberation
  • A senior admissions officer may have ultimate discretion to make the final decision after reading the notes and scores from the initial reading process

In The Gatekeepers, which takes an in-depth, behind the scenes view of Wesleyan’s admissions process, New York Times journalist Jacques Steinberg shares his observations and research about the reading process at different schools.

He talks about Stanford’s committee process, or lack of it:

"At Stanford, for example, the officers rarely met as a committee, which meant that the odds of someone sympathetic being able to advocate to the group...are low"

At Wesleyan, when readers arrived at a consensus on an application, the director of admissions would often endorse the choice, forgoing the need for committee deliberation.

"In the main round, in which there would be nearly six thousand applicants, each application would be read by two officers and then sent on to Greg Pyke, the interim director of admissions. If the two readers were in consensus on a decision, Greg would likely endorse the choice. But if there was a split recommendation, he would probably send that application to the committee for consideration during a series of meetings in early March.”

For many schools, however, final decisions are made in Committee, where a group of individuals discuss student applications and pass final judgment.


3. COMMITTEE

Committee

Every school has a slightly different committee process, but the overall idea behind committee judgement is similar. A group of individuals convenes to discuss and decide the fate of your application. The group considers the notes, scores, and recommendations of the initial readers. A discussion ensues and each officer can share their opinion on the fit of the candidate for the school.

Hamilton’s Committee Process - Senior Officer Has Final Say

In Creating A Class, Mitchell L. Stevens describes the Committee process at Hamilton, a selective liberal arts school:

Hamilton College“The primary form for evaluative storytelling in the office was committee, the weeks-long series of meetings during which officers consider and collectively determine the fate of applications. In contrast to the quiet solitude of reading and rating, storytelling was collaborative and often highly theatrical.”

Admissions officers from the initial reading process use their "pink sheet" (application summary form) and read off key details from the application (grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, essay comments, recommendation letter summaries, family information, initial recommendations for Admit/Defer/Wait List/Deny) to a committee of at least three officers. The Dean or Assistant Dean would be present.

After the presentation and a discussion (sometimes debate) between committee members, the most senior officer would have final authority over each decision.

At Hamilton, committee evaluations for easier decisions could take 5 minutes, but some cases could take 30 minutes or more.

Wesleyan’s Committee Process - Quick Discussion & Majority Vote

In The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg describes the very fast committee process at Wesleyan:

Wesleyan University“It was those committee hearings, coming just days before final decisions were due, that provided the most visible drama of the admissions process. In a form of sudden death, each applicant would be discussed by the committee for no more than five minutes, after which a vote would be called...the majority, again, would carry the day." (Steinberg, 59)

NYU’s Committee Process - All Applications Are Debated in Committee

NYU admissions officer Rebecca Larson describes the committee and final judgment process in the official school admissions blog:

NYU“Our team re-reviews the notes the first reader took on your application. The first reader will discuss your grades, the rigor of your curriculum, extra-curricular involvement, fit for NYU, quality of your essays, and what your teachers/counselor had to say about you.

Once we read those notes, the committee discusses what to do with your application. We may vote to admit, deny, wait list, or refer a student to a different program at NYU–there are lots of different outcomes for each application.”

Sometimes committee goes smoothly and other times the group is split between a particular decision. While we all get along well, we will get into arguments over some students. The benefit of committee comes from the diverse perspective each admissions counselor brings to the group–one counselor may see something in an application that another counselor doesn’t, and that dialogue is really important as we build the class.

We do this 63,000 times! Then we go back and look at our admissions decisions one last time to make sure all students received an individualized and holistic review. Once our decisions are finalized, applications are sent over to the Office of Financial Aid where students are packaged with scholarships, loans, grants and work study opportunities.”

Harvard’s Committee Process - 2 Step Process Involving Faculty

Harvard uses a two-step committee process that involves the faculty. A subcommittee discusses and votes on an applicant, and then they present their recommendations to the larger full committee. Harvard’s Dean Fitzsimmons describes the process in an interview with the New York Times:

Harvard Shield“Each subcommittee normally includes four to five members, a senior admissions officer, and faculty readers.

Once all applications have been read and the subcommittee process begins, the area representative acts as an advocate, and summarizes to the subcommittee the strengths of each candidate. Subcommittee members discuss the application, and then vote to recommend an action to the full Committee. Majorities rule, but the degree of support expressed for applicants is always noted to allow for comparisons with other subcommittees.

