r/ApplyingToCollege - How your "Academic Score" determines what happens to your application (2023)

This post is building on Tuesday's post by u/Ben-MA's about how schools process 50k applications. It's part of a larger series we've developed. This one is about the "academic score," a key part of how your application is evaluated.


Here's a little math problem for ya.

Say an admissions office with 15 full-time admissions officers gets 50,000 applications in a cycle. Now, say that each file would take 17 minutes to read through and assess fully.

That's 850,000 minutes required to read every application... or 14,000 hours total—just shy of 1,000 hours per admissions officer.

Put differently, that's 25 weeks of full-time review per admissions officer. But all these files must be reviewed in a 10-week span.

How do you solve this problem?

Answer: By drawing lines in the sand based on academics and scoring files into two general categories:

  • Applications that pass an academic threshold.

    (Video) college admissions culture is toxic.

  • Apps that don't pass the academic threshold and receive a secondary read, but might be slated for denial.

Time can then be allocated accordingly.

Before we go any further, if you are interested in this stuff, a lot of the information in this post was pulled together from the public release of Harvard's internal admissions documents, discussions with AOs, readers, and admissions directors at schools in the T100 (privates and publics), and public information from some larger schools like UMich and the UCs. (Here's an article from The Crimson laying a lot of this stuff out at Harvard.) I also included a list of some books that go deep into this stuff down at the bottom of the post.

The role of Academic Score in sorting your application

This initial academic sort is governed by Academic Score. It’s well-documented that universities assign quantitative scores to applications based on the strength of their academic profile.

Quantitative academic factors including your GPA, test scores, class rank, and course rigor are all scrutinized—each contributing, in various ways, to a single academic score attached to your application. Some of this information can actually be seen directly by looking at Common Data Set reports for each institution: you can see which elements matter more or less.

Each admission office has its own rubric for assigning these scores, so the specific way the score is derived will be different everywhere. Also, the process for verifying these can look different at different schools.

At Harvard, for example, first readers "record a Harvard-dictated set of data points and make note of any missing materials." Your score will determine the next step for your application. Your file will go to one of the aforementioned categories based on your academic score, earning a full read or heading for discard.

Why do admissions offices do it this way?

When there are so many qualified applicants, starting with academics is the only way to semi-objectively triage all applications within a constrained window of time. Schools are evaluating applicants as students first—which is why academic score leads the first-pass process in most admissions offices, and certainly at highly rejective schools.

(Video) Let's Meet the r/ApplyingToCollege moderators!

There are just too many qualified applicants. Admissions offices have to start with the most academically qualified students and go from there.

Two misconceptions about academics in the admissions process

Misconception #1: You can overcome mediocre academics with personal factors or achievements when applying to highly rejective schools.

To some extent, extremely stand-out personal factors can help recommend an application with low grades for a second, more fulsome read.

But most of the time, a strong academic profile is the prerequisite for advancing in the process at a highly rejective school. It gets you across the threshold and earns your file a full read. It's in the full read that your achievements and interests can really shine, and where AOs get a full sense of who you are by reading your essays.

Misconception #2: Admissions chances are determined by composite application scores

In admissions, you get points for everything. But an academic cutoff score often acts as a gateway for determining who advances to the full read and who does not—a kind of yes-no binary.

Let’s say our hypothetical school has an academic score that goes from 1-10. The cutoff score is drawn at a 9.

If a student meets this threshold, they advance and their “soft factors” are then introduced to the decision process. Take four students as an example:

AcademicsSoft FactorsComposite
Student A7815
Student B8816
Student C9817
Student D10717

Students A and B, who both have great soft factors, are out because they don’t meet the academic cut-off.

(Video) The problem with Reddit’s Applying to College

Students C and D meet the academic cutoff and advance to the full read, where other factors (ECs, essays, letters of rec, etc.) are evaluated.

And while their composite scores are the same, here student C shines because their soft factors are “stronger” than student D’s. Student C might be offered a spot in the class while student D might be rejected or waitlisted—even though student D had the stronger academics.

NOTE: Not all admissions offices work this way. Many will provide holistic evaluation for every student who comes in the door, especially when application volumes are lower and the target class size is smaller. Liberal arts colleges in particular are known for approaching class-building with a much more holistic set of criteria. Larger public schools, on the other hand, are likely to lean more on quantitative approaches to admissions and leave more decision-making power to algorithms.

