College Corner: What good schools look for

By Leonardo Radomile


Since I served on an admissions committee at Harvard, people often ask me about what top ranked universities look for when evaluating a student for admission. They usually find what I tell them surprising, perhaps because there is so much misinformation floating around and I doubt that many people have actually sat in the room where these decisions are made. If you have a child that is in high school and thinking about applying to a top tier school, or if you are that student, please keep the following in mind.

SAT scores are important but not the most important factor. Most top schools use these to see if a student is capable of handling the work he’ll be assigned at that university. Once you hit around 2150 to 2200, admissions committees aren’t that impressed if you get another 200 points. They are much more interested in other things. I’ve even seen cases where students have been admitted to the best colleges with even lower scores because of other considerations that we’ll look at later.

Grades also are important, but like SAT scores, the difference between a 3.75 and a 4.0 won’t make or break a student that a school finds interesting. Just as the SAT scores are evaluated to see if you can do the work, grades are evaluated to see if you’re hard working and if you will do the work.

Once a student is seen as competent, i.e. she can do the work and will do the work, the real decision making starts. Keep in mind, at any great university you may have 30,000 or more applicants and at least 10,000 with excellent grades and SAT scores. How are the decisions made?

This is where the “intangibles” come in. The first is the application essays. These are critical since they are often the only place in the student’s portfolio where the student is more than a set of numbers. This is where students make the case for why they should be admitted and what they can contribute to their class.

The second critical “intangible” is the activities that the student has engaged in. What these schools look for is high achievement and/or leadership characteristics. Since most of these schools think their graduates will lead the worlds of business, government, and the professions, (and they are often right) the qualities students show in their activities and the way they are displayed in the admissions essay often make the crucial difference.

Remember, great schools look at the whole student, not just grades and test scores. Outstanding achievement in other areas is equally important and sometimes even more important. In our following series of columns, we’ll be discussing all of the issues outlined here and other information that will help you make better planning decisions for college.


Leonardo Radomile has served on a Harvard admissions committee and taught in the co-curricular program at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the winner of multiple teaching awards including a Harvard Club Award. He serves as the managing director of the Cambridge Learning Center which specializes in elite college admissions. He can be contacted at 


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