3 Ways U.S. Colleges Evaluate Applications


That’s how Rinat, a third-year gender studies student from Almaty, Kazakhstan, described his experience preparing applications to U.S. universities. “Every university had different applications, different deadlines, different things I had to send to them.”

Rinat’s impression of the U.S. university application process is not unique to international students. U.S. high schools students can also be confused by the differing requirements and processes involved in a college application. The complexity of applications, and the processes that universities use in reviewing applications, is as varied as the nearly 4,000 institutions of higher education in the U.S.

It can be helpful to understand why applications can differ so much from one university to the next. Typically, a university admissions office tries to answer a key set of questions when reviewing an application.

First, they want to know that there’s evidence that the student has the academic readiness to undertake studies at that school. Second, they want to know that the student’s educational and growth goals are aligned with the missions, goals and ethos of the particular university. Finally, the university tries to determine if the student’s presence on campus will provide a positive contribution to the university’s learning environment and community.

These factors are extremely specific to each institution, and universities in the U.S. have developed several admissions models to help answer them.

There are three common models of admissions employed by U.S. universities: open admissions, threshold admissions and holistic admissions.

The open admissions model does not require standardized test scores such as the SAT or ACT. Nor does this model ask applicants to submit personal statements or recommendation letters. This admissions model is most commonly used by community colleges in the U.S.

“Open admission exists for those institutions with a mission to provide equal access to a variety of educational backgrounds,” says Dawn Wood, director of international programs at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa.

Woods points out that colleges with open admissions models provide higher education opportunities to students who may require additional academic preparation, students who are seeking vocational or technical education, or students interested in reducing the costs of a four-year degree through transfer partnerships with bachelor’s-degree-granting universities.

Threshold Admissions Model

Universities which use threshold admissions models are those who publish very clear standards of admission. They tend to provide a minimum required GPA, SAT or ACT score for admission, but will likely not request a personal statement, essay or letters of recommendation. This admissions model is used by many U.S. colleges and universities, and is common among public institutions.

Chuck May, director of admissions at the University of Missouri, believes that transparency in the admissions process is the hallmark of threshold admissions. “We are a selective university, and in making our admission criteria very clear, we’re able to be open with students as to their likelihood of admission, from the start of our communication with them.”

May says this model allows his admissions team to begin to explore whether or not the university is a good fit for a prospective student at a much earlier point in the college search process, “because we are most likely to receive applications from students who have already researched our academic standards for admission, and know where they fit in relation to those measures.”

Holistic Admissions Model

Selectivity is also a tenet of the holistic admissions model. Where this process is employed, a university is more likely to provide the average academic profile of the previous year’s admitted class. This gives some insight into what GPA and standardized test scores may be competitive for admission.

Additionally, holistic admissions will often require that applicants provide an essay and recommendations from teachers, counselors or other community leaders.

Seth Walker, associate director of international admissions at Indiana University—Bloomington, feels that the holistic admissions approach allows the school to consider the broader experiences of an applicant. “When we read an application, we hope to get a sense of what’s brought that student to where they are today.”

Walker says this model allows their admissions team to compose a class that is both strong in academic ability and diverse in experience.

Students can get a sense for which model of admissions will be used to review their application by visiting the admissions website of a university. It’s important to know that many universities will employ some combination of these models.

Rinat offers this wisdom he received from his uncle, who suggested he think of his college applications like going on a date: “You ask questions, they ask questions, in the end you both have to decide if it’s a match.”

Rinat says that was the best advice he received. 

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