How College Admissions Work

Being admitted to a top-ranked college – especially the Ivy League seems impossible. With acceptance rates at most top-tier universities in the single digits, anxiety about the process is a reality, especially without the help of a consultant or advisor.

Our Article Will Discuss The Following:

  1. Why Hire An Admissions Consultant
  2. How To Stand Out In College Admission Review
  3. Choosing the Right Major
  4. Ivy League Admissions Requirements
  5. How to Get Admitted to an Ivy League School
How College Admissions Work

How To Stand Out In College Admission Review

Each one of the more than 4000 colleges in the US has different admission priorities. Institutional priorities can also change over time, like admitting more out-of-state students, investing more resources into athletics, or removing unpopular majors.

It’s unreasonable to expect students and families to understand these nuances and craft an application that matches these ever-changing priorities perfectly. Even when a college is transparent about its particular preferences, application results often seem random and unpredictable.

Overall, college admissions are intentionally designed by colleges and universities so that they have the most flexibility in recruiting, assessing, and admitting their best match applicants.

Most often, this process is referred to as holistic admissions or, in the words of college admissions officials – building a class. Admissions officers work to benefit the colleges, not the applicants.

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Why Hire An Admissions Consultant

Multiple factors determine whether a student receives a “admit,” “deny,” or “waitlist” decision, including the admissions officers’ biases – something everyone battles. Working with a college admissions consultant is the best way to have the most up-to-date insider information and support during the application process.

Creating a well-balanced and strategic college list is the best way to protect yourself from the unpredictability of the admissions process. At Solomon, we exploit the unpredictability by crafting a narrative that demonstrates your unique strengths in the three main areas the Ivy League and other top colleges want.

How To Stand Out In College Admission Review

Highly selective colleges and universities (defined by acceptance rates less than 10%) identify and review three (3) primary factors within a student’s application, then assign a score or rank often with an internal scale rating system for the following:

  1. Academics
  2. Intellectual Vitality (curiosity, growth mindset)
  3. Extracurricular leadership/philanthropic activities.

To be the most competitive at Tier 1 schools (those with an admit rate less than 10% such as the Ivy League, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, UChicago etc.), each rating needs to the highest possible.

Applicants with the highest ratings are queued to the definite or possible admit pile. Others are denied or waitlisted automatically. With thousands of applications to review each year, college admissions officials spend less than ten minutes reviewing each application.


Curriculum rigor, GPA, and standardized testing profile are the three components of this factor. Students who rise to the top of the applicant pool and approach a top rating of 1 are generally those who have:

  • Exhausted the toughest curriculum at their school
  • 4.0 unweighted GPA (or equivalent if numeric grades are not available)
  • Excellent SAT or ACT results (1520+ or 34+), even with test-optional policies
  • Consistently strong scores in supplemental standardized testing (5s on AP exams are vital now that SAT II subject tests are no longer offered)

These are the benchmarks for highly selective universities, including the Ivy League. To be a competitive admission candidate at top-tier colleges and universities, it begins with solid academics, which includes course grades earned in a rigorous academic schedule, and then standardized test scores.

Admissions readers evaluate your GPA in the context of your peers, especially if you’re attending a high school where the majority of students apply to top-tier colleges. Application review will consider your academic rigor, expecting you to take the highest-level courses offered at your school in each of the five foundation disciplines – Math, Science, Social Science, English, and Foreign Language.

For the Ivy League and the other top-tier colleges, a minimum SAT score of 1500 or ACT 34 (each section minimum 34) is expected and even common among applicants. Even with test-optional policies, high test scores can provide an advantage.

Although college admissions officers may not utilize scores during the review process, university-specific or otherwise known as institutional merit-based financial aid and outside scholarships, are sometimes contingent on high test scores and GPA.

In the absence of an exceptionally compelling story, it’s difficult to compete with test scores and grades which fall in (or near) the bottom 25% of a college’s most recently admitted class.

Applicants may get some boost from applying early action/decision – with early decision acceptance rates more than ten percentage points higher than for regular admits. Some full-pay applicants may also benefit from need-aware financial aid policies at selective colleges, but these factors, alone, do not make up for lower academics or test scores.

Intellectual Vitality

When it comes to rating students on intellectual vitality, it’s important to note that universities are looking for more than just smarts (that’s what academic ratings are for). Colleges are looking for curious students, looking to tackle new and challenging ideas, who are open to new ideas and people, and who make connections across various areas. Academic research, especially with university faculty, is a big plus in this factor.

Colleges want students that are driven and disciplined – willing to work hard and lead others. With the recent social justice awakening, universities are looking for applicants with strong values and are also open to diverse viewpoints.

Applicants who are humble yet accomplished with more than just a list of disjointed single achievements are the kinds of students with inherent intellectual vitality. The challenge you face is that admission readers won’t probe for further details. Instead, they rely on the concise data in your application.