To be clear, A, B, C, and D are all really strong applicants — all four of these students will be competitive at most institutions. But we might be talking about Princeton here. All of these students would be welcomed with open arms at 99% of the amazing schools that don't have a ridiculously, brain-meltingly low acceptance rate.

The point is this:

If a file isn't academically competitive enough to advance to a full review, chances are extremely low that it will be admitted. If a file is academically competitive, it's probably getting a full review. If that happens, the application has a shot. This is where, at many larger and more rejective schools, more holistic factors come into play.

But academics are immutable in the admissions process. That's because, as that article linked above reiterates, GPAs are the most predictive factor of how well a student is likely to perform in college.

No matter the mitigating circumstances, personal factors, extracurricular achievements, etc., etc... there is very, very little wiggle room at the most highly competitive schools around non-competitive academics.

It's extremely imperfect, I know.

So what should you do with this information?

(Video) What Do Students Tend to Put in University Applications That Decreases Their Chances of Acceptance?

As with so many of our posts about the true difficulty of elite admissions, the takeaways remain the same.

First, you need to be smart about your realistic chances. If you have a 3.6 and have filled your list with top-15 schools with sub-10% acceptance rates, you probably need to head back to the drawing board on your list and find schools with higher acceptance rates and lower median GPA cutoffs.

Second, if you do have the grades to earn a full review at a selective school, you need a battle plan for the soft factors on your application. You need to:

  • Write a great extracurricular section that clearly highlights your biggest achievements and shows your personality.

  • Write high-quality essays that tell a cohesive story across your application--not just reflecting on your accomplishments, but about who you are as a person.

  • Solicit letters of recommendation from your professors that are memorable.

Over and out.


P.S., If you're interested in any of this "inside" information about admissions, there are so many books that you can take a look at, some of which served as a basis for these posts. Here are a few:

  • Who Gets In and Why, by Jeff Selingo. "One of the most insightful books ever about “getting in” and what higher education has become, Who Gets In and Why not only provides an usually intimate look at how admissions decisions get made, but guides prospective students on how to honestly assess their strengths and match with the schools that will best serve their interests."

    (Video) College Admissions Officers Share The Cringiest Essays They've Read (r/AskReddit Top Stories)

  • Valedictorians At the Gate, by Becky Munsterer Sabky. "Witty and warm, informative and inspiring, Valedictorians at the Gate is the needed tonic for overstressed, overworked, and overwhelmed students on their way to the perfect college for them."

  • A is for Admissions, by Michelle Hernandez. "A former admissions officer at Dartmouth College reveals how the world's most highly selective schools really make their decisions."

  • Creating a Class, by Mitchell Stevens. "With novelistic flair, sensitivity to history, and a keen eye for telling detail, Stevens explains how elite colleges and universities have assumed their central role in the production of the nation's most privileged classes. Creating a Class makes clear that, for better or worse, these schools now define the standards of youthful accomplishment in American culture more generally."


How do colleges evaluate my application? ›

Admissions officers look at “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) and “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) to gain a full picture of applicants.

What does it mean when your college application is under final review? ›

It means that your information is being reviewed by the college. The next step is for the college to send you an admission decision.

Does your admissions counselor read your application? ›

The person who reads your application in a college admissions office might be a dedicated admissions officer, a faculty member, or a student or part-time essay reader. They are reading your essay in the context of your application overall.

Can colleges revoke acceptance for bad grades? ›

Colleges can revoke an admitted student's acceptance at any time. The most common reasons include poor grades, disciplinary infractions, and honor code violations. Students at risk of not graduating high school can have their admission revoked. Colleges typically reach out before revoking an admission offer.

How do grades affect college acceptance? ›

A student's grades are one of the most important factors that colleges and universities look at before considering him or her for admission. A student who can demonstrate high achievement in high school with top marks stands a much better chance of being admitted than a student whose grades are mediocre.

Who decides if you get accepted into college? ›

Offers of admission are based on each school's enrollment objectives. Making admissions decisions is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Large state schools may use a test score and GPA formula. Highly selective schools may have multiple reviewers with many voices weighing in on a decision.

How long does it take for colleges to evaluate your application? ›

Every college has its own timeline for evaluating student applications. It's not unusual for a college's application process to take four to six weeks. Colleges that have an application portal allow students to go online to check the status of their applications at any time.

How long does it take for a college to accept or deny your application? ›

The average turnaround time for an admissions decision for schools with rolling admissions is four to six weeks, though in some cases students might have to wait longer. For regular decision candidates, the wait is more like eight to 12 weeks. Students handle that waiting period differently, experts say.

