College Counseling » College Admissions Basics

College Admissions Basics

How Colleges Admit Students (What do they look at?)

Academic Record/Success in College Preparatory Courses. This is consistently the number one factor on every list. A strong academic record in challenging courses throughout high school will be the factor most likely to influence an admission decision in the student's favor. This is not just about grades; it is also about course selection. It includes things such as whether you took difficult courses and whether there was an upward (or downward) trend in your grades over the four years of high school. Colleges receive The Master's School profile (a document with information on our grading system, course offerings, faculty qualifications, AP and SAT participation and scores, college acceptances, and so on) along with all student transcripts so that they can determine the rigor of our academic program. A student's course load is evaluated against the courses available at the school. Honors and AP courses indicate a willingness to challenge yourself and take advantage of available academic opportunities. Note: Many colleges recalculate an applicant's GPA so that they are comparing all applicants on the same scale. It is the college's choice whether they include all classes or just academic ones, whether they weight honors or AP classes, and so forth.

Standardized Test Scores - ACT, SAT and Related Tests. Despite the fact that some colleges are now positioning themselves as "test optional," this remains an important factor in most cases. In general, however, good test scores cannot save an otherwise weak application. The reverse is also true; in many cases, weak test scores cannot ruin an otherwise strong application. There are two major exceptions. One is the large university that uses test scores to reduce large numbers of applications to a manageable number that then receive a more thorough review. The other is highly selective colleges who really are looking for the "whole package" - strength in every area of the application. Some colleges will use standardized test scores for freshman placement. This is particularly true of SAT II scores (Subject Tests) and AP exam scores. Good scores may give you credit hours, exempt you from entry level courses, or satisfy other requirements.

Extracurricular Activities and Work. These experiences show the admissions committee who you are and what you do. Missions trips, jobs, summer courses at a university, or a dramatic arts summer camp tell the committee that you pursue education and experience outside of the "have to" of the classroom. The list does not have to be a mile long, and you should not list everything you have ever done. They do not want to know that you spent 2 hours your freshman year doing something that you never did again. If any of your activities are related to your career interests, be sure to emphasize those. Demonstrated commitment over time and leadership are recognized as important characteristics.

Teacher and Counselor Recommendations. These first-hand observations give information about a student's personality, motivation for learning, or personal philosophy. Ask someone who knows and likes you. Note: Our small school size helps our teachers write very good recommendations since they really know the students.

Personal Statements, Essays, and Writing Samples. This helps the college get an idea of your writing style and how well you express yourself on the page. With the rise of on-line applications, there is a tendency to submit an essay that has not been fully thought through. Resist the temptation to type it in and hit SEND. Essays submitted online need to go through the same kind of rigor as other essays since they are one and the same thing to the admissions counselor. [More details about essays are in the next section.] When you write, get to the point quickly. This is essential given the space limitations you usually have and the time limitations of the admissions counselor reading the essay. The more specific and personal you can be, the better. Avoid lofty language, and write using your own voice, not what you think they want.

Interview. Some colleges require a personal interview by either a staff member or an alumnus. This becomes an official part of the admission folder. If an interview is not required but recommended and you really want to attend a certain college, an interview will almost always benefit your application. It allows an admissions counselor to put a face with an application, which is always preferable. Note: One of the "hidden" strengths of The Master's School is that our students are typically very impressive in interviews.

Special Talents or Characteristics. If you have a special talent (musical, artistic, athletic), the college may want you as a member of their student body because of that ability. Uncommon things sometimes make you particularly appealing to a school. You need to show that talent to professors, coaches, and/or admissions officers. Make sure it's on your résumé.

Demonstrated Interest in the College. There is no consistency about how much this enters into an admission office's decision, although there is some evidence that the more selective colleges put more weight on this factor. Early Decision applications clearly show not only demonstrated interest, but absolute commitment. However, ED is only a good option for you if you are completely sure you want to go there. For regular admissions, some schools track everything (phone calls, tours, visits, emails) and use it to judge interest, while others do not. If you are interested in a college, it never hurts to let them know that in tangible ways.

Institutional Priorities and Diversity. This is one factor you have no control over. Colleges may allot a certain number of spots to students who move them toward whatever priorities the college has set for itself. This can include things such as diversity (ethnic, socioeconomic, or geographic), athletics, or fine arts.

Application and Admission Options

Non-Restrictive Application Plans

(Students are not restricted from applying to other institutions and have until May 1 to consider their options and confirm enrollment.)

