General Education

Break Down Your College Admission Chances: 5 Key Insights

Break Down Your College Admission Chances: 5 Key Insights
Beyond race and ethnicity, universities consider regional diversity, gender, high school type, religion, intellectual interest, hobbies, and even sexual orientation when selecting the students they want to fill out their incoming classes. Image from Unsplash
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Jason Milan March 15, 2021

Jason Milan, a Senior Admissions Consultant at Menlo Coaching, shares five key insights to break down your chances of college admission.

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We hear the question year in and year out: what are my chances of getting into my dream college?

If you’re asking this question, you’re probably an ambitious student targeting top-ranked universities. You’ve been getting excellent grades and test scores, and you’re figuring out how to commit to extracurricular activities that help you toward big goals.

Yet there are too many factors involved in admissions decisions at top universities, so you keep receiving unsatisfying answers to your burning question.

You may have found online admissions calculators meant to tell you how you stack up to the competition. Unfortunately, these calculators are usually just repackaging simple admission fact sheets. In fact, we made this college admissions calculator in order to provide one option that seeks a holistic view of an applicant’s profile. If you want a personalized, qualitative assessment from an expert college admissions counselor, just fill out the form and you’ll soon hear back directly from me.

Though it’s frustrating not to know the exact likelihood of being admitted to your dream school, you can consider a few key points in order to get a stronger sense of your chances at top-choice colleges. Use the keys below to score yourself on your own “rubric,” designed to mimic similar systems at real universities. While a self-assessment can’t come close to providing the value delivered by a dedicated coach, it will give you a frame of reference for building a smart and strategic school list.

5 Key insights for assessing odds of college acceptance

1. Numbers decide who doesn’t get in, not who does

Having a 1580 SAT and 4.00 GPA would qualify you for an Ivy, but wouldn’t make you a shoo-in. On the flip side, scoring below a 1300 on the SAT or having a GPA under 3.00 would likely kill your application before it’s even read.

No matter what rubric the admissions committee at your dream school uses, they have limited time and a lot of profiles to review. Unless you’re a star athlete or an accomplished winner of rigorous competitions, you should aim to show that you can match or boost their stats. To learn what these stats are for your target university, use a tool like the Noodle school browser to get information on GPA and SAT/ACT ranges for admitted students. Or, even better, consult your school counselor for Naviance or Scoir data on applicants from your particular school.

If you’re not meeting baseline expectations, that’s a good sign that your chances of getting into the school are very low. For young students, this can mean extra motivation to study hard and hit new heights. For older students, it means you’re probably better off spending your time and energy on other applications.

Applicant self-assessment

  • 3 points: You exceed every target stat
  • 2 points: You meet target stats, with a small degree of variance
  • 1 point: You are below target stats

2. Telling a cohesive story about yourself is crucial

You can’t rely only on great numbers to get you into the most competitive schools, so you’ll also need to demonstrate your enthusiasm and uniqueness. You can do this by convincingly linking your experiences with your principles and character traits, then linking these to your ambitions.

But is it even possible to measure something like the quality of your life story?

Well, certainly not without some fresh perspective.

So get that perspective. Try telling new people–school librarians, a friend’s parents–about what matters to you and why you have your goals. Are there parts of your story that they seem skeptical or confused about? What questions do they ask you?

You can use these conversations to gauge the quality and cohesion of your personal story. If people are enthusiastic about what you’re saying, they’ll ask exciting questions that push the conversation. If they’re not, they may try to clarify points of confusion, or they may just skip the questions altogether.

These conversations will not only give you practice refining a convincing and memorable message, but will help you rate your own storytelling skills. The better you are, the better your chances.

Applicant self-assessment

  • 3 points: People are fascinated by your experiences, values, and aspirations
  • 2 points: People think your interests or ideas seem cool, but aren’t that curious to learn more about them
  • 1 point: People aren’t that interested in what you say about yourself

3. Demographics are more complex than you’d think

Beyond race and ethnicity, universities consider regional diversity, gender, high school type, religion, intellectual interest, hobbies, and even sexual orientation when selecting the students they want to fill out their incoming classes. The rule of thumb is that they want to shore up areas in which they have less representation, while elevating the quality of their core student body. Yet admissions committees also trust the rigor of certain high schools with which they have long-standing relationships.

In this context, home-schooled performance artists and people from Wyoming would both have a leg up, but so would the East Asian math whiz attending boarding school in Connecticut.

To situate yourself on the confusing demographic spectrum, create a brief questionnaire for yourself, using these kinds of questions:

  • Has this university consistently accepted students from my high school in recent years?
  • Would I be in a dominant ethnic group at this university, or in a minority group?
  • Am I from a populous or less populous state? Or, does my country regularly or rarely send students to this school to study abroad?
  • Do I know a lot of people who share my interests and come from a similar background?
  • Is there anything about me that often surprises new acquaintances?

