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US College Admissions

As the admission's office must sort through many applications, your goal is to stand out in a good way. If you have an average GPA and test scores, then the material on this page should help improve your chances of gaining admission. If you already have top grades and high SAT or ACT scores, you can still improve your application, given other factors such as talent in sports, the quality of your essay, and extracurricular activities. The essay is gaining weight at selective colleges, but please be aware that on average, a typical college application only receives 25 minutes of reading time. Therefore, keep your application brief, and stick to the point when answering questions. Search Google for professional resume-writing tips, like you were applying for a job interview, and write your college application in the same manner. Admissions officers seek to learn how a given applicant thinks, what kind of person they are, and their level of intellectual promise. The admission's office staff are smart, and they have a lot of experience, so just be yourself, and work on improving your grades and test scores.

Grades are the single most important factor in winning admissions, and maintaining good grades throughout the year is especially important for regular admission applicants. Many colleges are paying greater attention to a student's grades during their senior year, not limited to academic performance in core courses, but in AP and honors courses as well. In fact, an ideal academic record is one of progressively better grades, in classes of increasing difficulty. College admissions officers look for patterns with both grades and test scores. High grades combined with low test scores suggest a hard-working student, but high test scores with low grades may suggest a smart, but unmotivated applicant. One advisor suggested that it is optimal to try taking the hardest courses that are offered, and that the worst thing you can do is to drop a hard course just because you're afraid you'll get a low grade.

ACT Scores and SAT Test Scores

College admission requirements GPAMost colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, and have formulas for converting test scores into admissions criteria. Colleges use standardized tests because there are large differences in curricula, grading, and difficulty among US schools. One benefit of the ACT test is that it allows you to select specific colleges to which to send scores. Students should practice taking the test under simulated testing conditions, and wear a large watch with a sweeping second hand. On average, over half of those retaking the SAT or ACT tests saw improvements in their scores.

Be sure to get a full night's sleep before the exam. Even more than studying for the test, you're going to need your full mental capacity, refreshed and recharged by sleep. On the test day itself, arrive early, and pick a seat near the windows, in order to get good sunlight and a bit of oxygen. Take time at the beginning of the test to read the instructions carefully. For multiple-choice tests, look at the number of questions and the number of minutes you have. If there are more minutes than questions, you have a bit over a minute for each. However, if there are more questions than minutes, you better scramble, as you have under a minute to answer each question. You need to be around question #10 at ten minutes in, or you're falling behind.

Eliminate outlying answers right at the start. Average all numbers, and look for tips in the question that point you to the answer. Trust your instincts, and don't change your answers on a second pass. If the first answer, A, is a little too obvious, it's probably a decoy. Test makers like to group the real answers with confusing second choices nearby. Look for patterns in words in the vocabulary section. Read every question fresh, word by word, like a hawk, and pay attention.

A Complete Explanation of the SAT Free Old Official SAT Practice Tests
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SAT Tips and Tricks
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SAT Study Guide
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Time Usage on the SAT
SAT Sample Questions
SAT Vocabulary Lists on the Web

What is the ACT? A Complete Explanation of the Test.
ACT Sample Questions
Understanding ACT Scores
How Long is the ACT with Breaks?
Cancel ACT Test Registration
Cancel Your ACT Scores
Time Management Tips

Regarding whether to choose the SAT or ACT, there is no penalty for guessing wrong answers on the ACT, but on the SAT, incorrect guessing is penalized. Some SAT questions can be trickier while some ACT questions may be longer. The ACT has more questions geared to higher levels of mathematics, suggesting that students who do well in math may perform better, but that the SAT may be a better choice for students with a strong vocabulary.