Restrictive Application Plans

(Students are responsible for determining and following restrictions.)

Regular Decision

Rolling Admission

Early Action (EA)

Early Decision (ED)

Restrictive Early Action (REA)

Students submit an application by a specified date and receive a decision within a clearly stated period of time (usually late March or early April). Applications are considered in light of the whole pool of applications.

Institutions review applications as they are submitted and render admission decisions throughout the admission cycle. You may receive a decision within 2-4 weeks after submitting the application.  It is in your best interest to apply early since spots could fill up.

Students apply early and receive a decision well in advance of the regular response date. You still have until May 1 to make your decision.

Students make a commitment to a first-choice institution where, if admitted, they definitely will enroll. Therefore, you may not apply ED to more than one school. The application deadline and decision deadline occur early. Deposits are normally due very quickly after acceptance.

Students apply to an institution of preference and receive a decision early. You may be restricted from applying ED or EA or REA to other institutions. If offered enrollment, you have until May 1 to confirm.











(Information adapted from NACAC chart on admissions options)

Further Notes on Early Decision

  • Early Decision can be a good way to let a college know it is your top choice.
  • Responses to an Early Decision application can be acceptance, denial, or deferral of the application to the Regular Decision application pool.
  • Early Decision has been in the news a lot in the last couple of years. There's a wide range of activity surrounding the issue.
    • Harvard has dropped the Early Decision option, claiming that Early Decision discriminates against lower income applicants. Several other top-tier schools followed suit. Others announced their intention to retain their Early Decision option.
    • One study indicated that applying Early Decision gives you an admissions advantage equivalent to a 100-point higher SAT score.
    • Many colleges are admitting a larger percentage of their freshman class from the Early Decision pool - a few at 50% or more. As colleges struggle to increase both selectivity and yield, Early Decision is a good way to increase yield.
  • A drawback of Early Decision is that you are not able to compare financial aid offers before choosing a college.

College, Application and Admissions Terminology

Accredited - Having met and maintained specific standards that qualify the graduates for admission to higher or more specialized institutions.

ACT - The "other" test. A standardized test, given on specific test dates, similar to the SAT. Originally more common in the Midwest, it is now widely accepted at most colleges and can often be substituted for the SAT in the admissions process. It includes tests in English, math, reading, and science reasoning.

Admission Tests - See SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Test, and ACT.

Advanced Placement - Admission or assignment of a college freshman to an advanced course in a certain subject based on evidence that the student has already completed college level work in that subject. In some cases, a college may grant academic credit hours in addition to the placement benefit. The most common basis for advanced placement is the score a student receives on the AP exams (which is different from the grade they receive in an AP class). See for information related to specific placement and credit policies at many colleges and universities.

Application Deadline - A real deadline! If the deadline says January 15, it is not the 16th or 17th. Get your application in early! The date is usually the postmark date but it is always wise to read the instructions carefully in order to be sure.

Associate Degree - A two-year degree earned by a student completing a prescribed course of study at a community or junior college.

Bachelor's Degree - A degree awarded at a college or university upon completion of a prescribed four-year course of undergraduate study. The most common types of bachelor's degrees are a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) or a B.S. (Bachelor of Science).

Candidate's Reply Date - Essentially all colleges subscribe to the Candidate's Reply Date which gives an accepted student until May 1 to make a final choice of colleges. Early Decision acceptances require a response prior to this date.

College (as opposed to university) - The terms are often used interchangeably, any real distinction is disappearing, and "college" in the name of an institution can add to the confusion. However, in the U.S., a college generally offers a collection of degrees (primarily undergraduate) in a specific area of study. A university is usually made up of a collection of colleges - for example, the College of Nursing, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering, and so on. When you attend a university, you typically graduate from one of their colleges.

College Scholarship Service (CSS)/Financial Aid PROFILE - A financial aid service from the College Board required by some colleges. While similar to the FAFSA in that it is used to determine eligibility for aid, it assesses financial need in slightly different ways. Many people believe it provides a better opportunity to make the college aware of special or extenuating circumstances. Check with the colleges you are applying to in order to determine whether they need this to be filed. Not all colleges accept this form.

Common Application Form - A standardized application form, recommendation form, and school report form accepted by over 340 cooperating colleges and universities. Some of the colleges and universities will also have a required supplement to the Common Application. See

Cooperative Education - A program in which periods in the classroom are alternated with periods of related employment.

