Guiding Principles in College Admissions

As your student sets out on the college admissions journey, it’s important to keep in mind what really matters in the process.

Too often, students and parents dive into the details before understanding the big picture. Yes, grades and test scores matter. But college admissions officers consider students holistically, and your student needs to know that to ensure that their best self comes through in their application materials.

This year, it’s more important than ever to focus on the foundations of a strong college application. The details are dicey and constantly in flux. But we expect that colleges will stick to these guiding principles in order to make their admissions decisions.

According to Signet’s team of former admissions officers, the following traits are weighed most heavily by admissions officers:

Success in Context

Because both your student’s transcript and their school profile will be sent along with their application, college admissions officers will be able to tell if the classes they did well in were easier or more challenging than other classes offered by the same school. Success in context means that your student did the best with what their school had to offer.

A common scenario for success in context compares students from two different schools. Both are excellent students with great grades, but one student attended a well-funded, affluent school that offered a wide range of AP and Honors classes, while the other student attended a poorly-funded school with fewer resources that only offered a few AP classes. Admissions officers put each student’s performance in the context of the school they attended, the available classes, etc. This year, success in context means colleges will take factors like your student’s learning environment (virtual vs. in-person, etc.) into account.


Students should choose to apply to certain schools for specific reasons. Your student should look for schools that fit their interests, both academic and extracurricular, and then thoroughly explain this compatibility in the application. Consider region, school size, majors offered, and curriculum when looking at schools and provide clear reasons why the student and the school are a good match.

For example, if your student has always loved cities and could not imagine living away from one, they probably should not apply to The Eastern Colorado Institute for Animal Husbandry and Advanced Milking Tech. Schools will likely be on the lookout for students who are a good match for their institution in a range of different environments (i.e. whether classes are in-person or held remotely, will this individual be excited about being a student at their school).


Applications tell a story: This is who I am, and this is how all the elements that make up me will fit with your institution. To this end, the classes and extracurricular activities your student lists should be consistent with their stated interests. Support any stated interests and talents with evidence from real life.

Coherence also means viewing the entire application as a single narrative. For that reason, many students choose to use the personal statement as an opportunity to share something about themselves that’s not already apparent from other pieces of the application. Admissions officers recognize that many activities have been disrupted in recent months, but your student’s application can showcase how they’ve been able to pursue their interests independently.

These points are the “wide-angle” shots of qualities that admissions officers find desirable. In our current environment, it’s helpful to focus less on the details and think about the overall trajectory and story your student’s college applications will tell.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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