At Signet, we believe that high school is about so much more than the college admissions process. It’s a time of great growth and development, where you start to figure out what you want from life. But we also know that students—and parents—want to do everything they can to prepare for not only an awesome high school experience, but an amazing college experience as well.

The good news is that a high school student who works hard and pursues their passions ends up as a desirable and successful college candidate: the two go hand in hand.

What Colleges Want

In order to get into the college that’s right for you, you first have to understand what colleges prioritize in admissions, and how different kinds of schools prioritize differently.

Luckily, there’s an organization—the National Association for College Admissions Counselling, or NACAC—that has collected helpful statistics relating to college admissions (page 17 in the linked doc). NACAC has identified several factors that admissions officers use when considering candidates. The results might surprise you:

Small colleges care more about the “whole student” than large colleges do.

According to NACAC’s research, small colleges take a more holistic approach to the admissions process. This means that admissions officers use more than raw scores (GPA, SAT, etc.) when evaluating a student.

Curriculum matters more than class rank, but grades in courses reign supreme.

Grades in college-prep courses are the most important aspect in admissions, according to 84.3% of the colleges polled, followed closely by the quality of the student’s overall curriculum. Interestingly, class rank is considered “highly important” by only 18.8% of colleges polled.

Extracurriculars matter, but not as much as academics.

Extracurriculars are considered “moderately important” by 43.1% of officers polled, meaning that while they are important, grades and test scores matter much more. In our experience, extracurriculars become a more important factor in admissions as the schools become more selective.

Scores matter, but not all scores matter the same.

The SAT and ACT scores are crucial for admissions, but SAT Subject Test scores are less important. There’s constant debate about the value of standardized testing, but the evidence shows that it does matter for admissions.

What This Means For You

In a nutshell, this information should help you understand your priorities. Armed with these NACAC stats, you can revise your road map, prioritizing your plans based on the level of importance each item has for your particular college goals. For instance, if you plan on attending a small liberal arts college, your goals will be considerably different from the goals of a student who wants to attend a large state institution or an Ivy League school. (If you’re early in the high school process, you don’t need to have these decisions made yet, but it’s good to keep an eye on the future.)

Choosing the courses and extracurriculars that will make your college application shine is an important part of mapping out your high school experience, but families should remember not to put the cart before the horse. You don’t need to mold yourself to fit what you think a certain college wants; rather, work hard, keep growing and developing, and trust that when it’s time for applications, there will be schools that are a clear fit for you.

You have the potential to create your own path, not only through your high school years, but through college and into who you will become as an adult. We encourage the pursuit of excellence and a focus on education as you take this journey, so you can become become the kind of curious, interesting person who makes meaningful contributions to the world.

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