Deferred Admission - Permits a student to spend a year working or traveling before beginning college. You must apply, be accepted, and request deferment following acceptance. Colleges generally allow this, but are not required to do so.

Dual Enrollment - Student earns college credit while still in high school.

Early Action/Early Notification - A non-binding application and notification procedure whereby the candidate submits an application early in the fall and is advised of the decision on their application before Christmas. Students may keep other applications active since they are usually not obligated to accept this offer of admission until May 1.

Early Admissions - A special program in which outstanding high school students request and are admitted to a college upon completion of tenth or eleventh grade.

Early Decision (Binding) -An admissions application option available at some schools for students who are ready to commit to that institution if they are accepted. Application deadlines tend to be in October or early November with decisions being made prior to Christmas. (This necessitates admission testing during the 11th grade.) Students may only apply early decision to one institution since they are agreeing to enroll at the college if accepted. If students are not accepted, schools will often reconsider the application under regular admission. Students are encouraged to use this plan only if fully committed to a specific college.

4-1-4 System - An academic school calendar of two semesters separated by a short interim session, sometimes called a January term.

Gap Year - A year, usually between high school and college, where the student works or participates in other activities. Year-long mission trips or enrichment experiences are examples of gap year options.

Grade Point Average - A system used to evaluate the overall academic performance of students. The number comes from determining the number of "grade points" a student has earned in each course (a certain number of points for an A, an A-, a B+ and so on) and then dividing that number by the total number of credit hours. The Master's School uses a 4.0 system. A weighted average assigns extra value to grades earned in AP or Honors classes. Due to a wide variation among high schools in grade point scales and weighting, many colleges recalculate the GPA of all applicants (often using only academic courses) in order to have a truer picture of how applicants compare with each other in performance in academic subjects.

Honors Program or Honors College - A program offered by some colleges for strong academic students, usually including the opportunity for educational enrichment, independent study, acceleration, or some combination of these. The program may also include special living arrangements, more personal mentoring by faculty, or special leadership roles on campus. These are often not programs you apply for initially; instead, you receive an invitation to apply with your acceptance letter. Check with individual colleges to determine your eligibility.

Liberal Arts - A program of studies concentrating on Arts and Humanities.

Matriculate - To enroll as a member of a college or university.

New England Regional Student Program - See "Out-of-State Tuition."

Open Admission - A policy of some colleges of accepting all students with a high school diploma or GED. Some offer admittance to students without either a diploma or GED.

Out-of-State Tuition - An additional fee charged by a state college or university to students who are not state residents. There is a New England Regional Student Program whereby public colleges in New England offer tuition breaks to out-of-state students selecting majors in fields not offered at any public institution in the state where the student resides. See for more information.

Quarter System - An academic school calendar dividing the academic year into 4 units.

Regular Admissions - A student applies to the college by the designated date, the application is evaluated with the whole pool of applicants, and notification of the college's decision is sent to the student on or about April 1st.

Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) - Three- and four-year programs for military training offered at selected colleges and culminating in an officer's commission upon graduation.

Rolling Admission - The policy of a college to notify a student of its decision as soon as possible after the completed application has been received rather than deferring the decision until all applications are received and considered - "first come, first served."

SAT Reasoning Tests - College Board tests given at test centers throughout the year. Test scores are given in three areas: critical reading, math, and writing. A perfect score is 2400 (800 on each section). However, most colleges are still evaluating the writing portion (which was added in 2005) and the most commonly quoted numbers are still the critical reading and math score, based on a 1600 scale.

SAT Subject Tests - College Board tests given throughout the year in specific subjects. Not all colleges require these, and those that do will often specify which ones you need to take. Used in both admission and placement decisions.

Semester System - An academic school calendar that divides the academic year into two units.

Study Abroad - An arrangement where a student is able to complete part of their college program in another country. This can be a summer, a semester, a year, or some other period of time. In some cases the college may operate the campus abroad, or it may have a cooperative agreement with an institution in another country.

3-2 Liberal Arts and Engineering Combination - A program in which a student completes three years of study at a liberal arts college, followed by two years at an engineering college. The student then receives both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science degree.

Transcript - The official and complete record of a student's academic performance at a given institution.

University (as opposed to college) - See "College."

Waiting List - The policy of deferring student notification of acceptance or rejection past the usual notification date until the college has heard from students previously offered admission.