Subcommittees then present and defend their recommendations to the full committee. While reading or hearing the summary of any case, any committee member may raise questions about the proposed decision and request a full review of the case.

Many candidates are re-presented in full committee. Discussions in subcommittee or in full committee on a single applicant can last up to an hour. The full Committee compares all candidates across all subcommittees, and therefore across geographic lines.”


4. FINAL DECISION

Final Decision

By the end of committee, colleges will be close to the finish line. Colleges must consider the size and selectivity of the various schools within their College (e.g. Engineering vs. Arts and Sciences). They also must consider their institutional priorities, like strong athletics and diversity, as they make their final decisions.

Typically, after the final decision, admitted applications get sent for consideration of scholarships, loans, grants, and work study opportunities before final decisions letters are mailed out.


MAJOR TAKEAWAYS

If you’re in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, you’ll want to focus on the Golden Rule of Admissions and developing your Three Pillars.

As you put pen to paper and start working on your application and college essays (ideally in the summer before senior year), keep in mind how your application will be read to keep things in perspective.

To recap, we took a comprehensive look at the mechanics of the application reading process. Here are some takeaways:

1.  The admissions reading process of selective schools is remarkably similar

  • The process will most likely resemble some version of: 1. Sort → 2. Individual Reads → 3. Committee → 4. Final Decision
  • Larger, less selective schools will have a less “holistic” approach that make quicker decisions based mostly on academics
  • What to do with this information?  No need for you to spend an inordinate amount of time researching the reading process of all the schools on your list. Understand the general reading process (which you've already done if you've made it this far) and you'll be set.

2.  Your application is read quickly

  • Admissions officers will often average less than 15 minutes to assess your entire application
  • How long exactly? Well it varies by school, but for more info check out former UVA Associate Dean of Admission Parke Muth’s interesting post about “fast and slow reads”
  • What to do with this information? Make a strong first impression - quickly and effectively communicate your strengths in your application

3.  Admissions officers are real people!

  • For example, NYU admissions officers look like this:

NYU Admissions Officers

  • Rebecca Larson (the admissions officer in the middle) really likes One Direction, looks forward to the the snacks her colleagues bring in for their committee meetings, and genuinely seems like she’s having fun at work
  • What to do with this information? Put a face on the process to make things less intimidating and help you create a more personal application

4.  Quantitative scoring is often used, but the process is very much qualitative and subjective

  • Numbers and guidelines are used to create a standardized process and quickly sort out the riff raff. However, at the end of the day your application is being judged by real people with emotions and feelings.
  • What to do with this information? Tell a story through your application that is personal and emotionally engaging and you might be able to convince an admissions officer to go to bat for you during committee

It can be discouraging to hear that your application is read fairly quickly. However, please do not confuse “quickly” with “not carefully”. Admissions officers are experts in digesting a lot of information in a short amount of time. They understand the impact their decisions have and are extremely deliberate in their decisions. Most admissions officers genuinely care about your prospects and are looking for ways to accept, not reject you.

Good luck!


How I Got Into Princeton Series

Interested in how other successful applicants have done this? Check out Destiny's story.

“People telling me that I was worthless only drove me to study more, to work harder, to prove them wrong.”

You can also check out a summary of all our other stories here - How I Got Into Princeton


Next Steps

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other in-depth guides like this.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.

 


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


What College Admissions Officers Look For: A Must-Read Guide

What College Admissions Officers Look For: A Must-Read Guide

In a nutshell: Want to truly understand what admissions officers at top colleges are looking for? Through original, data-backed research, we’ve identified the Golden Rule of Admissions, 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Applicants, and many other findings. Understand the bigger picture, gain the ability to critically evaluate information about college admissions, and save hours of time and headache in the process.

 

Trying to understand the college application process of selective schools can feel like driving without GPS and relying on a two year old to navigate you with an outdated map.

But you persevere because you’re a good parent. And because you need your beloved child to move out so you can convert their room into that home yoga studio you’ve always dreamed of.

Like many people, you’ve probably turned to your most trusted adviser, Google, and asked it: “What are admissions officers looking for?”

Dear Google, please tell me everything about college admissions. Thanks.

You find quotes from admissions officers, discover the components of the application, watch some videos, read top 10 lists, watch more videos, find more quotes, and get lost down the rabbit hole of College Confidential’s forums (don’t do it!).

The information keeps piling on, and at the end, you’re more confused than ever. How do you differentiate the good info from the bad info?

