Ranking the Top 5 Components of the College Application


I tutored for several years before signing on with the great team here at Knewton. And during those salad days spent lugging the Big Blue Book around Gotham, parents always asked me to prioritize the components of the college application for their students. Here was/is my unscientific answer that I nonetheless feel very strongly about, ranked in order from greatest in importance to least.

  1. Grades. There’s no substitute on your college applications for a strong grade-point average. Colleges are looking for good students, and the best way to show that you’re a good student is, well, to get good grades. Obviously you should strive to have an impressive GPA throughout your high school career, but if you had a few slip-ups early on, don’t worry too much; colleges give more weight to your performance during your junior and senior years.
  2. SAT score. Love ‘em or strongly dislike ‘em, the SATs still mean something. The SAT is not an intelligence test; students’ scores can jump up to 400 points if they prepare diligently and correctly. Hence the need for good SAT prep.
  3. Personal statement. This is your one shot to really introduce your personality to an admissions board. It’s like you’re running for President and you’re at the convention: You get the podium and only a few minutes to present your case to the voters.
  4. Extracurricular activities. These might have ranked higher a decade ago (before Rushmore came out), but now they’re in their rightful place at #4. The marketplace is crowded, and you can only start so many clubs. Nevertheless, colleges really want a vibrant campus, filled with students trying and doing new things. Show focus; do a couple of things and do them well. Don’t spread yourself too thin and/or try to preen for admissions officers.
  5. Teacher recommendations. The challenge here is to choose your recommenders prudently. Colleges have seen great recommendations of all shapes and sizes, and a stellar letter surely works in your favor. It is more important, however, to be cautious of a bad or— more likely—a lukewarm recommendation. In short, play it safe and ask the teachers who really seem to have taken an interest in you, instead of the aloof teacher who has a reputation for writing flowery letters.

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