Admissions' Criteria Factoring

Factors in the college admissions' process, in order of importance:

1. AP or Honors Courses
2. High School Curriculum
3. SAT/ACT Scores
4. Overall GPA
5. Admissions Essay
6. Early Decision Commitment
7. Class Rank
8. Sports Participation
9. Recommendation Letters
10. AP Exam Scores
11. Extracurriculars

Studies suggest that colleges are not looking for the 'well-rounded kid,' but rather a 'well-rounded class.' Your task is to show the schools exactly where you will fit into their freshman pool. Are you a jock or a straight-A student? Well then, present yourself in that light. About 25% of seniors apply to seven or more colleges. New developments in college admissions include greater numbers of applications, increasing numbers of students applying from foreign countries, and applying online using the Common Application Form. There is also a greater dependence on the US News rankings, with more colleges making use of waitlists. The overall time span for higher education is lengthening, because college increasingly is becoming a pathway towards graduate school.

Admissions Essays

Essays are gaining importance as a way to judge potential, and essays largely have replaced personal interviews. Writing an email may be easy, but rewriting a serious essay is much more challenging. Re-write your essay as many times as you feel is needed, and have people that you trust read it. Essays must emphasize personal development, and demonstrate curiosity, social conscience, and concern for the community. Avoid writing about babysitting, your pets, illegal drugs, or other experiences involving any kind of illegal activity. Applicants should show that they've been involved on campus and not just studying all the time. The admissions office will try to screen out difficult people, and are watching for negative signals, or evidence of a potential problem. Colleges also try to weed out overly dependent people, who either follow in their parents' footsteps too closely, or hang out with a bad crowd. The admissions essay topic should be something the applicant cares about, and which shows how you've helped others to enjoy greater success. The best essay topics are like a short story, with poignant details, in which the writer shows by example. There should be no grammar or punctuation mistakes in your college essay, and even if the college application says that the essay is optional, you should treat it as a requirement.

Applicants who lead an extracurricular activity are regarded more highly than applicants who merely participate. Some universities, such as the UC System, have programs for spot-checking applicants for accuracy, such as sending a follow-up letter to the student asking for proof about a summer job. Don't allow extracurricular activities to interfere with academic performance. A student with lots of extracurricular activities, but weak grades, isn't going to fool the admissions' committee. Start early in high school, and only join clubs that you have a real interest in, and are going to stick with for several years.

Transfer Students

Transfer students experience another pathway towards admissions. In fact, nearly 50% of all current undergraduate students begin their education by attending a community college. By far, the most common transfer path is students moving from two-year community colleges to four-year institutions, although there is considerable movement between four-year colleges well. Many community colleges have agreements in place with four-year schools, particularly in the case of state universities, so that the transfer of credits is assured. Many private schools actively seek out transfer applicants to fill their classes. Even as late as April, there may still be openings in first-tier colleges for the fall semester.

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Getting Better Grades (GPA)

One of the easiest ways to improve your grades is to choose the right classes. I don't mean the easiest classes, in fact, but the classes that you find interesting. Nothing spells success like attending all your classes, even the 8:00 ones, and paying full attention. You can't pay attention if you're falling asleep, either from too much partying the night before, or simply from boredom. Just sitting in the class, front and center, in the first row if you can get it, and listening with awareness will help you absorb the materials. If you can't get motivated (or even excited) to learn from your instructors, you may need to take a step back, and get in touch with the reasons why you're in college in the first place.

Every professor has a different personality, and system for running their classes, so make an effort to learn what the professor wants. Not only read the syllabus, but study the grading system that's going to be used for the class. Also, get a bulletin board for your bedroom, to put above your desk. Post the course syllabus for each class on the bulletin board, and highlight deadlines, as well as the requirements for the course. You're not going to get all A's if you miss deadlines, and fail to complete assignments. Go a step further at all times; type everything you write, and print it out on decent paper.

Professors like to follow the texts they assign. It's to supplement their lectures, and discussions from class. You can't skimp on buying textbooks, but you may be able to get the previous edition as a used book on Amazon or Alibris. Read all of the assigned material, twice. Sounds obvious, right, but who really does that? I'll tell you who, people that get 99% scores on exams. When your professor assigns a given chapter, read the whole darn thing, including the opening vignettes, the case studies, tables and exhibits. At the same time, highlight parts of the text that you feel are the most critical. For example, if vocabulary is vital, the textbook will let you know that by having terms and their definitions printed in the margins of every chapter.