What happens to rejected college applications? ›

Many students opt for one of the other schools on their list. But if you are determined to get into your first choice, you essentially have two options: attend another school and transfer or reapply after taking a gap year. The good news: you can get accepted into a college after being denied.

How do you know if you didn't get accepted into a college? ›

Colleges send out emails to applicants, but they usually don't contain an acceptance or nonacceptance letter. Instead, the email you receive is likely going to direct you to the college's online application portal. Today, most colleges have an online portal where students can check the status of their applications.

How many admissions officers look at your application? ›

Many schools make sure most applications receive at least two full reads before going to committee. The second reader will add additional input and notes to the applicant's file. The second reader often agrees with the comments and recommendations of the first reader but sometimes they will disagree.

Do colleges look at applications as they come in? ›

Colleges have different protocols when it comes to how and when their candidates are evaluated. But, just as you've suggested, in order to survive the post-deadline rush, it's common for admission officials to start reviewing applications before a fixed deadline, if the file is complete.

Do admissions officers look at every application? ›

Of course they are read! Essays give admission officers real insight into the applicant. You might wonder how a huge school would manage reading thousands of essays, but you can trust that they hire extra staff, if necessary, to make sure the entire application gets a close look.

Can colleges reject you for being too good? ›

While there is some anecdotal evidence that overqualified students get rejected, these students aren't usually turned down because of their better-than-average grades or test scores. Most likely, the overqualified student isn't the right fit for a school or they haven't shown enough interest to admission officers.

Will I get rescinded with 3 C's? ›

Colleges will not rescind for a single “C" (although a “D" can be a different story). Students who are REALLY in trouble (i.e., those with multiple C's or worse) should write to the colleges that admitted them (or to just the one they plan to attend) to “explain" atypically low grades.

Will a school ever hold it against you if you previously rejected an offer of admission? ›

Colleges absolutely do revoke admissions, and I've seen it happen too many times. These revocations are completely avoidable, however, and it's not difficult for students to do. The number one reason for students losing their place in the freshman class is a change in either senior classload or grades.

What grade do colleges look at the most? ›

Your first year and sophomore year affect your cumulative GPA, which is important to most colleges. However, a solid academic record in your junior year is likely to carry more importance with an admissions committee.

What grades matter most in college admission? ›

Your junior year grades are essential: it's the grade a college will look at most, along with your senior year. Your grades predetermine your academic performance for your final year. Your GPA and the “sturdiness” of it matters.

What do colleges look at besides grades? ›

Good grades, a challenging high school curriculum, standardized test scores, extracurriculars, and a strong essay are a few key factors admissions officers assess. Each university may emphasize different elements of the application process.

How to increase your chances of getting accepted into college? ›

How to Get into College: Tips to Help You Apply & Get Accepted
  1. Understand Yourself. ...
  2. Seek Support from Family and Friends. ...
  3. Study Hard. ...
  4. Challenge Yourself Academically. ...
  5. Make a College Application Calendar. ...
  6. Make a Reasonable List of Colleges. ...
  7. Demonstrate Interest. ...
  8. Prepare for the SAT or ACT.

What is the #1 factor colleges look for in applicants? ›

Academics: Your Course Load and Grades

Academics are the most important factor for college admissions. It is also the one most parents are unaware of in the early years of a student's high school education. For admissions officials, the question is: Did you take challenging courses in high school and get good grades?

What happens if you accept two admission offers? ›

Double Deposits

Double depositing means putting down a deposit, and thus accepting admission, at more than one college. Since a student can't attend multiple colleges, it is considered unethical.

What are the early signs that you have been accepted into a university? ›

The early 'sign' would be a letter to you that you have been accepted, or wait-listed or rejected. In some rare cases, you may get a phone call from the college, because of a mishap with their computer or some process that will delay an announcement.

Do colleges send rejection letters? ›

Plan Ahead Before Applying to College

But the more applications you submit, the greater your chances are of receiving a college rejection letter. The more applications you submit, the greater your chances are of receiving a college rejection letter.

Can you ask a college to review your application again? ›

In order to have grounds for an appeal, generally, you must be able to prove that your initial application didn't accurately represent your achievements. Here are some specific circumstances under which a college might be willing to reconsider your admissions decision.

Can you get rejected from every college you apply to? ›

Although it may feel like it, getting rejected from every college is not the end of the world. It's a tough pill to swallow, for sure, but there's no need to hit the panic button.

