What Admissions Offices Want
What Admissions Offices Want: Objective vs. Subjective Standards
There are two sides to an admissions application for both colleges and graduate schools: objective vs. subjective standards. An admissions office wants both of these components, although some admissions committees emphasize one more than the other.
For definition purposes: the objective side of your application includes your test scores and your GPA. Whereas the subjective side of your application includes your personal statement, letters of recommendation, resume, extracurricular activities, and academic (or other) awards.
For the most part, an admissions office wants the highest test scores. In fact, test scores are the only objective standard in which an admissions office can compare your academic potential to another person applying. Think of the objective standard – test scores – in the same way that a person buying a new home would want to compare the house they’re interested in with a house on the same block. You can never really know the value of that potential home until you see how other houses near that address fare when sold.
Also, it’s not easy to know exactly what test scores an admissions office is looking for, but one good guess is to research “median” test scores published by that school. For example, many Ivy League schools, which are ranked in the top 10 – i.e. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, generally have test scores that range above the top 90th percentile. This means for the SAT generally students score a 2000 or higher. For test such as the LSAT and GMAT, students generally score a 165 or higher and a 670 or higher, respectively, on these two exams for both schools. However, if you’re not quite in these ranges, you have two options: re-take the test, or make the subjective side (essays, resumes, recommendations) so good that they de-emphasize your test scores.
I would argue that objective standards such as your test scores and GPA are the gateway to having an admissions officer review the subjective side such as your essays and personal statements. In other words, many admissions officers won’t begin to look at your full application unless your test scores and GPA are strong enough and fit their median range. There’s a little bit of flexibility on the GPA, as there is some grade inflation at certain schools, and admissions offices know this. But for the most part, you want this objective component to also be as strong, as your test scores are. If the admissions office sees a higher GPA and a really low test score (or vice versa), you might have to explain why such a discrepancy exists.
On the subjective side of the admissions application, you really should focus on your admissions essay. In addition, your recommendations can make a big difference especially if the admissions office is comparing applicants with similar test scores. Overall, the subjective criteria that defines your application is the secondary component – but very important – to your potential admission into a top school.