The College Admissions Puzzle: How the 8 Main Pieces Fit Together and Affect Which Schools Your Child Gets Into

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Do you feel that college admissions committees are expecting more from our children with each passing year?

If so, you’re not alone.

Throughout high school, your child is expected to fulfill a dizzying number of requirements to get into college: achieve good grades and standardized test scores, acquire strong recommendation letters, participate in many hours of community service, and write stellar college application essays. Moreover, there are unspoken requirements like developing a unique extracurricular profile to stand out from the competition.

Why do colleges possibly need all of this information to evaluate our students for admission?

When colleges evaluate your child’s application, they’re trying to get a comprehensive sense of how he or she will positively impact their community and build their prestige as a student and future alumnus.

But guess what? Each piece of your child’s college application will tell just a small part of a larger story about his or her accomplishments and, more importantly, about your child’s academic and career promise.

To help you better understand the college application evaluation process, I have highlighted the 8 primary elements of most college applications, including what they represent to admissions committees, and what they don’t.

Carefully considering what story will be told through the various pieces of your child’s college application will help your family make more informed decisions when it comes to your child’s academics and extracurricular pursuits. Collectively, better decisions will improve your child’s admissions odds at his or her top-choice schools.

1. Grade point average (GPA)

What it is: A calculated average of the letter grades your child earns in school. GPAs typically range from 0.0 to 4.0, but can surpass a 4.0 at schools that weight Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes more heavily (see below more information about these).

What it represents: Your child’s academic accomplishments throughout high school, as well as his or her academic promise and ability to meet the academic demands of college.

What it lacks: While your child’s GPA is the single most important factor in college admissions, it may be flawed due to inconsistent grading practices (e.g., grade inflation). In other words, colleges often have a hard time knowing what a certain GPA at a certain school actually means. For example, colleges wonder whether a 3.7 GPA at School X is easier or harder to achieve as a 3.7 GPA at School Y. This is where standardized tests come in.

2. Standardized Test Scores (e.g., ACT, SAT, and SAT Subject Tests)

What they are: Standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT, offer a common criterion to compare all applicants. In other words, standardized tests level the playing field for all applicants by removing inconsistent grading practices.

What they represent: In theory, they measure your child’s overall academic ability relative to all other students who take the same exams. Also like the GPA, standardized tests represent your child’s academic promise and ability to meet college coursework demands.

SAT Subject Tests are standardized tests offered across various subject areas (e.g., Calculus, World History) and more closely reflect material learned in high school. Moreover, many colleges require that applicants take 2-3 SAT Subject Tests for admission. Your child will be able to choose which SAT Subject Tests to take based on his or her academic strengths and preferences.

What they lack: A comprehensive view of a student’s academic promise. Standardized tests are taken in one sitting (i.e., in a single day); therefore, they only represent how a particular student fared on the specific areas tested by that particular test on a particular day. Moreover, research on standardized tests’ ability to predict college success has yielded inconsistent findings.

(For further reading about whether your child take the ACT or SAT, check out helpful posts on College Prep Results and Higher Scores Test Prep)

3. Honors, AP, and IB Classes

What they are: Advanced levels of coursework on particular subjects. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses also culminate in year-end standardized tests on a number of subject areas.

What they represent: The academic rigor of your child’s high school curriculum. In other words, how much your child challenged himself or herself throughout high school.

What they lack: Like GPA, grades achieved in Honors, AP, and IB classes are subject to inconsistent grading practices. However, the year-end standardized tests provide this much-needed context. For example, a student at School X who receives a B in AP Biology, but scores a 4 (out of 5) on the AP Biology exam will look more impressive to admissions committees than a student at School Y who received an A in AP Biology but a 2 (out of 5) on the AP Biology exam.

4. Community Service

What it is: Volunteer work to help people in a particular area. This definition is intentionally vague, as community service can take on infinite forms.

What it represents: Your child’s commitment to positively impacting the lives of people in his or her local, regional, and global community. In other words, how much your child is committed to making the world a better place. Unique approaches to community service can reflect your child’s leadership and initiative. On the other hand, accumulating very few community service hours, or participating only in convenient activities can reflect poorly on your child’s application.

What it lacks: Insight into your child’s academic abilities.

