Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

Insider Secrets: What US Admissions Officers Really Want in Undergraduate Applicants

POSTED ON 06/21/2024 BY The Red Pen

Crafting a standout undergraduate application for US universities

Applying to US universities is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, especially since the admissions landscape is becoming increasingly competitive. An Open Doors Report reveals a significant 35 percent increase in Indian students studying in the US, reaching a record high of 268,923 students in 2023. Notably, among these, 31,954 were pursuing undergraduate studies.

Therefore, it’s crucial to understand what admissions officers are looking for in undergraduate applications. Beyond the grades and test scores, a complex tapestry of factors shapes the admissions process. This comprehensive guide will help you understand the review process of US universities and explore the key elements that admissions officers prioritise. It will equip you with the insights and strategies to craft a compelling application to your dream college. 

Understanding the holistic review process of US universities

At the heart of undergraduate admissions in the US lies the principle of reviewing each applicant holistically, a practice embraced by most leading universities. Provost Jenny Martinez of Stanford University states, “We continue to be committed to a holistic review of every applicant to the university – a review that considers the broad array of accomplishments and life experiences of each student.”

The holistic review process evaluates each applicant comprehensively, considering hard and soft factors. Hard factors include GPA, standardised test scores, and high school class rank. Meanwhile, soft factors include leadership abilities, awards and honours, work experience, extracurricular activities, and unique circumstances within the applicant’s context. 

For instance, one applicant may come from a low-income rural area, maintain good grades while working part-time to support their family and excel academically despite limited resources. Another applicant may have an affluent background and has consistently achieved high grades, participated in prestigious academic competitions, and held leadership positions in multiple clubs. While both candidates possess unique strengths and experiences, the first candidate may stand out more due to the context of their achievements and the challenges they have overcome. Admissions officers consider these factors within the broader context of each applicant’s background.

5 factors admissions officers prioritise while evaluating your application

Now that we’ve explored the holistic review process of US universities, understanding what admissions officers prioritise in undergraduate applications is fundamental to crafting a compelling profile. Let’s give in: 

1) Academics: The foundation 

Academic performance serves as the cornerstone of your college application. Admissions officers closely examine your high school transcript to gauge your consistency, dedication, and ability to excel in a rigorous academic environment. Strong grades in challenging coursework demonstrate hard work, effective time management, intellectual curiosity and readiness for college-level academics. 

Admissions officers seek students who exhibit a genuine interest in learning and have challenged themselves academically.  For example, enrolling in honours and AP courses, or the IB diploma or rigorous A Levels and exceeding minimum requirements demonstrate that a student can stand out in an academically challenging environment. 

Standardised test scores are equally crucial. While tests like the SAT and ACT may have been relegated to the sidelines during the pandemic, a significant shift is underway as the dust settles and a semblance of normalcy returns. Prestigious institutions like Dartmouth College, MIT, Georgetown University, UT Austin, Yale University, Brown University, and Cornell University have made a decisive move by reinstating standardised testing

 Based on Fall 2023 data from the National Association for College Admission Counselling (NACAC), high school grades held the highest importance in the admissions process, with 76.8 percent of colleges significantly considering them in their evaluations. The strength of the academic curriculum pursued by applicants is also highly valued, with 63.8 percent of colleges placing considerable emphasis on this factor. However, standardised test scores are given less weight in comparison, with only 4.9 percent of colleges considering them significantly. This suggests a trend toward broader assessments of applicants beyond their performance in standardised tests alone.

2) Intellectual vitality: Passion for learning

Beyond grades and test scores, admissions officers seek candidates who exhibit intellectual vitality—a genuine thirst for knowledge, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning. Stanford uses the term “intellectual vitality,” MIT describes it as “intensity, curiosity, and excitement,” and Brown refers to it as “intellectual risk-taking.” Intellectual vitality encompasses an individual’s critical and creative thinking capacity. It holds significant value for college admissions committees as it suggests a student’s proactive engagement in campus intellectual life, dedication to coursework, and enthusiasm for exploring new ideas and experiences.