Do colleges tell you if they rejected you? ›

While colleges are not likely to share their specific reasons for rejecting an application, colleges do tell you if they rejected you. For students wondering what to do if you get rejected from all colleges, you may want to consider taking a gap year and reapplying next year.

How many times can you apply to a college after getting rejected? ›

The only time you can't reapply as a freshman applicant is if you try to apply again in the same admissions timeframe as your first application. (For example, if you were rejected Early Action/Early Decision, you can't reapply Regular Decision for that same admissions cycle.)

What is the main reason colleges reject? ›

Failure to meet high GPA or test score standards. Insufficient academic rigor. Lack of demonstrated interest. Application essay errors.

How long does it take for a college to reject you? ›

Colleges often make decisions within six to eight weeks. The application process is competitive, so students should apply early.

Can you reapply to a college after being academically dismissed? ›

Simply put, academic dismissal means being asked to leave the school because of continued poor academic performance. It doesn't mean your student can never go to college again; it just means they have to put a stop to their education at their current institution for the time being.

Can I ask colleges why I was rejected? ›

There is no rule keeping denied students from asking admissions officers the reason for the decision. However, it's very much likely for them to get a generic response or none at all. It's a better idea for denied students to ask admissions officers what they could do for increased admissions chances.

What is a red flag for admissions officers? ›

What is an application red flag? Simply put, it's something on a college application that can make an admissions officer second guess how qualified an applicant is or if they're a good-fit for the school. A red flag can be as serious as a disciplinary infraction, or as simple as not following application directions.

What not to ask admissions officers? ›

But all the same, it's not a good idea to ask about the school's party culture or anything related to drugs and alcohol. Questions that make you seem uninterested. Don't ask admissions officers questions that compare them to other schools.

What do admissions officers care about most? ›

Basically, there are six main factors that college admissions officers consider: AP classes and challenging course loads, high school GPAs, SAT and ACT scores (unless they are test-optional), meaningful extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and your personal statement.

What do admissions officers look at first? ›

Admissions officers look at “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) and “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) to gain a full picture of applicants.

Do colleges look at parents education? ›

In general, colleges and universities are most interested in seeing if your immediate family members attended. For example, if you are using The Common Application, the "Family" section of the application will ask you about the education level of your parents and siblings.

How do colleges notify applicants? ›

Do colleges mail you acceptance letters? Most schools will now inform you of their decision online. This might mean an acceptance letter directly via email, or an email notification that a decision has been made which will prompt you to access your application status via your application portal.

Do college admissions officers Google you? ›

Admission officials do not routinely do Google searches to seek out information about their applicants. But it DOES happen … most often when the application says something atypical that the college folks want to learn more about.

Do college admission officers compare you to people at your school? ›

Admissions officers sort applicants by region first, and then often subdivide within regions by other factors, which can include race, gender, intended major, or smaller geographic areas. Thus you are compared to other applicants from your high school, but not directly.

How do you not get rejected in college? ›

The easiest way to avoid getting rejected from college is to produce the best application you can. For top schools, this means you should typically have the following: A high GPA and a challenging course load. Strong SAT/ACT test scores.

What are the odds of getting in when waitlisted? ›

According to recent data from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, colleges on average admit 20% of students off the waitlist. At the most selective institutions, that figure was 7%.

Can a college reverse a rejection? ›

Some colleges offer the option of appealing a rejection, and while a reversal is rare, it could be worth pursuing. If your initial admissions circumstances have changed significantly, and you feel you have a strong case, there's a chance your appeal might prevail.

Do colleges care about senior year? ›

The important thing to know is that colleges do look at your senior year grades. So, a weaker performance in senior year than in previous grades can impact your application and college admissions decisions.

Can I get rescinded for a B? ›

And most of the time, colleges only revoke an acceptance if the student shows a significant drop in performance during their senior year without a good explanation. How bad do grades have to be to get an admission offer revoked? Schools generally will not reconsider an acceptance if an A drops to a B.

What percentage of students get rescinded? ›

As stated in the standard acceptance letter, admission is contingent upon satisfactory completion of high school, and colleges reserve the right to reverse their decision at any time. In a typical year, colleges revoke about 1 percent to 2 percent of their admission offers.

Is being waitlisted better than rejected? ›

Getting on a waitlist is not a rejection — waitlisted students still have a shot at earning admission to the school. College waitlist statistics from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) show that 43% of postsecondary institutions used a waitlist during the 2018-19 school year.

Is it better to be waitlisted or deferred? ›

In general, you can assume that your odds are better if you've been deferred rather than waitlisted. Deferred students are reconsidered during the regular decision round and should have about the same chance as other regular decision applicants.