Greg Wong & Kevin WongMy brother Kevin and I created this in-depth guide to navigate you through this ocean of information so you can confidently understand what colleges are really looking for.

The advice in this guide is based off:

  • 20+ years of experience in college admissions helping 1,000+ students
  • 50+ hours of analysis of primary sources (mission statements, financial statements, university websites, and government data) and
  • Lots of research and quotes from experts and other super smart people

What You’ll Get Out of Reading This

You will gain a research and data-backed understanding of the bigger picture of college admissions.

Light BulbSpecifically, you will learn about:

  • 8 important themes revealed by school mission statements
  • The main purpose of a university and how this impacts admissions
  • The Golden Rule of Admissions
  • 3 Pillars of the most successful applicants
  • “Institutional priorities,” the mysterious X-factor of admissions

You will gain the ability to critically evaluate all future college admissions advice. You will understand what to focus on, save hours of time, and make better decisions.

Too busy to read all of this now? Skip around using the table of contents below – or go straight to our summary and key takeaways.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

  1.  What are the Priorities of a College - An Overview
  2.  What Colleges Say They Do
  3.  What Colleges Actually Do
  4.  What Colleges Discuss Behind the Scenes
  5.  Summary & Key Takeaways

1) WHAT ARE THE PRIORITIES OF A COLLEGE – OVERVIEW

Dilbert Comic

Parents often ask us What are college admissions officers looking for?

However, diving right into this question is like trying to put together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without first looking at the picture on the box.

It’s important to step back and understand the bigger picture. In order to answer your original question, let’s first answer another question: What are the strategic priorities of a top college?

Why? Because… The strategic priorities of a university directly impact and influence admissions policies.

To understand the strategic priorities of colleges, we will deep dive into three main areas:

  • Mission Statements - What schools say they do
  • Financial Statements - What schools actually do
  • “Institutional Priorities” - What schools discuss behind closed doors

Strategic Priorities of Colleges

 


2) WHAT COLLEGES SAY THEY DO – MISSION STATEMENTS

How Can Mission Statements Help Us?

MegaphoneUniversity leaders are literally telling you what is most important to them through their mission statements. You just have to know how to interpret them.

We combed through dozens of these statements and synthesized the data to cut through university-speak and tease out practical takeaways.

What Is a Mission Statement?

A mission statement is a public declaration that answers “an organization's most fundamental question, which is 'Why do we exist?'” according to Christopher Bart, business professor at McMaster University and authority on mission statements, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

University presidents and the board of trustees use mission statements to formalize their priorities.

For example, in a survey conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 290 institutions were asked, “What steps has your institution taken to make its involvement in community service activity more effective?” The top response was to place greater emphasis on community service in their missions.

Mission statements provide the foundation for strategic plans and steer various components of school operations towards the same goals.

What Does a Mission Statement Look Like?

They come in all shapes and sizes. Below is a fairly short mission statement from Brown University:

Brown Logo"The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation. We do this through a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community known as a university-college."

What Data Did We Use?

We analyzed 32 mission statements from the top 20 ranked national universities and the top 10 ranked liberal arts colleges, as determined by US News and World report (Yes, we know that rankings can be problematic, but we chose US News because they're well-known, and as you'll soon find out, most any list we use would still yield similar conclusions):

Top 20 Ranked National Universities (2016)

Ranking National University Admissions Rate
1 Princeton Logo Princeton University 6.5%
2 Harvard Shield Harvard University 5.4%
3 UChicago Shield University of Chicago 8.0%
3 Yale Shield Yale University 6.3%
5 Columbia Shield Columbia University 6.0%
5 Stanford Logo Stanford University 4.8%
7 MIT Logo Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7.9%
8 Duke Logo Duke University 10.7%
8 UPenn Logo University of Pennsylvania 9.4%
10 Johns Hopkins Shield Johns Hopkins University 11.9%
11 Dartmouth University 10.6%
12 Caltech Seal California Institute of Technology 8%
12 Northwestern Seal Northwestern University 10.7%
14 Brown Logo Brown University 9.3%
15 Cornell Logo Cornell University 14.1%
15 Rice University Shield Rice University 15.3%
15 Notre Dame Logo University of Notre Dame 18.7%
15 Vandberbilt University Logo Vanderbilt University 10.7%
19 Washington University Seal Washington University in St. Louis 17%
20 Emory University Shield Emory University 25.2%
20 Georgetown Seal Georgetown University 16.4%
20 Berkeley Seal UC Berkeley 17.5%