Admissions consultants like our team at Solomon, help you focus on the less tangible, more holistic aspects like:

  • What have you pursued outside the classroom, and why?
  • What do your teachers say about you?
  • Do you show an intellectual spark in your essays and interests?

With a carefully crafted application, Solomon consultants are confident our clients can bring out their intellectual vitality. In fact, three-quarters of college freshmen nationwide reported in the fall of 2018 that they were enrolled in their top-choice college.

For the most selective colleges, this is where essays, teacher recommendations, unique activities, and applying to the right majors, come into play. At Solomon, our consultants use all these components to our advantage to let your intellectual vitality shine through and show college admissions officers that you are a curious, engaged learner, who will thrive in a college academic environment.

Leadership & Philanthropic Mindset

Contrary to what you might think or have been told, colleges are not looking for “well-rounded” students with a long list of extracurricular activities. Instead, they are looking for dedicated, passionate students who are driven with demonstrated extracurricular and leadership experiences connected to their intended major.

This requires an angular focus to your activities to explain what matters to you most, demonstrated in how you spend your time and the impact your leadership brought to the activity.

Colleges are also interested in your contribution to the larger community and your philanthropic mindset. In other words, did you simply fulfill the mandatory number of community service hours, or did you start your own nonprofit with a mission and programs that will continue during your college career and beyond?

This level of focus and leadership is what all colleges hope their admitted class will bring to the campus, surrounding community and even globally.

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Choosing the Right Major

The choice of major may be the most overlooked factor in an admission strategy. An effective college admissions strategy begins with an evaluation of your academic interests, which then guides the specific tactics to enhance your extracurricular profile, identify intellectual vitality pursuits, and even inform course selection.

The choice of major or strategic position should be weaved through your Personal Statement, supplemental college essays, and throughout your entire application. Even with a robust application, applicants to popular or oversubscribed majors face fierce competition from similarly qualified applicants, all vying for the same limited number of seats.

Every year, applicant pools are disproportionately filled with students applying to Pre-Med, Engineering, Computer Science, and Business or Econ programs.

During the COVID-era, selective colleges are experiencing a precedented number of applicants – setting application records and selectivity rates. As an admissions reader, it is tiring to review applications which look and sound the same.

Additionally, universities do not want to admit an entire class made up of students looking to go into only business, economics, computer science, engineering, or medicine. Universities value diversity of all kinds, and this includes academic diversity.

It’s important to understand that part of “building a class” is admitting students who will pursue a wide range of majors, especially those which are less popular but still have highly-rated departments.

Each university and college establish a total first-year enrollment goal across all the majors offered and wants to admit a class that will work well together inside and outside the classroom.

Sophisticated yield models predicting which applicants will enroll if admitted, along with various technological platforms like the Common Application and Coalition Application, have transformed admissions operations over the last 20 years.

With technology, enrollment directors can tag top academic ranked students, note which applicants have special skills, and then work with the college’s marketing and visitation coordinators to capture data about the applicant’s visits to the website, participation in virtual campus and information sessions, and even alumni interviews – these are all data variables used to build the class. With technology, applicants with lower scores receive faster reviews – and a final decision can be done in less than five minutes.

Ivy League Admissions Requirements

With these high rankings and impressive endowments, the Ivy League schools have the most rigorous selection process. The key to getting into the Ivy League is to stick to basics: understand what they’re looking for in applicants and work to meet their extremely high expectations.

These schools are playing the long game and search for applicants with exceptional academic insight with the potential to do great things in the world. Successful alumni not only reflect well but also lead to more donations, which fosters even more prestige.

Although their application requirements seem similar, especially since you can apply using the Common and Coalition Applications – these highly selective colleges have multiple supplements and external testing requirements.

The admissions committee seeks to fill each major by identifying and selecting students who have a passion, commitment, and strong interest in their intended field as demonstrated through their academic performance, extracurricular activities, and intellectual vitality.

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How to Get Admitted to an Ivy League School

The Ivy League consists of eight (8) northeast colleges and universities known for high academic standards and huge endowments reported to range between $4 billion (Brown University) to over $40 billion (Harvard University).

Even though these colleges were founded during the colonial period of our country, the official Ivy League is an athletic conference started in 1954 to facilitate athletic competition between these elite colleges.

According to recent rankings, each of the Ivies place at the top of the 2020 U.S. News & World Report National Universities ranking. U.S. News consistently names Ivy League schools as the best national university in the country.

As of 2020, Princeton was named eleven times, Harvard twice, and two others tied for 1st multiple times. It’s not surprising that acceptance rates in the Ivy League are among the most selective in the world. (

In the end, selective college admissions are highly competitive. At Solomon, our consultants coach you to reflect deeply and critically assess your strengths, while simultaneously improving on your weaknesses, because leaving things to chance just doesn’t work in the 21st-century admissions game. As any admissions professional will confess, it’s an art and a science.


Selingo, J. (2020). Who Gets In & Why: A year inside college admissions. Scribner.

All of our blog posts are written by Former College Admission Officers who serve as members of our admission consultant team.

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