How bad do my grades have to be to get rescinded? ›

How Bad Do Your Grades Have To Be To Get An Admission Revoked? A moderate decrease such as straight A's to straight B's will not induce a college to revoke your acceptance, but a dramatic decrease of grades such as straight A's to C's, D's, and E's will give a college enough reason to revoke your acceptance.

What year of high school do colleges look at the most? ›

Show off your academic chops

The main reason that junior is the most important year for your college applications is because it's the last full year of high school that colleges see.

Do college admissions look at class rank? ›

Does class rank matter for college admissions? According to a recent report from NACAC, class rank is considered among the “next most important factors” for college admissions after GPA, test scores, grades, and strength of curriculum. However, in practice the importance of class rank will vary from college to college.

Do grades matter when applying for college? ›

Though most schools set their requirements, it's usually no lower than a 2.0 GPA. Having a 3.5 GPA or higher also has its perks. You can qualify for honors programs at your university, earn certificates of distinction, and become eligible for merit-based scholarships.

What grade do universities look at the most? ›

Colleges see all your grades, but they tend to look most at your junior and senior years.

Do employers look at college grades? ›

Most employers won't check your GPA unless they're hiring for an entry-level job where they're looking for extra qualifiers. For entry-level jobs where candidates may not have much experience to show their work ethic, a GPA can serve as a valuable substitute.

Do colleges look at letter grades or GPA? ›

As they evaluate your academic performance throughout high school, colleges will look at both your overall GPA and the individual grades you received in your courses. Different high schools have different ways of calculating GPAs, including various weighting systems.

How do colleges evaluate transcripts? ›

Curriculum strength, core academic GPA, grade trends, and high school offerings all play into how a college reads your student's transcript, so there are many opportunities for students to shine.

How many admissions officers look at my application? ›

At most selective colleges an application will be read by a minimum of two admissions professionals, and could be read by as many as four. Generally, the first reader is the regional admission officer–the person who knows the school and region, and may have met the student.

Do colleges compare applicants from the same school? ›

Admissions officers sort applicants by region first, and then often subdivide within regions by other factors, which can include race, gender, intended major, or smaller geographic areas. Thus you are compared to other applicants from your high school, but not directly.

Which GPA do most colleges look at? ›

An unweighted GPA is the most popular grade point average reporting scale. It is used in high schools and colleges across much of America.

What GPA do most colleges look for? ›

However, for college applicants, the average GPA is more likely between 3.5 and 4.0. If you're aiming for a top university such as one in the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, or others of the same caliber, a 4.0 GPA — or close to it — is expected.

Do colleges just look at your transcript? ›

Colleges see any and all grades and information reported on your official transcript (again—you should request a copy!), but they care most about and evaluate your final grades in core academic courses.

What is the most important thing that colleges are looking for on your transcript? ›

Good Grades

Earning good grades is the most critical factor for college applications. You should learn the average grade point average (GPA) of students accepted to the college(s) you will apply to and aim to accomplish the same or better. Showing improvement in your GPA over time can also make a positive impression.

Do colleges like improvement in GPA? ›

Most universities will consider your child's overall high school GPA, but will always consider their GPA and transcript together, meaning that an admissions officer will see if your child's grades have improved over time.

Do college admissions look at every application? ›

Sometimes they don't even look at the essay no matter what your academic record looks like. Certain colleges, especially the small private institutions, will have faculty and admissions committees read the entire application, including the essay. But this is not common.

Do colleges care when you submit application? ›

It's critical to submit your application for admission by the published deadlines or they won't be considered. But there are also deadlines to submit financial aid forms to the colleges on your list. There are two main forms that might need to get filled out and submitted: the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.

Do universities talk to each other about applicants? ›

Some colleges will ask what other colleges the applicant is considering or applying to—but this is less about the students and more about the colleges themselves. This is a way to gather data that they can utilize in their marketing and recruiting campaigns.


1. r/ApplyingtoCollege Consultant AMA
2. Admissions Expert Reacts to A2C Reddit Memes
3. Answering Reddit's Questions about College Admissions | r/A2C and r/INTLtoUSA
(SCORE: Your College Counselor)
4. Harvard Students React to Applying To College Memes from Reddit
(Harvard College Admissions & Financial Aid)
5. This is what applying to college looks like.
(Frederic Chen)
6. Bad Teacher Recommendation: Famous Teacher Recommenders are Traps? (/r/ApplyingToCollege)


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