 

Top 10 Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges (2016)

Ranking Liberal Arts College Admissions Rate
1 Williams Seal Williams College 16.9%
2 Amherst Seal Amherst College 14%
3 Wellesley Seal Wellesley College 28%
4 Middlebury Shield Middlebury College 18.9%
4 Swarthmore Seal Swarthmore College 12.5%
6 Bowdoin Seal Bowdoin College 14.8%
7 Carleton Seal Carleton College 22%
7 Pomona Seal Pomona College 9.2%
9 Claremont McKenna Seal Claremont McKenna College 9.4%
9 Davidson Seal Davidson College 20.1%

 

(What’s the difference between a national university and liberal arts college? National universities are usually larger and have both undergraduate and graduate programs. Liberal arts colleges are usually smaller and focus on the undergraduate experience.)

There are about 3,000 four-year colleges in the US, so our list of 32 schools reflect the top 1% of colleges and universities.

We focus on the nation’s highest ranked colleges and universities, not because we’re elitist snobs, but because these top schools typically set the standards for other schools.

If we can figure out what it takes to get into the nation’s most elite schools, then we’ll be setting ourselves up for admissions success to ALL schools.

On to our findings...

 

Finding #1 - Mission Statements Are Pretty Similar

Copying Test - University of Nebraska
Image from University of Nebraska-Lincoln

We broke down each mission statement and looked for recurring themes and ideas. We found that mission statements were surprisingly similar. It was like the smart kid in class wrote a mission statement, and every other kid copied it.

A recent study by Gallup corroborates our observation and found that “the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What these similarities confirm is that most schools have the same goals, and that the conclusions we draw from our analysis of these 32 schools can be applied to all top schools.

 

Finding #2 - Mission Statements have 8 Recurring Qualities/Themes

We identified 8 important themes that were repeatedly mentioned in the mission statements:

Theme Frequency
1. Education & World-Class Teaching 32 of 32 statements (100%)
2. Service 29 of 32 statements (91%)
3. Produce Leaders and Useful Members of Society 28 of 32 statements (88%)
4. Diversity 27 of 32 statements (84%)
5. Community / Communication / Collaboration 26 of 32 statements (81%)
6. Creative / Innovative & Critical Thinking 25 of 32 statements (78%)
7. Intellectual & Personal Growth 23 of 32 statements (72%)
8. Admission of Promising Students 10 of 32 statements (31%)

Theme #1 – EDUCATION & WORLD-CLASS TEACHING

Teaching"Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation."
(Harvard University, excerpt from mission statement)

It should be no surprise that the theme of education and teaching was found in 100% of mission statements analyzed.

Schools tout their “distinguished” and “dedicated” faculties, “excellence in teaching,” and “unparalleled educational journey.”

In reality, most top schools these days have great teachers, and the strength of the academic programs will be similar across many schools.

Theme #2 – SERVICE

Service

"Dartmouth fosters lasting bonds…which...instill a sense of responsibility for each other and for the broader world." (Dartmouth College, excerpt from mission statement)

The concept of service is frequently used in the context of a university’s commitment to serve its students, the local community, and the world/society at large.

This is done through community service, research, and instilling in students a “sense of responsibility for each other and for the broader world.”

The concept of service and otherness is becoming increasingly important for universities, and therefore for applicants. We’ll be revisiting this topic quite often.

Theme #3 – PRODUCE LEADERS AND USEFUL MEMBERS OF SOCIETY

Leader"Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society." (Yale University, excerpt from mission statement)

Of course a university would want to produce leaders. You don’t go to school with aspirations to take an entry-level job and just stay there. More importantly, a university wants students to think beyond themselves and lead others towards a better society.

Colleges look for the desire and motivation to become leaders when evaluating applicants.

Theme #4 – DIVERSITY

Diversity"[Columbia] seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body." (Columbia University, excerpt from mission statement)

Diversity has been a hot topic and will be for a while.

The concept of diversity has evolved from affirmative action. Diversity of all kinds (e.g. ethnic, international, geographical, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic) significantly enhances the quality of education.

The idea of diversity even extends to knowledge, skills, interests, and preferences. Colleges want intelligent students of all backgrounds to come together to create a rich campus environment.

Universities recognize that “diversity and excellence are interrelated,” include it specifically in their mission statements, and apply these ideals not just to student body recruitment but also to the faculty and support staff as well.

