Grades Still Matter Most in Admissions

A majority of colleges attribute little or no importance to students’ race and ethnicity or first-generation status when reviewing applications, according to survey findings released on Thursday by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The findings, which appear in the group’s “State of College Admission 2013″ report, shed light on how various student characteristics influenced evaluations of grades, strength of curriculum, and standardized-test scores—the most important factors in admissions decisions (in order)—during the fall 2012 enrollment cycle. Roughly a quarter of colleges ascribed at least moderate importance to applicants’ race and ethnicity and first-generation status as “contextual factors.” The rest of the institutions surveyed said those characteristics were either of “limited” or no importance.

In a nation fixated on a handful of hyper-selective institutions, the findings are a reminder that not all colleges are the same; how applicants are selected varies from campus to campus. Continuing debates about the role race should play in admissions might be relevant to one admissions office but not to another.

Private colleges, the report says, are more likely than public ones to rate gender, alumni relations, and ability to pay as important. More-selective colleges are more likely than less-selective institutions to attribute greater influence to nearly all of the characteristics, which include state or county of residence and high-school attended.

“No institution makes a decision based exclusively on one of these contextual factors,” said David A. Hawkins, the association’s director of public policy and research. “All of these contextual factors have some bearing, but they are clearly secondary to the academic credentials.”

The difficulty of generalizing about admissions is evident throughout the report. Low acceptance rates among the most-competitive colleges, the authors write, “can be downright scary.” Yet, on average, four-year institutions accept nearly two-thirds of their applicants.

The average admissions officer has to read 620 applications, which might sound like a lot. Unless you work at a public institution, where the ratio is twice that.

Those looking for soothing news might be happy to hear that, for the first time in 20 years, the percentage of students who submitted seven or more applications (28 percent) declined—by one percentage point.

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