If you're falling behind in a class, and the lectures seem too dense, get help before the situation becomes impossible. Some students are too shy to admit difficulty, or just don't realize there is free tutoring available. You can study all you want, but in order to achieve the grades you want, you need to go further than remembering facts, and get a firm grasp on the material.

Try to get organized. It's one thing to set aside time to study in the evening, but do you know what you want to accomplish, and have goals to reach, before deciding to quit? Ask yourself questions about what you're learning, like you were writing quizzes for your classmates to take the next day. Study in short intervals of 30 to 60 minutes. After reading a lot or solving a lot of problems, your brain needs to relax for a bit, but don't let the breaks dawdle beyond 10 minutes or so. Further, review your textbook briefly before every class, not just before exams. It's like a mini-cramming session every day, and the chapter you just read will be reinforced by what the professor has to say. Also, if you have most of the lesson plan in your head, you don't have to take notes, freeing up your attention to listen more carefully. After class, review the main points that were written on the blackboard, or shown as slides. If the teacher took the time to highlight certain sections of the text, you can bet you'll see the same information posed as questions on either the midterm, or final exam.

Exams typically are a huge portion of your final grade, so you need to become an expert test-taker. The main thing is to know what to expect on exams. Every professor will let you know indirectly exactly what questions they will be asking on the big exams. They practically tell you, by raising the pitch of their voice when stressing certain points they're making, like desperately trying to see if anyone's listening. If they take the time to write (by hand) on a display or the blackboard, they're not doing that for kicks. By finding out what will be asked, you can trim down the amount of information you need to learn. Be double-sure to get a full night's sleep before any major test, whether for the SAT Test, or just a midterm exam. Even more than studying for the test, you're going to need your full mental capacity, refreshed and recharged by sleep, then fueled by a lean high-protein breakfast that isn't going to make you drowsy.

On the test itself, arrive early, and pick a seat near the windows. Not to look out and daydream while precious moments tick past, but to get good sunlight and a bit of fresh oxygen that will charge you ability to think. Take time at the beginning of the test, to read through all the instructions and make a plan of attack. If it's a multiple-choice test, look at the number of questions and the numbers of minutes you have in total. If there are more minutes than questions, you have a bit over a minute for each item. However, if there are more questions than minutes, you better scramble, as you have under a minute for each question. Knowing this, make sure you bring a wristwatch, and set your watch right on your test. It will be in the way, but that's the only way you can refer to it over and over again. You need to be around question #10 at ten minutes in, or you're falling behind. Work faster.

The time you invest will pay a dividend as you'll then be able to pace yourself, with enough time to finish all questions, and at least have a shot at an answer. Eliminate outlying answers right at the start. Average all numbers, and look for tips in the question that point you to the answer. Watch out for test-makers. They're tricky, and use a lot of psychology when designing tests. If the first answer, A, is a little too obvious, it's probably a decoy. Test makers like to group the real answers with confusing second choices nearby. Look for patterns in words in the vocabulary section. If you see words you don't know, look for parts of the word called "roots," which are usually one or two syllables long. Then try to think of other words that use those same word parts, and see if you can find any common meanings in the words. For example manual contains the word-part 'manu,' like in manufacturing, and manuscript. Manu means hand, but that's not important, only that you think up related words, and try to get a derived common meaning out of them. Then, go back to your word on the test, and see if any of the answers share some of the meaning you came up with.

Read every question fresh, word by word, like a hawk, and pay attention. Every question is a new little world, full of surprise and wonder. You're the master here, and this is no time to let your mind wander. Finally, if it's a written-answer test, know the point values of each question, and complete the most valuable ones first, while you're still fresh. Go ahead and raise your hand. If you don't understand something about how the test works, or need clarification of any question, ask the professor.



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