Introductory Guide to University Admissions

University applications across the globe require the student display varying degrees of academic “rigor” and personal “narrative,” both of which are framed and bolstered by individual students’ passions, major or career-trajectory, and personal interests.  While countries like Japan put stronger emphasis on academic rigor, American universities expect a balance of the two in successful application profiles.

Academic Rigor

Academic rigor, which refers to a combination of GPA, course load, and test score performance, is the primary barrier to college and university acceptance. Colleges and universities weigh academic rigor across these three variables the most heavily in an application to evaluate student “match” – whether the academic level of the student matches the campus’s. Of universities and colleges in the United States:

  • 77% evaluate grades as of “considerable importance” in the application selection process.1
  • 87% consider strength of a students’ curriculum as considerable or at least moderately important.1
  • 80% deem high performance on English proficiency exams as crucially important for admissions for international students.1
  • 82% rely on standardized test scores as a “considerably important” or at least “moderately important” measure of student quality, match, and fit.1

1National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2017 State of College Counseling report

Student Narrative

While a student’s academic performance informs a university of whether such a student is a good match for the campus, the student’s personal narrative – progression through active extracurricular involvement, mentor testimony in recommendation letters, and their own responses to writing prompts – allows an applicant to stand out amongst similarly-ranked academic peers.

  • Student essays are the 5th most important facet of their applications, only after measures of academic performance.1
  • Commitment to long-term extracurricular activities is vital, according to admissions officers of top tier institutions.2
  • Recommendation letters and essays communicate what numbers can’t, allowing admissions officers to evaluate personal journeys, classroom performance, personal passions, and critical thinking skills beyond grades.

1National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2017 State of College Counseling report
2Crotty, James Marshall. 2014. “Yale Application Reader Reveals 4 Proven Tips For Ivy League Admission.”

Passions, Interests, and Major/Career Trajectory

Underlying both academic rigor and personal narrative are students’ own interests, values, and personality, all of which drive course selection, academic performance, and selection of extracurriculars. Identifying personal passions and a potential university major or career trajectory can greatly aid in course selection, improve GPA and test performance within topics of interest, and provide an overall unifying narrative for the application.