Theme #5 – COMMUNITY / COMMUNICATION / COLLABORATION

Community"The University’s defining characteristics and aspirations include…a human scale that nurtures a strong sense of community, invites high levels of engagement, and fosters personal communication." (Princeton University, excerpt from mission statement)

Do not underestimate the importance of the community to a college.

Mission statements frequently mention the benefits of their “residential,” “campus,” and “academic” communities.

Bringing together a diverse community into a single campus promotes positive engagement, tolerance, collaboration, and communication. These skills are as important to long-term success as any skills learned from books or in the classroom.

Theme #6 – CREATIVE, INNOVATIVE, AND CRITICAL THINKING

Creativity"In the tradition of its eighteenth-century founders, the College of Arts and Sciences regards the enduring purpose of education as the liberation of the mind from ignorance, superstition, and prejudice." (University of Pennsylvania, excerpt from mission statement)

Mission statements emphasize an environment with a “free exchange of ideas” to “challenge conventional thinking” in pursuit of “intellectual transformation.”

The goal of college is to learn, but more importantly the goal is to also expand minds, challenge assumptions, and learn how to critically evaluate information. These will be the most important skills students take away from the college experience.

Theme #7 – INTELLECTUAL AND PERSONAL GROWTH

Growth"Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character." (Williams College, excerpt from mission statement)

Colleges understand the important role they play in young students’ lives and aim to foster not only intellectual, but also personal growth, thus setting a foundation for future success.

Colleges value character and specifically mention “high ethical standards,” “integrity,” “self-reliance,” and “humane instincts.”

The development and testing of character and values occurs throughout our lifetimes. These traits play a large role in our successes (and failures).

Theme #8 – ADMISSION OF PROMISING STUDENTS

Admission"Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community." (Amherst, excerpt from mission statement)

The practice of admitting only the most exceptional students is, of course, fairly obvious. What is less obvious is that this pipeline of promising students is the lifeblood of the university.

By attracting and admitting the most able students, schools build an amazing community. Great students become successful graduates, thereby maintaining/increasing school prestige and ensuring the school’s future.

Schools need you as much as you want them. Without great students, a school cannot be a great school.

 

Finding #3 - The Purpose of Universities & Colleges

The 8 themes identified above are nice on their own, but sometimes (actually, all the time), it helps to organize ideas into a framework:

Purpose of a University

Note: Our discussion is hyper-focused on the undergraduate missions of top schools. We purposely excluded research, which is a large part of a university’s mission. Research tends to be a component of graduate school programs, which have different standards and expectations than undergraduate programs.

 

Finding #4 - Education by Peers is the Secret Sauce

In the framework above, we highlight the important distinction between education INSIDE the classroom and education OUTSIDE the classroom.

Education inside the classroom is what we typically think about when we think of the classic definition of “education.”

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, argues that each person possesses a unique configuration of multiple types of intelligence:

  1. Howard Gardner's Multiple IntelligencesLinguistic
  2. Logical-Mathematical
  3. Spatial
  4. Bodily-Kinesthetic
  5. Musical
  6. Naturalist
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Interpersonal

The classroom typically focuses on developing the logical and linguistic intelligences (although there is certainly overlap with the other types of intelligences).

However, outside of the classroom is where you typically develop the many other types of intelligences, through interaction with people and extracurricular activities.

The campus community brings together a diverse group of peers. Through interactions with peers, you will enhance your interpersonal abilities (a.k.a. social/emotional intelligence). You will also be exposed to the highest levels of other types of intelligence. You and your peers will teach, challenge, and push each other.

Colleges cannot create this community on their own. They provide the buildings and faculty, but they need great students to fill those buildings.

 

Finding #5 - Selective Admissions is Necessary for Top Colleges

The value of the peer community is 100% dependent on the quality of students, and this is why admissions is so important for a college.

Administrators put tremendous effort into attracting and retaining the “best and brightest.”

Schools state in their mission statements that they “produce leaders” and “develop” and “transform” students. This is true, but a little misleading.

Renowned economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale cite a conclusion from Shane Hunt’s “seminal” research:

Quarterly Journal of Economics"The C student from Princeton earns more than the A student from Podunk not mainly because he has the prestige of a Princeton degree, but merely because he is abler. The golden touch is possessed not by the Ivy League College, but by its students."

In other words...

DiamondTop schools pre-select students, through highly selective admissions, who demonstrate the potential to achieve greatness. Selective schools don’t find rocks and turn them into diamonds. They polish diamonds into shinier diamonds.