Dr. Irena Smith, former Stanford University admissions officer and author of The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays, highlights that colleges seek students with “intellectual vitality” and demonstrate initiative. She emphasises that this trait should be evident throughout the application, stating, “Intellectual vitality must ooze from the file.”

Intellectual vitality manifests in diverse forms, such as a student’s willingness to delve into subjects beyond their comfort zone, active participation in scholarly discussions, and involvement in research projects, academic clubs, or competitions. Letters of recommendation highlight a student’s passion for learning and depth of thought, further emphasising their intellectual vitality.

3) Context: Assessing background

Context plays a pivotal role in evaluating college applications. Admissions officers meticulously examine each applicant’s background, educational journey, and commitments, such as work and familial responsibilities. Assessing how students have navigated their unique circumstances and leveraged available resources within their school and community is integral to understanding their achievements within their specific context. 

Research conducted by the American Educational Research Association underscores the importance of considering students’ backgrounds in the college admissions process, as it fosters diversity and contributes to higher success rates in college. Recognising the significance of context in Cornell University’s admissions philosophy, President Martha E. Pollack emphasises, “Cornell’s origin story, as reflected in our founding principle of ‘any person … any study,’ is unique, and it’s key to our modern ethos and identity,” Pollack said. “Our commitment to broad-based and inclusive admissions practices wasn’t an afterthought; it has always been intrinsic to our purpose and philosophy. A diverse and exceptionally talented student body is critical to advancing our institutional mission.”

4) Personal accomplishments: Beyond the classroom

An admissions officer’s evaluation also includes personal accomplishments showcasing leadership abilities, community contributions, awards and honours, work experience, and extracurricular involvement. In the book Who Gets In And Why, New York Times bestselling author Jeffrey Selingo underscores the growing importance of a candidate’s personal qualities, character, and skills, alongside their academic achievements, in the evaluation process. He argues that universities now prioritise well-rounded individuals who are both academically proficient and poised to contribute positively to their campus community. 

College admissions officers are changing their approach to evaluating applicants, focusing more on evidence of personal attributes and skills linked to college success. A Harvard Graduate School of Education project, “Making Caring Common”, highlights this shift. 

Studies by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and Yale University economist John Eric Humphries, alongside Tim Kautz of Mathematica Policy Research, indicate that life skills such as conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, curiosity, time management, and executive functioning are superior predictors of college success compared to standardised tests. Heckman suggests that college admissions officers could enhance their ability to select successful students by placing emphasis on these attributes and high school grades.

5) Fit: Align academic goals with college resources and ethos 

Admissions officers seek applicants who embody their institution’s ethos and values, both academically and socially. Each college, and sometimes each department within it, has its own unique objectives and criteria that guide admissions officers in selecting suitable candidates. While you need to find an institution that fosters growth, colleges also need to feel like they can offer tailored support and opportunities that you require. 

Self-reflection plays a pivotal role in the college search process. You must introspectively assess your values, strengths, areas for improvement, and preferred learning environments. Aligning these aspects with the characteristics of prospective colleges can guide you towards the right fit.

According to Micheal S Roth, President of Wesleyan University, “Finding the right college will often mean finding these kinds of people — classmates and mentors, perpetual students who seek open-ended learning that brings joy and meaning. That’s what young people checking out schools should really be looking for.”

While you may not be able to control who reviews your application or the competitiveness of the applicant pool, you can do several things to present yourself in the best possible light. 

At The Red Pen, we work closely with applicants to strategically build their profiles for US university applications. If you need help with undergraduate applications, please contact us. Our admission specialists look forward to assisting you. Meanwhile, you can read our blogs on Undergraduate Application Outcomes: What They Are and How to Respond? And How to Choose the Right Undergraduate Admissions Consultant.