The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annually surveys member colleges and universities to see what admissions factors figure most prominently into their decisions. This year marked the 10th annual survey, and NACAC celebrated by providing “retrospectives” of trends over the past 10 years.

And as has been the case for the past decade, admissions professionals at state and private colleges agree that the applicants whom they value the most have taken college preparatory classes in high school and have consistently performed well in those classes.

Grades and course selection work hand-in-hand, as slightly over 84 percent of admissions directors rated grades in college-prep courses as “considerably important,” followed by 68 percent for “strength of curriculum.”

Although grades and strength of curriculum always come out on top, other variables like class rank and standardized test scores change over time.

For example, the proportion of colleges rating “demonstrated interest” as considerably important has risen dramatically from 7 percent in 2003 (the first year in which it was measured) to 21 percent in 2011. Overall, 59 percent of colleges assigned some level of importance to a student’s interest in attending the institution (15 percent considerable, 21 percent moderate, and 23 percent limited).

NACAC describes demonstrated interest as a key ‘tip’ factor in the admissions process emerging in the past decade.

“Awash in applications, guessing at increasingly unstable yield outcomes and with less time to review each application, colleges began to seek ways to sort between applications from students who were serious about enrolling in the institution if accepted and those who may simply have submitted the applications as a hedge against uncertainty in the application process.”

This year, colleges ranked the following factors as having “considerable importance” in the admissions decision (keep in mind that the survey is slightly biased toward private colleges which were most likely to respond):

  • Grades in college prep courses: 84.3%
  • Strength of curriculum: 67.7%
  • Admission test scores: 59.2%
  • Grades in all courses: 51.9%
  • Essay or writing sample: 24.9%
  • Student’s demonstrated interest: 20.5%
  • Counselor recommendation: 19.2%
  • Class rank: 18.8%
  • Teacher recommendation: 16.5%
  • Subject test scores (AP/IB): 6.9%
  • Portfolio: 6.6%
  • Interview: 6.2%
  • SAT II scores: 5.4%
  • Extracurricular activities: 5.0%

The survey also showed that private colleges, especially smaller schools, are more likely to take a “holistic” approach to admissions and be concerned with essays, interviews, counselor and teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities.

But note that every college sets its own priorities within the framework of individual admissions philosophies. And when all is said and done, taking the time to understand what a college considers important in the admissions decision will give you a good idea of how well your credentials are likely to stack up against the competition.

With thanks to: Nancy Griesemer