Q: What is Admitster?

A: Admitster is an online college admissions adviser created by a group of college admissions experts and data scientists from Harvard and MIT. It uses the very latest research in college admissions and artificial intelligence, together with massive amounts of college admissions data that has become publicly available. The result of this multi-year project is now publicly and freely available to everyone at www.admitster.com. The site offers revolutionary free tools, coupled with extraordinary content on college admissions that has been called by educational leaders “unmatched in the industry.”

Q: How does Admitster make money?

A: In addition to our free tools and content, we offer several products and services for a fee. For instance, check out our bookstore, where you can peruse thoughtful, honest reviews of just about every book on college admissions topics, then buy just the right book for you. If you seek more personalized services, see our Wicked Smart College Essay Reviews and Advising. Don’t navigate the turbulent waters of college admissions alone. Make Admitster your trusted adviser. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us.

Q: What are my “Reach” schools?

A: Your “Reach” schools are colleges and universities where your chance of admission is less than 35%, so your likelihood of acceptance is relatively slim. Writing extraordinary essays, getting strong letters of recommendation, and successfully presenting yourself at interviews are all ways that you can increase the likelihood of being accepted to your “Reach” schools. However, there may still be a weak chance of acceptance. In general, most students should eventually apply to 3-5 “Reach” schools.

Q: What are my “Target” schools?

A: Your “Target” schools are colleges and universities where your chance of admission is 35%-75%. They are also schools where your academic profile is similar to the average entering student, meaning that you are in the middle 50% range regarding your grades, test scores, and extracurricular profile. Thus, you have a generally good shot of being admitted, assuming that your essays, letters of recommendation, and application are strong. In general, most students should apply to 3-5 “Target” schools.

Q: What are my “Safety” schools?

A: Your “Safety” schools are colleges and universities where your chance of admission is 75% or higher. They are also schools where your academic profile is significantly higher than the average entering student, or you are being recruited for a specific purpose (e.g., sports), so you have a strong likelihood of admission. In general, most students should apply to 2 “Safety” schools if financial aid is not a factor, and 3-4 “Safety” schools if you want to compare financial aid packages.

Q: What does “Chance of At Least One” mean?

A: “Chance of At Least One” refers to your likelihood of being admitted to at least one of the colleges in your ADMITster™ profile. If you only have three colleges in your profile, ADMITster™ will give you your chances of admission to at least one of the three. If you have 10 colleges in your profile, it will give you your chances of admission to at least one of the 10. This number indicates whether you have a relatively robust college list or not. Ideally, your “Chance of At Least One” percentage should be at or above 90% so that you can be fairly certain that you will be accepted somewhere you are applying.

Q: To how many schools should I apply?

A: As a general rule, we suggest applying to two “Safety” schools (three if you want to compare financial aid packages), three “Target” schools, and three “Reach” schools. However, you also have to look at your “Chance of At Least One” number. If it has not yet reached 90% and you have these 8-9 schools your list, then we suggest removing a “Reach” school and adding a “Safety” school where your chance of admission is extremely high (90% or above). In contrast, if your “Chance of At Least One” number is already 90% and you want to apply to fewer schools, as long as that number remains above 90%, you should feel free to narrow it down. Just remember—you never want to apply to any college or university that you are not excited to attend. There are hundreds of high-quality colleges and universities in the United States, and ADMITster™ can help you find ones that are a great match for you.

Q: How important are extracurricular activities?

A: Extracurricular activities are a critical component of college admissions, particularly at highly selective colleges. Colleges want to know what you care about and how you choose to spend your time. Extracurricular activities give them an indication of this. Colleges also want to know that you can be a strong team player, a leader, an independent thinker, and a volunteer. They all want to see that you can commit to an activity and do it for several years. To learn these pieces of information, colleges scrutinize applicants’ extracurricular activities lists to see: what activities they have participated in, what role they’ve had in those activities, and what activities they have consistently done for several years.

As a rule of thumb, in terms of extracurriculars, more is not better. In other words, colleges would like to see you participate in a few activities that really show who you are and what you care about over the course of high school. They would also like to see you spend a lot of your time doing them and eventually become a leader (e.g., president, captain, founder) in at least one of them. This is a much more effective use of time than participating in many activities but changing which ones from year to year, doing them for only a few hours once in a while, and not moving past “member” status.

With all of this being said, if colleges do not feel that you are academically capable of completing their coursework in a satisfactory manner, and adding positively to the intellectual community, they will be hesitant to accept you. Thus, extracurricular activities are rarely enough to admit someone whose grades and test scores are far below the school’s average.

Q: How important are standardized tests?

A: Most people believe that standardized tests (meaning the SAT, ACT, and SAT subject tests) are often considered one of the main academic factors in admissions. This is partly true. At many colleges, standardized test scores are considered important, but they are usually considered less important than a student’s academic transcript–both their grades and the level of the classes they took. This is because the academic transcript is more helpful for admissions offices when they try to assess whether the student can properly complete the college’s coursework and add to the intellectual community.