5. Extracurricular Activities

What they are: Activities your child participates in outside of prescribed school requirements. Extracurricular activities include community service, school clubs and teams, hobbies, etc.

What they represent: How your child likes to spend his or her time, but more importantly, how your child actually spent his or her time during high school. Did your child challenge herself outside of the classroom? How did he impact those around him after school hours? Deep, long-term commitments can demonstrate your child’s true passions. On the other hand, surface-level commitments to multiple activities may make your child seem scattered or that he or she participated simply because he or she felt it was mandatory for college admissions.

What they lack: A reflection of your child’s academic abilities (of course, academic decathlon and similar activities are exceptions).

6. Chosen Major

What it is: Your child’s intended field of study.

What it represents: It depends. When students apply for certain specialized fields of study, such as engineering and architecture, they will often be applying to a separate college within a university. These specialized programs often have their own admissions requirements and preferences, so it’s best to check in about this ahead of time. For example, engineering programs may require that applicants take the Mathematics Level 2 SAT Subject Test.

For students who are not applying for specialized fields of study, the chosen major is less relevant. That said, if your child intends to select a major on his or her application, the choice should seem logical. For example, a monolingual English-speaking student who excelled in the sciences throughout high school but indicates wanting to pursue Russian Literature in college may cause admissions committee members to raise their eyebrows because they may suspect that your child is trying to game the system by choosing a less popular major than, say, Biology.

What it lacks: So much. College admissions committees don’t place much weight on this decision for the following two reasons: 1) 20-50% of students indicate on their college applications that their major choice is “undecided,” and 2) most students in the United States end up changing their major at least once during college.

7. Recommendation Letters

What they are: Any document written by someone who can speak to your child’s academic and/or extracurricular achievements and promise, as well as your child’s character.

What they represent: Who is willing to vouch for your child, and how others experience your child’s character. Moreover, recommendation letters often reveal information about your child that grades and test scores cannot.

My suggestion for whom to ask for recommendation letters warrants its own blog post. However, before names of possible recommenders start flying through your child’s mind, I encourage you to read each college application carefully. Schools often ask for 2-3 recommendations letters as part of your child’s college application, but from specific people, including school teachers, a school counselor, and specific individuals in the community. Other quick tips include asking people who will be enthusiastic (i.e., super excited) to write a letter on your child’s behalf, and also individuals who can highlight parts of your child’s application that he or she is really hoping come through.

What they lack: Clearly, recommendation letters are biased, as the writers are typically chosen by your child and want to present your child in an ideal light. Still, recommendation letters are carefully considered by admissions committees because they may provide an entirely different context in which to view your child’s accomplishments, promise, and character.

8. College Application Essays

What they are: Personal essays that are meant to provide insight into who your child is beyond grades, test scores, and accomplishments.

What they represent: College application essays, which account for a whopping 10-30% of admissions decisions, offer a unique opportunity for your child to tell his or her story beyond academic and extracurricular requirements. Admissions committees use these essays to glean what makes your child tick, as well as what qualities sets your child apart from other applicants.

Writing great college application essays requires particular writing approaches that your child has likely never used in high school, nor will use in college. You can read another one of my articles for a thorough discussion on how the best college application essays stand out from the competition.

What they lack: Like recommendation letters, an unbiased view of your child’s accomplishments and character. However, whereas great college essays won’t help your child overcome subpar grades or standardized test scores, poorly-written essays can certainly hurt your child’s admissions odds. Therefore, your child should take college essays seriously.

(For great resources on writing college essays, check out College Essay Guy. For one-on-one support with college applications, check out Shemmassian Academic Consulting.)


The highly-involved college admissions process begins when your child enters high school.

Whether we’re discussing grades, standardized test scores, or extracurricular activities, each element of the college admissions process represents a different piece of your child’s high school journey. Moreover, each piece has its drawbacks. Therefore, colleges use every bit of information collectively to understand how your child will contribute to their school, as a student and future alumnus.

If you found this post valuable, my one request is that you share with others who it may also help.

Finally, I’d love to hear from you. Did anything in this post surprise you? Are there specific areas you’d like me to write more about? I’ll make sure to read and respond to every request.


Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into schools like Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Click here to learn, for FREE, The 10 College Admissions Secrets No One Talks About–to help your child increase their admission chances while saving you headaches.

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