 

Finding #6 - What Mission Statements Tell Us about What Colleges Look for in Applicants

To recap so far…

  1. We identified 8 important themes in school mission statements
  2. We organized these themes into an easily digestible framework
  3. And then we derived why selective admissions is so important to colleges

Now, we take these learnings and develop a “Golden Rule” to understand the most important qualities that admissions officers look for in applicants.

If there is only one thing you take away from this article, this is it:

The Golden Rule of Admissions

 

3 Pillars of Students of Exceptional Potential:

#1 – Academic Achievement

Albert EinsteinColleges are first and foremost academic institutions, so high school academic achievement is the number one quality that colleges seek in applicants.

This criteria may be painfully obvious, but sometimes we forget and spend a disproportionate amount of time on a fifth sport in order to beef up our extracurricular resume.

Getting a C in algebra? Hit the books, because winning the sportsmanship award in intramural bowling is not going to help you.

At large/public universities, academic achievement might be the ONLY criteria for admissions.

At top/private universities, most applicants already demonstrate high academic achievement, so schools evaluate other qualities to differentiate the applicants (“holistic” admissions).

#2 – Extracurricular Distinction

Mia HammStudents of exceptional potential don’t just achieve inside the classroom – they distinguish themselves outside the classroom as well.

Why? Because colleges want to know that you will contribute to their community and that you will enhance the experience and education of your classmates.

They want you to inspire your classmates, influence each other, challenge each other, help and learn from each other.

Colleges want to know that you are taking advantage of the opportunities available to you. These opportunities include a broad range of activities – athletics, arts, community service, part-time jobs, family obligations, etc.

Figure out your strengths and interests and make the most out of your time OUTSIDE of the classroom.

#3 – Character & Personal Qualities

SupermanColleges seek out students with remarkable personal qualities such as character, personality, intellectual curiosity, and creativity.

Character is foundational to success. But what exactly is character?

There is a lot of different research out there about character. We define “character” to consist of 3 major components:

  • Values – what is important to you
  • Morals – what is right and wrong
  • Principles – guiding beliefs

There is certainly overlap between the elements. Your principles (belief system) are composed of your values (what is important to you) and morals (what is right and wrong). All are inextricably linked.

Are you lazy or driven? What is your moral code? Do you care about helping others?

Colleges try to understand your character through your actions (your academic and extracurricular achievements), what other people say about you (recommendations), and your stories (essays).

Positive character traits can be learned and developed. The first step is understanding what they are.

 

Summary of Mission Statement Findings

Jeff Brenzel, former Dean of Admissions from Yale, sums up our findings pretty well in Yale Alumni Magazine:

 

Jeff Brenzel
Jeff Brenzel. Image from Yale Bulletin & Calendar.

"At the same time, we do not admit undergraduates primarily in order to create the next generation of scholars and investigators, though we know that some of our undergraduates will choose these paths and go on to great intellectual distinction…

In undergraduate admissions, however, we must also keep before us Yale’s longstanding aspiration to cultivate responsible citizens and leaders, graduates who will achieve prominence in the founding or management of enterprises, in public service and public office, in the professions, or in the realms of religion, the arts, and education.

By 'leaders' I do not mean individuals who succeed merely in achieving high status or high income. To develop leaders means to nurture individuals with superb skills for collaboration, an orientation to service, high levels of creative energy, and the aspirations and character required to make substantive contributions to the common good. Our mandate is to send talented, courageous, and far-sighted people into the global endeavors, organizations, and communities that sorely need them."

 


3) WHAT COLLEGES ACTUALLY DO – FINANCIAL STATEMENTS

Joe Biden“Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.”
― Joe Biden

Through their mission statements, universities tell us what is important to them. But do their actions back up their words?

After reviewing the 2016 financial statements of the same 32 schools in our analysis of mission statements, we can confirm that, yes, universities absolutely mean what they say in their mission statements.

Additionally, our findings corroborate the Golden Rule of Admissions that we derived in the previous section.

Below is a summary of our main financial takeaways.

Takeaway #1 - Higher education is not cheap

Top 20 National Universities_Operating Expenses

“Excellence cannot be bought, but it must be paid for.”
– Princeton Professor and Nobel Laureate, Val Fitch

The 10 liberal arts colleges in our study averaged $175 million dollars in operating expenses in 2016. The 22 much larger national universities averaged $2.2 billion dollars of operating expenses. Stanford University topped our list at $4.9 billion dollars!