In addition, standardized test scores are quickly becoming less important than they one were. In fact, there are now many schools that are test-optional, meaning applicants may decide whether or not they would like their standardized test scores to be factored into the admissions decision. Similarly, a growing number of schools are test-flexible, meaning that applicants may decide whether they would like to submit SAT or ACT scores, or whether they would prefer to submit alternative entrance exams, such as SAT Subject Tests, AP exams, or IB tests.

Q: Should I take both the SAT and ACT?

A: Instead of taking both tests in an official capacity, we suggest taking diagnostic tests of both the SAT and ACT to identify which test better highlights your strengths. What do we mean by diagnostic tests? We mean timed tests that mirror the official tests as much as possible, but are taken in an informal place (e.g., your kitchen table, the local library) and are simply used to evaluate which test is better for you. Depending on your scores on each exam, you can decide which one to study for, and eventually take.

Q: How many SAT Subject Tests should I take?

A: Most colleges and universities that required SAT Subject Tests require two, so most students take two (and also take them twice). However, a few schools, such as Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University, require three tests, so it’s important to identify where you think you would like to apply before determining the number to take. Alternatively, you could take three SAT Subject Tests, just to be on the safe side, and then only submit your top two scores.

Q: Should I submit my SAT or ACT scores to schools that do not require them?

A: A growing number of colleges and universities no longer require that you submit SAT or ACT scores with your application. However, you have the option of sending them if you chose. If your scores are strong, you should send them. “What If? Engine™ will help you decide whether to submit them or not. Simply include your scores in your profile and ADMITster™ will show you immediately if your scores will improve your chances of admission to the colleges under consideration.

Q: Is there a point in taking IB and AP courses?

A: Yes, it is a good idea to take IB or AP courses if you feel that you can sufficiently handle the challenge. Colleges like to see that you are willing to challenge yourself, and taking upper-level courses, like IB and AP, is one of the best ways to demonstrate your desire for challenge. In addition, most selective colleges and universities expect that students will take the most rigorous courses available at their high school. If you are scoring an A or A- in an honors or advanced class, chances are that you have the capability and skills to succeed in an AP class. Further, colleges want to know that you are prepared to succeed in college classes, and a way that you can signal this is by taking the most challenging courses possible. This does not mean, however, that you need to take every AP or IB course offered, but you should take as many as you can sufficiently handle without severely lowering your grades, feeling undo stress, or impeding the rest of your life.

Q: Who should write my letters of recommendation?

A: Your letters of recommendation should be written by someone who knows your well, both academically and personally. By the time an admissions committee reads your letters of recommendation, they have enough information about your academic background, so what they really want to know is who you are. The best letters of recommendation speak to your passions, interests, personality traits, convictions, and general attitude. Rather than focusing on your academics, ask your recommenders to answer questions such as: What type of contributions do you make to your school community? In what ways do you add to class discussions? Are you the type of student who helps your peers? What do you do when you encounter a problem?

In addition, the two teacher recommendations should be written by the sophomore or junior year teachers who know you the best, regardless of subject (as long as at least one is from an academic-subject teacher) and regardless of the grade you received. The third letter of recommendation will inevitably be written by your guidance counselor (so get to know him or her well!). The fourth letter of recommendation, which is often optional, can be written by anyone who knows you well and is not a relative. Common choices include coaches, bosses, faculty directors of a club you’ve been committed to throughout high school, internship supervisors, or religious personnel (i.e., youth group leaders). The most important factor in determining who should write your letters of recommendation is how well each person knows you; the more they know you and can speak to your strengths, talents, and personality, the better.

Q: What do colleges look for most in their college applications?

A: Your academic record is the most important factor in admissions decisions. Your academic record refers to the classes you take (how hard they are) and your grades. This gives colleges information about whether you are adequately challenging yourself and working hard in school. It also allows them to identify whether the coursework you’ve completed is sufficient to attend a particular college or university. Grades are always more important than standardized test scores, so consistently working hard throughout high school is worthwhile. Depending on the college, the next thing to be examined is standardized test scores, your essay, or your extracurricular activity list. All are important. Lastly, and importantly, colleges look at whether you are a good fit for their institutional needs. This is called “institutional fit.” Do you have a particular skill set or talent that a college seeks? Do you have the academic or career skills that would aid the school? Colleges ultimately seek a diverse set of students who bring unique skills, interests, and talents to their institution, so they will analyze your application to get a sense of this.

Q: Will I get into college if I have top grades and test scores?

A: Grades and test scores are certainly important, as they are a strong indication of whether you can successfully complete college coursework. However, most students are not admitted solely based on grades and test scores. As mentioned above, institutional fit is a critical component of admissions. Colleges want to know who you are beyond academics. This is particularly important at the most selective colleges and universities, where many applicants have top grades and test scores, so these academic variables do not differentiate one applicant from another. For those schools, the admissions decision often boils down to your unique skills, interests, and talents, assuming that your grades and test scores are sufficiently high. In contrast, colleges that are less selective will care most about grades and test scores.

