How College Admission Works

College Applications

Again, application forms vary from one institution to another (and some let you apply online). Some colleges have very brief forms for students to fill out, while others, like Duke, have comprehensive forms with several requirements:

  • Three letters of recommendation - Duke requires letters from two teachers and one counselor. These are extremely important, according to Guttentag, even though students seek letters from teachers they know will say positive things. There are real differences -- differences that matter -- in what letters reveal about students. When faced with several qualified applicants, admissions staffers will look to these letters for information that sets students apart.
  • One or two essays - Students are asked to write on a variety of topics, such as describing a significant experience or writing about someone they admire even though they disagree with that person. "We want to learn more about what students are interested in as well as the quality of thought and writing in the pieces," Guttentag says. (Check out these tips on application essay writing.)
  • Extracurricular activities - Students are asked about non-academic activities, including clubs, sports, community service and jobs. Guttentag likes to use a baseball analogy to describe how factors contribute to a student's advancement in the admission process. "Think of it as a baseball game. Everybody gets their time at bat. The quality of their academic work that we can measure (through test scores and analysis of high school courses) gets about 10 percent of the applicants to third base, 50 percent to second base and about 30 percent to first base. And 10 percent strike out," he says. Most students can be nudged toward "home base" by what they do outside of class -- especially if a student is a published writer, a national leader making an impact in some area or a championship athlete. In an overwhelming number of applicants, academic and extracurricular activities are pretty balanced, Guttentag says. So grades and outside activities definitely make a difference in whether you get accepted to a particular school. But what about those pesky SAT scores we hear so much about?

Many students (and parents) wonder just how much extracurricular activities really count. Let's find out.