For generations, two numbers have signaled whether a student could hope to get into a top college: his or her standardized test score and his or her grade-point average.
In the past 15 years, though, these lodestars have come to mean less and less. The SAT has been redesigned twice in that time, making it difficult for admissions officers to assess, for instance, whether last year’s uptick in average scores was the result of better students or just a different test. What’s more, half of American teenagers now graduate high school with an A average, according to a recent study. With application numbers at record highs, highly selective colleges are forced to make impossible choices, assigning a fixed number of slots to a growing pool of students who, each year, are harder to differentiate using these two long-standing metrics.
Eighty percent of American colleges accept more than half of their applicants, but at the country’s most selective schools, there is something of a merit crisis: As test scores and GPAs hold less sway, admissions offices are searching for other, inevitably more subjective metrics.
Each year, the professional association representing college-admissions officers asks its members about the top factors they consider when making decisions about applications. Grades, test scores, and the strength of one’s high-school curriculum still remain at the top of that list. But other criteria are playing a larger role than they used to: Students’ “demonstrated interest” in enrolling at a particular school, as measured by their visits to campus or what they say in their application materials, among other things, is critical. In addition, admissions officers at about half of the institutions surveyed said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” in application decisions.