Takeaway #2 - Donations & endowment distributions fund a large percentage of school expenses

Top Universities & Colleges - Revenues Sources 2016

Donations (private gifts, contracts, and grants) & endowment distributions make up an average of ~30% of the operating budget for the national universities in our study, and ~50% of the operating budget for the liberal arts colleges.

11 of the 32 schools analyzed depend on donations & endowment distributions to cover more than 40% of their budget.

While we only have one public university in our study (UC Berkeley), it is important to note that public universities also rely on state and federal aid.

Takeaway #3 - Therefore, alumni giving is an important priority for schools

Bowdoin College’s mission statement explicitly lays out this expectation:

Bowdoin Logo"Succeeding generations of members of the College must carry the costs of their own enjoyment of its benefits; as alumni they remain a part of Bowdoin, assuming responsibility for renewing the endowments and buildings that will keep Bowdoin a vital, growing educational force for future generations of students and faculty."

 

Takeaway #4 - Universities must select applicants of exceptional potential (our Golden Rule of Admissions) in order to ensure financial stability

Exceptional students have a higher chance of achieving financial success. This means they have a greater ability to potentially give back to their alma mater.

Colleges look for students of exceptional potential who will become successful leaders (our Golden Rule), not only to satisfy their social mission, but also to ensure their financial stability.


4) WHAT COLLEGES DISCUSS BEHIND THE SCENES – INSTITUTIONAL PRIORITIES

WhisperThrough mission statements, schools tell us what is important to them. Financial statements confirm these public declarations by showing us what is important to them.

The third and last piece of the puzzle in this study looks at other school priorities, typically called “institutional priorities.”

These are less public and you have to dig a little deeper to find them. Schools acknowledge these priorities yet rarely publicize them.

Robin Mamlet is a former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence. Her book, “College Admission, from Application to Acceptance, Step by Step,” co-authored by journalist Christine Vandevelde, explains that:

“Institutional Priorities” are the strategic needs of a school as it considers whom to admit. For example, one year a school may seek tenors, female engineers, fullbacks, or geographic diversity. Institutional priorities can change from year to year, though some may carry over.

Institutional priorities are set by the president and board of trustees, sometimes with input from faculty and other parts of the university (e.g. athletics, arts). Some of these priorities also make it into mission statements as well (e.g. diversity).

Examples of institutional priorities:

  1. Natalie Portman
    Did you know that Natalie Portman went to Harvard?

    Legacies – children of of alumni

  2. Faculty – children of faculty members
  3. Development – children of big-money donors
  4. VIPs – children of famous people and well-connected/influential people
  5. Exceptional Talent – superstar athletes, artists, musicians
  6. Diversity – ethnic/cultural, socioeconomic (especially first-generation students), geographic (both domestically, and internationally)
  7. Departmental/Programmatic Needs – for example, female computer scientists

Institutional priorities are sometimes also referred to as “tags” or “hooks” because they help meet institutional needs and increase your chances of admission.

What Can We Do About Institutional Priorities?

Nothing.

You can’t change your ethnicity, where your parents went to school, or whether your family name is on one of the university’s buildings.

It's not you, it's me

Every school has different institutional priorities. This explains why you might get rejected from one school but get accepted into an equally difficult peer school.

Focus not on the specific school you wish to attend, but on the traits that will make you most successful in life, and the college stuff will fall in place.

Jeff Brenzel, former Dean of Admissions from Yale, confirms this thinking in a New York Times Q&A:

Every college aims at putting together a diverse and interesting class, and colleges differ greatly in their institutional priorities. Accomplished students with high aspirations will find a welcome at a broad range and a large number of excellent colleges. Further, it matters far less exactly which of those colleges they attend than it matters how prepared they are to engage the world of opportunities available at any strong college.

 


5) SUMMARY & KEY TAKEAWAYS

Strategic Priorities

Admissions officers are tasked with recruiting and admitting students to satisfy the needs/priorities of the university.

So, to understand what admissions officers are looking for, we took a step back and learned about the priorities of a college.

To understand the priorities of a school, we analyzed:

  1. Mission Statements – What schools say they do
  2. Financial Statements – What schools actually do
  3. Institutional Priorities – What schools do but try not to publicize too much

Our Major Takeaway

All of our research and analysis led us to develop The Golden Rule of Admissions and its associated characteristics.

