Students and parents often ask me the following:

  • What SAT score do I need to get into a good college?
  • Should I take three or four AP classes in my senior year? 
  • I’m no longer interested in this extracurricular activity, so if I switch to this other extracurricular activity is that okay?
  • How many students have you helped get into (insert name of selective university here)?
  • Why should I take so many hard classes and stress out if there is no guarantee that I get into my dream college anyway?
  • As an independent educational consultant, how can you “package” me or my student for admission to an Ivy League college?

Truth? I am never sure how to answer questions like these because they assume college admission is entirely transactional. The transactional lens assumes a fairly direct connection between having something, (e.g., a specific SAT score) and exchanging that for something else (e.g., admission to a highly selective university). 

But I have come to the conclusion that in some ways applying to college is transactional; and in other ways, it is not.

College Admission Is Transactional… Sometimes

It’s quite true that, for the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States, gaining admission relies heavily on a certain combination of high school GPA and ACT or SAT score. In many cases, if this objective academic information meets the threshold set by an individual university, there is a good chance the student will be admitted. 

Of course, most of these universities require additional materials, such as letters of recommendation, essays, and a list of extracurricular activities. These still influence admission decisions. But academic information, such as GPA and test scores, are always the most important in the vast majority of cases. This does not mean that poorly written essays, lukewarm letters of recommendation, or weak extracurricular activities won’t harm an applicant. But for many universities, good grades and test scores get you admitted.

Another way that college admission is transactional is the manner in which many universities award merit scholarships. While it is not always the case, often colleges and universities award scholarships to students based on an SAT or ACT score alone. In fact, many colleges have a chart that indicates a certain dollar amount (scholarship) for each level of SAT score. Other colleges and universities award scholarships based on high school GPA. 

When the Transactional Nature of College Admission Falls Apart

For universities that admit fewer than 50% of applicants, the connection between a specific GPA and standardized test score leading to a sought-after letter of admission is not clear. For the most selective colleges (i.e., those that admit less than 20% of applicants), the transactional nature of the admission process starts to fall apart entirely. 

I know from my decades of experience in college admission, in the case of highly selective universities, many applicants experience frustration when trying to identify how exactly to “get in.” These students want to know with the most certainty what exactly they need to be admitted. But this is a transactional view of college admission, and it does not apply in the vast majority of cases of admission to highly selective universities. 

The Admission Process Is Very Complex

To be sure, admission decisions at highly selective universities are not merely made by chance or luck. There is always a thorough process that looks deeply at applicants. Usually, this starts with the part of the application that is transactional at other schools. Because of this, it is tempting to oversimplify highly selective admission into a transactional lens. This is a mistake. 

A high GPA and test scores are usually a requirement for admission to highly selective schools. But after grades and scores are considered, admission decisions to these types of universities are not based on having a specific activity, award, leadership position, academic honor, a recommendation from a highly respected individual, or a specific essay. 

To be sure, experienced, ethical college counselors can help students understand the opaque nature of college admission; and they can help navigate this process in such a way that students can reach their own goals. But no college counselor can change the fact that highly selective admission is not transactional. 

If you would like an experienced Independent Educational Consultant at your side to help you shine some light on this complex process of college admission, please feel free to contact me. Or learn more about the college admission process by clicking on the link.