Some schools are more selective than others. Stanford University leads the pack of competitive colleges, admitting just 4.8% of applicants in 2016. Ivy League Schools will not guarantee admission even to students with perfect test scores and weighted GPAs over 4.0. Of course, there are thousands of other universities that each have their own academic standards for admission. In 2013, the average national acceptance rate for four-year colleges was 64.7%. Use a college’s admissions profile to decide if you could be a competitive applicant.


Collect the data.

Look online or ask your prospective institution’s admissions office(s) for information about an average admitted student’s GPA, test scores, and class rank and compare it to your data. This will give you an idea of whether you are within the range of students accepted to the school in the past. Remember, though, that admissions decisions are based on more than just the numbers. Colleges are interested in who you are as a person and what separates you from the crowd, as well.

Small liberal arts colleges are often interested in how well students can write, as shown by their personal essays, while public schools are interested in in-state applicants. College admissions websites and guidebooks should be able to give you a snapshot of past college applicants, but make sure that you present a well-rounded application.

Understand what else admissions officers want to see.

  • Extracurricular activities, particularly those you’ve participated in for long periods of time and any leadership positions you’ve held: This may include athletic teams, volunteer activities, memberships in organizations (Boy Scouts, Daughters of the American Revolution, etc.), jobs, hobbies, church membership, JROTC, etc. Your extracurricular activities don’t have to be associated with or run by your school. While it’s great to show that you won second place in a school foreign language competition, it’s just as great to show that you sing in the church choir and have done so for the last five year. All activities that you’ve participated in throughout high school, awards you’ve won, and honors you’ve received or been nominated for should be mentioned when you’re filling out your applications.
  • The types and level of rigor of the classes that you took (think AP or IB classes, or years beyond what was required of a foreign language): Showing that you’ve passed AP or IB tests is also a great way to get out of having to take introductory classes your freshman year of college (but check your college’s test policy before making any assumptions).
  • Your personal essay and any writing samples you were asked to submit: Colleges want to see what makes you unique and your personal essay and short answer responses are one way to highlight your personality. Begin brainstorming topics early; keeping a journal throughout high school where you write about your travels, trials, successes, and other experiences may ensure that you have plenty to write about when the time comes. Above all, when you’re writing application essays, be honest, precise, and detailed.
  • Recommendations from your teachers, counselors, or coaches: It’s important to pick a teacher whose class you both enjoyed and did well in or a teacher in whose class you showed significant improvement in from one semester to the next. Teachers you’ve had more than once could make excellent candidates for the writers of your letters of recommendation because they’ve had more time than most to get to know you as a student. Some schools will require that you get a recommendation from a teacher and a recommendation from a counselor. For this reason, it’s important to build rapport with your counselors early. Schedule meetings with them periodically to talk about your future so that they can get to know you and your aspirations. A team coach may also provide an excellent recommendation, but before turning to him or her, be sure you explore all your academic options first.
  • Your performance in an interview: At some colleges, interviews are mandatory while at others you can call and schedule one yourself. Interviews help the college put a name to a face and get to know you personally instead of just through your transcript and your personal essay. It’s scary to think that your admission may hinge on your performance in an interview (in reality it’s just one of many things that a college will consider), but interviews, required or not, generally do more help than harm. You will get the chance to showcase your personality and how you would be a good fit for the school, and you’ll get to ask questions.
  • Portfolios of artwork or videos of auditions for stage or musical performances: These aren’t necessary for many students, but they’re incredibly important parts of your application if you are applying to a visual or performing arts program or an art college or conservatory. Check online to learn more about your prospective institution’s application requirements.

See where you can improve.

If your SAT or ACT scores are out of range for your favorite schools and you have the time and money to take the tests again, it never hurts to try a second time. Typically, scores improve on the second try. You know what the test is like, you’ve been through the process before, so you can take extra time to study up on the sections that need improvement. If you aced the math section of the SAT but struggled with reading, use the majority of your study time to focus on reading. Be sure to brush up on writing and math, though. Just because you did well in those sections the first time doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll do well the second time. Check, too, to see if your prospective institutions allow you to report a “superscore,” which is the highest scores you earned on each section of the test, regardless of whether they were achieved at the same time. This will inflate your scores and compensate for dates when you scored poorly on one or more sections. Some schools do require you to submit all of your test scores, though, so don’t go in with the mentality of acing one section and letting the others slide. That could come back to hurt you in the long run.

Look at your academic record as a whole. If you finished freshman year with a low GPA but have steadily improved it over time, colleges are going to take note of that. If your junior or senior year GPAs are low, though, they’re going to take a look at the classes you’re taking. Getting a few B grades in AP or IB courses isn’t going to deter most admissions officers, but when your report card is riddled with lower grades and you’re not taking rigorous classes, they’re going to start to worry. If your GPA does need boosting, talk to your teachers about what you can do to improve and schedule time with a tutor in the classes that are hard for you. Schools will look at your grades from senior year, even though you haven’t finished yet, so be sure not to fall victim to “senioritis.” You’ll be required to send a year-end transcript to any schools who’ve offered you admission. Don’t stop participating in classes or doing your assignments just because you’re feeling “over” high school. Your teachers may notice, and not only your grades, but your recommendations might suffer as a result, and colleges can choose to rescind an offer of admission if they feel that you’d no longer be a good fit.

If you feel that your grades and test scores simply aren’t good enough to get you into the schools of your dreams, you still have options. Consider attending community college for a year or two to boost your GPA, get prerequisite classes out of the way, and prove to admissions officers that you’ll be an asset at their institution. Transferring isn’t easy, but there are steps you can take to ensure a smooth transition:

  • Find out if your dream four-year institution has any articulation agreements with local community colleges; this can ensure your acceptance at the four-year institution if you complete all requirements and maintain a certain GPA
  • If there is no agreement between the schools you’d like to attend and community colleges, talk to admissions officers at both schools before you begin. They can help you work out a curriculum that will result in the lowest possible loss of college credit when it comes time to transfer.

Know where you stand.

You should apply to three types of colleges: safety schools, match schools, and reach schools. It’s encouraged to apply to a wide variety of schools, some where your admission is practically guaranteed (you’re better than average); some where your admission is not certain, but you’re similar to average; and some where admission is a stretch, but it’s worth a shot.

  • Safety schools: A safety school is a place where you are almost guaranteed admission because your GPA and test scores fall above the average range for admitted students. Make sure that the school has a program for your intended area of study and that you are comfortable with the prospect of being a student there. It is wise to choose at least one academically and one financially safe school (and it’s okay if they’re one and the same) in case you receive unsatisfactory financial aid packages from other colleges. Choose one or two safety schools.
  • Match schools: A school is a good match for you if your test scores and GPA fall within the average range for admitted students and you feel like you have a pretty good chance of getting in. Match schools may offer more resources than your safeties and should have programs and activities that excite you. Choose between two and four match schools.
  • Reach schools: These are schools that have highly competitive admission standards, but you feel like you still have a chance of being accepted and you can visualize yourself on the campus and enjoying the activities and majors that are offered. Even if you are the valedictorian at your high school, Ivy League schools should always be considered reach schools. Choose one to two reach schools.

Page last updated: 04/2017