What does it take to get into college? Here’s a snapshot.

Why We Wrote This

How should college admissions be determined? On the eve of the sentencing of the first parent in the Varsity Blues cheating scandal, we look at recent data revealing what admissions officers say matters most.

Ben Torres/The Dallas Morning News/AP
Freshman Isaac Lleverino (right) climbs over his bed as he and Charlie Perez rearrange the room. Freshmen moved into the student dorms at the University of North Texas at Dallas, Aug. 24, 2019.

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When stories about the Varsity Blues cheating scandal and a lawsuit against Harvard University alleging discriminatory admissions practices dominate the news, Americans start to wonder what it takes to get into college – especially for those without deep pockets.

But perhaps more telling is data about what really drives admissions decisions, not only in the top tier but also at a wide range of schools. Just over a third of institutions don’t require applicants to submit SAT/ACT scores, for example. And essay questions and personal statements? More than half don’t consider them.

Those and other details are included in the first survey of a nationally representative sample of colleges and universities by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

As they start talking about and implementing reform, education leaders need to also include some broader self-examination, says Eddie Comeaux, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who chairs a committee looking at admissions within the UC system. “Are we simply giving the illusion that we’re a champion for change,” he says, “or is this real reform, is this something that’s making the university more hospitable to students?”

Actress Felicity Huffman faces sentencing Friday for cheating to boost her daughter’s SAT scores. Between the stream of Varsity Blues headlines and a pending decision in the case accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American applicants, many people have been wondering how American college admissions really work. How heavily do they rely on SAT or ACT scores? How many colleges consider athletics, legacy status, diversity, and other nonacademic factors?

The graphics included here provide an opportunity to step back from the societal obsession over “top” colleges and see a wide variety of admissions practices, reflecting a higher ed system that includes many open-access and moderately selective schools. 

Just over a third of institutions don’t require applicants to submit SAT/ACT scores. Essay questions and personal statements? More than half don’t consider them.

The information comes from the first comprehensive survey of a nationally representative sample of colleges and universities by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

True, the admissions offices that pore over the most criteria are those at the most competitive campuses. And concerns about fair access there are driving many important discussions. 

The College Board, which administers the SAT, recently responded to critics by revising a new system, now called Landscape, to boil down data on students’ high school and neighborhood factors – such as the degree of poverty and crime victimization. It’s meant to boost equity by helping admissions officers put test scores into context.

As admissions reforms take place, educational leaders also need some broader self-examination, says Eddie Comeaux, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who chairs a committee looking at admissions within the UC system. “Are we simply giving the illusion that we’re a champion for change,” he says, “or is this real reform, is this something that’s making the university more hospitable to students?”

SOURCE: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Washington D.C.
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Karen Norris/Staff

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