Want to know your chances? Find out here.
The most common question students ask me is:
Do I have what it takes to get in?
It is a tough question to answer because the American admissions process is complicated.
Your admission to college is based on more than grades and test scores. College admissions is not an entirely objective process which means I can’t just look at the data and tell you your odds.
You may find this frustrating, but in some ways, it is liberating. You are not entirely limited by your grades and scores. If you can make yourself stand out in other ways, you may be able to transcend a slight quantitative weakness. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that perfect grades and top scores are no guarantee of acceptance.
So how do you figure out where you stand?
You can’t entirely know, but asking yourself some of the questions below will help you get an idea.
The first thing to ask is whether your GPA is above or below average for the school.
Unless you feel you have something else significant that will stand out in your application (e.g. extensive awards, standout extracurricular activities, or a compelling personal story) or you fit into a flagged category (under-represented minority, legacy, or recruited athlete), aim to be above average for most of the schools on your list.
You can find the average GPA for most schools listed on the admissions section of their websites or in the US News and World Report rankings.
Top colleges are looking for students who tried to challenge themselves academically. It doesn’t mean you have to have signed up for every single AP class your school offers, but it does mean that colleges expect that you will have signed up for at least a handful of the hardest courses your school offers.
It also means that you didn’t avoid taking math or science all four years or that you skipped out on other fundamental subjects like foreign language. If you have a high GPA because you signed up only for the easiest classes, it won’t count as much.
- What are the hardest courses in my school? Did I take a least some of them?
- Is the course load I picked equally if not more challenging than the course load of other top students at my school?
- Did I take a well-rounded course load covering all key subject areas?
Top colleges will expect most accepted students to answer yes to all three of those questions unless they were admitted for outstanding strength in a particular academic field or standout extracurricular accomplishments or personal qualities.
Try to be within or above the middle 50% range for the majority of schools on your list.
Like the information on average GPA, you can find this data on college websites or in US News and World Report. 25% of students of admitted students score below this range, but keep in mind that these students typically stand out significantly in other ways which helps compensate for lower scores.
Extracurricular activities are a less objective measure than your GPA and SAT scores, and it can be difficult to assess you compare to your peers. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I participated all four years in extracurricular activities?
- Have I participated in activities across multiple disciplines such as art, athletics, government, employment, community service, and academics?
- Have I held a job or participated in activities over the summer?
- Have I held positions of leadership or founded an organization?
- Have I won any awards or honors for my extracurricular activities?
Walking through these questions will give you a sense of your strength in this category. The most competitive colleges will expect you to answer yes in 4-5 of these questions and most colleges will expect a yes in 2-3 provided your application doesn’t stand out significantly in other ways.
This is the hardest category to assess for yourself, but it is critical to consider if you want to accurately assess your odds of admission. This part of your application is based on your teacher recommendations, interviews, and essays.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have several teachers who recognize me as an outstanding student?
- Do these teachers have anything more to say about me outside of the fact that I got a good grade in their class?
- Does my essay topic reveal the kind of person I am and illustrate personal qualities such as a driving passion, motivation, a strong work ethic, resilience, courage, or the other trademarks of my personality?
- Am I comfortable opening up to an interviewer and having an honest and open conversation about who I am and my hopes, dreams, and ambitions?
Most top schools will look for students who answer yes to 3-4 of these questions, and most schools will want students to answer yes to at least one.
For the most elite colleges like the Ivy League schools and their peers, there is one other very important question to consider:
Do you stand out?
It is a hard question to answer for yourself, but use your judgment. Do you have something unique or highly desirable (i.e. a hook) to bring to the table?
Do you have a unique passion like bird watching or extreme skydiving?
Do you come from an interesting background like you are a part of a small Amazonian tribe or grew up on a soybean farm?
Do you come from a place that is not well represented in the student body like South Dakota or a small African nation?
Are you an under-represented minority, legacy, or recruited athlete?
Have you had to overcome significant struggles like homelessness, poverty, or illness?
Have you done something extraordinary for someone your age like started your own business or raised money for a cause you are passionate about?
Be honest with yourself, and in your gut, you probably know where you stand. You don’t need to have a hook to get into a top school, but if you have a slight weakness in any of the other categories, a hook can keep you competitive.
After you’ve considered all of these categories, you still probably don’t know for sure whether or not you will be accepted to your top choice school, but you will have a better idea of whether you are a competitive applicant.
Getting in is never a guarantee, but if you take the time to honestly consider your own profile and how it compares to the schools on your list, you’ll be able to refine your list accordingly and increase your odds of ending up with positive admissions results.