This is the hardest side of your profile to self-assess, but you can begin to put the picture together by answering these questions. Then, if possible, take your questionnaire to a counselor and ask them how much they agree with your answers. Maybe they’ll even be willing to score you in each category, giving you a firmer grasp on how you’d fit into (or shake up) the demographics at your target school.

Applicant self-assessment

  • 3 points: You fill more than one demographic gap that would add something new to the university
  • 2 points: You fit most standard demographics for the university, but fill one demographic gap or come from a High School with a stellar reputation
  • 1 point: You fit all standard demographics for the university and come from a lesser-known High School

4. Money matters

For any university without an astronomical endowment, the ability to pay tuition is a crucial factor in admissions decisions. If you can pay full tuition, it will give the committee a strong reason to select you over another candidate with a similar profile. The unfortunate converse of that reality (which universities prefer not to advertise) is that if you need a lot of financial support, it will decrease your chances of admission.

There’s not much you can do about this. Have open conversations with your family and be honest on all your financial aid documents. Don’t be tempted to pull numbers from thin air.

If you do need financial support, do the due diligence to find schools that provide robust financial aid, and identify external scholarships that could supplement a low aid offer. Accept that you may go to a lower-ranked program if they give you an offer you can’t refuse, and remember: you decide what impact you make at whichever college you attend.

Applicant self-assessment

  • 3 points: Your family can pay full tuition at any university without financial hardship
  • 2 points: Your family can pay a significant portion of tuition at expensive universities or full tuition at cheaper universities
  • 1 point: Your family has little or no money to pay for your college tuition

5. Commitment to extracurricular activities is irreplaceable

One common misconception about extracurricular activities is that a student should strive to do as many different activities as possible. This myth has been thoroughly debunked before.

The truth is that it’s better to demonstrate real commitment to a limited number of activities you’re truly passionate about. This probably means developing your level of engagement or responsibility for the clubs, projects, hobbies, or sports that mean the most to you.

If you’re an athlete, this can be as simple as increasing your play time and contributions to your team’s win rate, or it can involve taking on captainship or another team management role. An artist might experiment with new media or submit their pieces to a magazine; an environmentalist might lead a fundraiser or launch a field research project.

The point is that you can stick to what you love, but put yourself in new and uncomfortable situations that challenge you to grow your expertise. You can seek advice on how to do this, but it’s best to show self-direction in decisions about your activities. If you’re not pursuing new challenges proactively, it will be apparent, and it will weaken your application.

Applicant self-assessment

  • 3 points: You have two or more distinct and demonstrable activities that you’ve consistently grown your engagement with over the past few years
  • 2 points: You have one distinct activity to which you’re committed and several steady but less impressive roles in various activities
  • 1 point: You’re not yet committed fully to pursuing passions beyond academics, or you’ve spread yourself too thin with activities you don’t care enough about

In the end, the admissions decision is subjective

Unless you’re “hooked,” which means you’re probably a legacy, a student-athlete, or from a powerful family, the decision on whether you’re admitted to a top school comes down to whether or not the admissions committee likes you. Every factor in your profile goes into this all-important impression.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to measure how a stranger will perceive your character.

That said, being aware of what makes you appealing to others can help you showcase your best traits effectively. Take time to reflect on what you like about yourself, and make a list of the personal traits or accomplishments you’re most proud of. This will help you begin to see how you’ve shown your best side in different contexts in the past. Make sure to practice talking about how your experiences and beliefs drive you to pursue new opportunities.

Self-assessment results

After filling out your self-assessment, you should be left with a score of 5-15 points. We know that finding trustworthy answers to questions about ourselves isn’t easy, and you might be one of those people who falls in the middle for too many of these factors.

That said, if you’re at 12+ points with no 1-point categories, you should have a solid chance of admission at the university you’re targeting. If you’re under 10 points, work to shore up your weaker categories and seek counsel as you make the hard decisions about how to spend your time. Whether you confide in your parents, your friends, your siblings, or another mentor, don’t forget to lean on the people who care about you. Nothing can replace thoughtful mentorship.

Finally, remember that assessing your chances of college admission should help you build confidence, not lose it. It should make you confident that you’re applying to the right colleges for the right reasons, and avoiding colleges that are unrealistic or a poor fit.

Jason Milan is a Senior Admissions Consultant at admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. He uses expertise built over more than five years of elite college admissions consulting to lead Menlo’s undergraduate team, driving exceptional outcomes for dozens of ambitious students applying to top universities. Jason specializes in compellingly connecting the dots between a student’s passion and prospects in order to craft a cohesive story that makes them unforgettable.


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