Q: What should I say during my college interviews?

A: College interviews are an opportunity for you to learn more about the school to which you’re applying, and for colleges to learn more about you. Be frank about who you are, and emphasize important components that may not be readily known by reviewing your application. This means that you should focus more on your life outside of the classroom than inside it, as colleges already have your academic transcript and test scores to assess your academic skills. In addition, college interviews are an opportunity for you to prove that you have a strong interest in attending a particular school, and that you can clearly identify what it is that you like about the school, as well as what you will add to it. Spending time learning about each college before your interview is critical, as the more you know, the more you sound well-prepared, thoughtful, and convincing when you claim that it is a place you want to attend and a place that you can positively influence.

Q: Should I visit the colleges I’m thinking of attending?

A: If possible, it is a great idea to visit the colleges you’re thinking of attending. This has many benefits. First, college visits often help students determine whether they definitely want to apply, and whether they would attend if they were admitted. Second, college visits signal to admissions offices that you are really interested in their school, fulfilling a term called “demonstrated interest.” Third, if colleges offer on-campus interviews, then completing your interview while visiting the college is the best way to fulfill this important component of admissions. However, there are many things you can do if it’s not possible for you to visit the colleges you’re thinking of attending. For example, you can take a virtual tour of the college (simply go to the college’s admissions website for a virtual tour). You can also call the admissions office and ask to be put you in touch with a student or alum who can help you identify whether it’s a place you would like to attend. You can also request an alumni interview with an alum in your area to complete an off-campus interview.

Q: What should I do during my college visits?

A: College visits are a time for you to get better acquainted the with colleges to which you are considering applying. During these visits, it’s often useful to take a college tour, attend an information session, have a college interview (if the school offers one), audit a class, speak to students in your potential field of study or main extracurricular interest, meet a professor, and eat in the cafeteria. Your goal should be to determine whether you’d like to apply to the college, what it is about the college that you think makes it a great fit for you (jot this down and keep these notes on hand for writing your college essays!) and give a positive impression of yourself to the school.

Q: How do I know if I’m eligible for financial aid?

A: There are two types of financial aid: need-based and merit-based. Need-based is the most common type of financial aid. To find out whether you are eligible for need-based aid, you may do one of several things. First, many colleges now have financial aid calculators on their websites; these calculators will give you a sense of whether you will be eligible for need-based aid. However, bear in mind that this differs by college, so receiving aid at one school does not mean that you’ll receive it at another. Second, figure out your Expected Family Contribution (or EFC). EFC calculators are available at www.collegeboard.com and www.finaid.org. Your EFC determines whether you are eligible for need-based aid, which includes grants, subsidized student loans, and work study. In general, you are only eligible for need aid (grants, subsidized student loans, work study) if your EFC is less than the cost of attendance. Your EFC will not change from college to college, although your aid package may change since tuition and fees differ by school. Third, speak to the financial aid counselor at the colleges to which you’re thinking of applying.

Merit-based aid is financial assistance that students receive based on their particular merits (which may include academics, sports, or other attributes). To see what types of merit-based aid are available at the colleges to which you’re planning to apply, go to their financial aid websites. While some colleges and universities offer merit-based aid, others do not.

Q: How do I apply for financial aid?

A: To apply for need-based aid, you first need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to by the acronym, FAFSA. The FAFSA is governed by the U.S. Department of Education. Once you complete the FAFSA, you should list all of the schools to which you applied or are applying. Each school’s financial aid office will receive your information from the U.S. Department of Education. In most cases, you will also need to complete a college-specific financial aid form. To apply for merit-based aid, for some colleges, students must complete additional applications and essays. For other colleges, merit-based aid is awarded without any additional application.

Additionally, many colleges (primarily private) require the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile in addition to, or in lieu of the FAFSA form. Make sure you examine each schools website carefully to determine which financial aid forms are required.

Q: What can freshmen and sophomores do today to improve their chances of college admissions?

A: Even if you’re a freshman or sophomore, you can better plan your future classes and extracurricular activities to improve your likelihood of admission to your favorite colleges by using ADMITster’s What If? Engine™.

Jaimie Mayor

I’m not sure if you have access to this sort of information, but it would be nice if Admitster could accommodate the number of APs offered at the student’s school. Also, a function taking dual enrollment into consideration would be awesome.


    Katie Z, Ph.D

    Hello! We do accommodate the number of APs offered at a student’s school, but it’s subtle. You would include it in the difficulty factor. For instance, if the high school offers only a few AP courses, and the student takes them all, he/she would get a 4 or 5. On the other hand, if the high school offers 20 AP courses and the student takes only 2, then he/she would be at a 2 or 3. The same holds true for dual enrollment. If a high school student is taking courses at the local college, then his/her difficulty level in Admitster’s algorithm would be a 4 or 5, so dual enrollment is also taken into consideration there. Hope this helps!


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