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The College Admissions Secret Formula

What you need to know to get into the college of your choice.

Your chances of acceptance into college are based on three principles that colleges use to determine whether you will be successful.  We’ll refer to the three principles as your "college success quotient". In this article, prepared by the education experts at Action Potential Learning, each principle within the college success quotient will be broken down and explained more fully, giving you tips and strategies to improve your competitive edge in the college admissions process.

Your College Success Quotient

Your college success quotient is comprised of three “scores”:

Competitive Test Scores (your SAT or ACT score), Competitive School Scores (your GPA), and Competitive Life Scores (your volunteer, club, or work participation).

Your best chance of getting accepted into your college of choice with the scholarship you want is to get the highest score in your overall college success quotient.

Competitive Test Scores

Competitive tests scores are one of the three principles in your college success quotient. To be considered a competitive student at top schools, you must have high standardized test scores in either the SAT or the ACT.

At the minimum, your score must be well above the state and national averages. Last year, the Texas state average for the ACT was a 20.8 and the national average was a 21.1 . For the SAT, the Texas state average was a 1313 and the national average was a 1498. You can find scoring information on the ACT and SAT official websites:




Unfortunately, knowing the average ACT and SAT scores don’t give you much information about your likelihood of college acceptance unless you know the average scores of the college itself. Each college will have different entrance requirements, and this will be based on the average scores of students already enrolled in college. For example, the average SAT score for Harvard University is above 2000. You should research every college you want to attend to determine the average scores of the students enrolled. Students who receive scholarships at top colleges must aim even higher when preparing to take the ACT or the SAT. Most top colleges will require between the 90th to the 99th percentile on standardized tests for scholarships, and some top college may even require that for admission. The most recent percentile data listed students in the 90th percentile scoring a 28 on the ACT or scoring a total of 1980 on the SAT (650 for Critical Reading, 680 for Math, and 750 for Writing). Again, the actual score required for scholarships will vary between schools.

So, which test should you take? The ACT and SAT are very different tests and you may find that you perform better at one test over the other. If you feel that you are better at answering questions directly related to what you learned in school, you may feel more comfortable with the ACT. The ACT is “content based” and expects you to answer questions based on information you should have learned in high school. The SAT is “reasoning based” and expects you to answer questions based on your problem solving skills. Both tests are highly learnable and with enough practice, you can perform well on both. If you are struggling with studying, make sure to get a tutor to help you.

All colleges accept the SAT. While most colleges now also accept the ACT, some may not. If you choose to take the ACT, double check that the colleges you are interested in will accept your score.

Competitive School Scores

Competitive school scores are another of the three principles in your college success quotient. Your competitive school score is the grade point average you earn during your high school career.

You should set a goal for your GPA early on in high school during your first semester as a freshman. You should specifically state to yourself what your GPA should be at the end of each year (I will have a GPA of 3.8) and what courses you expect to earn an A, B, etc. Identifying courses you struggle with early on could help you catch up before it’s too late. So, what GPA should you strive for? Research admissions information on college websites to find out what the GPA of entering college freshman is. If you are not sure what colleges you are interested in, choose several and compare GPA for those schools. Always shoot for the highest GPA to ensure your best chances of being successful at any college you apply to.

Remember that honors level courses and AP or IB courses will earn you an extra GPA point per class, boosting your overall GPA substantially. For example, an A in a regular math course will earn you a 4.0 on a 4.0 scale but an A in an honors math course will earn you a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale. Before entering high school, you should have learned how to calculate your GPA and how to calculate what grade you need in certain courses to maintain your GPA. You should continually recalculate your GPA after every progress report and report card to ensure you are meeting your goal.

If you earn a lower GPA your freshman year, don’t stress! You still have a chance at being a competitive student, but only if you can show colleges that you have improved over time. If your GPA is slightly low by the time you graduate high school, but your last few years of high school showed very high grades, a few low grades your freshman year won’t kill you. The reverse is NOT true though. If your GPA is slightly low by the time you graduate high school, but you had high grades in the beginning of high school but a low GPA your senior year, that is much more likely to raise red flags. Colleges may think you did not work hard throughout high school and may assume this will be the case in college as well.

Competitive Life Scores

Competitive life scores are the last of the three principles in your college success quotient. Your competitive school score contains additional information about you in your college application like your essay, life experiences, and character.

All college and most scholarship applications will require an essay- or several. The topic completely depends on the college and it could change year to year. The essay component is so important because it gives you an opportunity to stand out. While a great essay alone will not guarantee you admission into the college of your choice, it can enhance an already good or great application and give you an edge over your competition. Make sure you write many rough drafts of your essay and edit it several times before submitting it- the process takes time and hard work but your hard work will be obvious when you submit a stellar essay. Be honest, be concise, and be creative.

Colleges are always looking for diversity on their campus- so you need to showcase what makes you a unique individual. If there’s an opportunity to write an anecdote about your life in your essay do it, but don’t force it. You can also showcase your uniqueness through your letters of recommendations or through your volunteer work, internships, jobs, or other activities. The key here is to show colleges that you have developed a specific skill set over time- a consistent track record of one or two activities is much more impressive than a track record of many short lived activities in your high school career.

The key to having competitive life scores is showing your true personality and painting a picture to colleges that your talents and uniqueness is essential for their student body.


Article written by Shayna L. Pond and Action Potential Learning


Action Potential Learning provides private tutoring in math and science as well as standardized test prep. As math and science specialists, our tutors know and understand difficult math and science concepts and can help you improve your grades and perform on standardized tests.

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