The Golden Rule of Admissions

The Golden Rule of Admissions

3 Pillars of Students of Exceptional Potential

  1. ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT – number-one priority for all schools, and sometimes the only priority for large public schools
  2. EXTRACURRICULAR DISTINCTION – success not just inside the classroom but also outside of the classroom
  3. CHARACTER & PERSONAL QUALITIES– consists of values, morals, and principles. Character is an indication of leadership potential and is demonstrated through your academic and extracurricular activities

You should think about every activity and action you take through the lens of the above rule and pillars.

6 Additional Insights

Our original research reveal basic, fundamental truths derived from the needs and priorities of universities. These findings are applicable to all selective schools in your college search.

1.  Analysis of mission statements for 32 of the most selective schools revealed 8 recurring themes:

  • Education & World-Class Teaching
  • Service
  • Produce Leaders and Useful Members of Society
  • Diversity
  • Community / Communication / Collaboration
  • Creative, Innovative, & Critical Thinking
  • Intellectual & Personal Growth
  • Admission of Promising Students

2.  We distilled these themes into a framework to easily understand the purpose of schools (why do they exist) and how they achieve that purpose:

Purpose of a University

3.  This framework highlights the importance of education by your peers, which leads to insights into selective admissions:

  • The prestige of a university lives and dies by the student community it is able to attract. To create this community, the university is required to be as selective as possible.
  • Top schools pre-select students who demonstrate the potential to achieve greatness. Selective schools don’t find rocks and turn them into diamonds. They polish diamonds into shinier diamonds

4. From the above insights, we developed our Golden Rule of Admissions and identified 3 Pillars that admissions officers look for in applicants.

5. Analysis of financial statements corroborates our findings from mission statements and uncovers the importance of donations/endowment and their impact on admissions:

  • Alumni giving is essential to the quality and future viability of the university (11 of the 32 schools analyzed depend on donations & endowment distributions to cover more than 40% of their budget)
  • The more successful their alumni, the more money they have to give
  • Colleges look for students of exceptional potential who will become successful leaders (our Golden Rule), not only to satisfy their social mission, but also to ensure their financial stability.

6. We also uncovered other institutional priorities of schools, which increase chances of admission, but which you have no control over:

  • Legacies – children of of alumni
  • Faculty – children of faculty members
  • Development – children of big money donors
  • VIPs – children of famous people and well-connected/influential people
  • Exceptional Talent – superstar athletes, artists, musicians
  • Diversity – ethnic/cultural, socioeconomic (especially first-generation students), geographic (both domestically and internationally)
  • Departmental/Programmatic Needs – for example, female computer scientists

The College Application

Future Behavior

Colleges make predictions about your future leadership potential based on what you’ve done in the past.

The college application is simply a tool for admissions officers to gather information to evaluate your academic achievement, extracurricular distinction, and character.

The tools may differ (e.g. common app vs. universal college app vs. coalition app) or even change over time but the admissions criteria and guiding principles we covered earlier will not.

How Do I Use All This Information?

This is not a how-to guide. We’ll cover the tactical stuff in other articles.

The purpose of this piece is to educate you on essential background information about colleges and admissions:

  • To help you understand what admissions officers at top schools are looking for and why
  • So you can critically evaluate information about the admissions process within a framework
  • To re-frame your perspective and help you focus on what is most important

These understandings will save you hours of time and help you make better, more informed decisions.

Conclusion

In the frenzy of college preparation admissions, we sometimes get laser-focused on the individual components of the college application – grades, test scores, activities, essays, interviews, etc.

It’s important every now and then to step back, breathe, and reflect.

How do your efforts align with the qualities that are most sought after by schools – academic achievement, extracurricular engagement, and character? Remember that a large component of character involves helping others.

Fortunately, these qualities also translate into real-world success.

YOU – your skills, your talent, your character – are the main determinant of your success, not the college you attend.

Aim to be the best version of yourself while making an impact on others and you’ll be setting yourself up for success in school and beyond.


How Colleges Read Your Application: A 4 Step Process

By now, you have a deep understanding of what admissions officers at selective colleges are looking for.

Click here to learn how these admissions officers actually read your application. (this is our most popular guide)


How I Got Into Princeton Series

Interested in how other successful applicants have done this? Check out Destiny's story.

“People telling me that I was worthless only drove me to study more, to work harder, to prove them wrong.”

You can also check out a summary of all our other stories here - How I Got Into Princeton


Next Steps

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At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.

 


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.