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Understanding Selective College Admissions: Institutional Priorities

Jamie Kirby September 18, 2023

Note: This is a companion piece to our recent Estrela Webinar Series: "Understanding Highly Selective Admissions". You can find the recordings of Part 1 and Part 2 of these webinars using the links embedded here. Enjoy!


Your GPA, test scores, essays, and extracurricular activities.  That is what colleges will be considering when reviewing your application, right?

Yes…but there’s more.  While those are definitely some of the important things that they will consider, they are not the whole picture.  They are just the tip of the iceberg.

What is underneath, making up the rest of the iceberg?  Institutional Priorities.  With a highly selective college, the admissions committee can fill their class multiple times over with the same number of equally qualified students.  There are 24,000 public high schools in the United States.  That is 24,000 Valedictorians and 24,000 Salutatorians…and maybe more, if you consider that some high schools name more than one in each spot.  In other words there are over 48,000 students applying to college who are within the top 2 students of their class.  And many of those students are applying to the same group of highly selective schools.

Institutional priorities are set at the highest levels of university leadership and reflect goals for shaping the student body.  The most important thing to remember is that you cannot control institutional priorities; you won’t even know what a particular college’s institutional priorities are, and they can change from year to year.

However, while you may not be able to know exactly what your colleges’ priorities are, it’s helpful to have an understanding of what they may be considering:

  • Leadership Priorities.  What goals and directives have been set forth by the current President of the college and Board of Trustees? What is the mission statement of the school? 
  • Academic Departments.  The college may be trying to balance an academic department.  For example, do they need more physicists?  Is there a new academic program opening on campus that will need students to fill it? 
  • New Buildings.  Is there a department that is expanding with more room in their building? 
  • Gender BalanceAre men or women outnumbering the other overall on campus? Are there programs where admits of one gender are outnumbering the other?
  • Athletics.  There are likely recruiting priorities for various teams.  Did the school just graduate its starting center on the basketball team with little depth behind him/her?
  • Development Needs (AKA: $$$).  Colleges have to admit some students whose families can pay in full and/or who can make donations.
  • International Students.  Many schools are moving toward goals to diversify campus with international students; they could have a set quota.
  • Geographical Considerations.  Colleges want diversity domestically as well, including various parts of the country, states, and even regions/local communities.
  • Intellectual Diversity.  Colleges don’t want to overcrowd math and science departments.  They want top scholars across disciplines.
  • SAT & ACT.  How good are the student’s scores in comparison to other applicants? Keep in mind, most applicants to highly selective schools have perfect or near perfect scores.
  • Legacy.  A must for some schools for continued donations for building the endowment.
  • Community.  Some colleges have a percentage of students they admit from the surrounding region.
  • Demonstrated Interest.  Some colleges track demonstrated interest; if they do, has the applicant attended events on campus, visited, or talked to an alum?  Those who are more invested tend to enroll at a higher yield than those who have never made any “touches” with campus or the rep.
  • Financial Aid.  Can families pay the full amount?
  • Diversity.  Diversity in several realms: racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic.  While the current Supreme Court ruling does not allow race to be considered as a single factor, it does allow for colleges to consider the impact of their race on their personal experiences.

Clearly there are a lot of things being considered behind the scenes, and those aspects are out of your hands.  But let’s look at what you can control, and explore some tips and strategies for your application in Part III.

*If you haven't read Part 1 in this series, click here to check it out. Stay tuned for Part III!

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