So much work goes into a college application. Energy, ideas, all the work you did in high school is represented in a few pages. But what happens after the application is sent? How does a school judge the applications, and what happens once they do?

According to a recent survey of colleges conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, here are the top 10 factors colleges said had considerable importance in admitting students.

  1. Grades in college prep courses
  2. Strength of curriculum (courses)
  3. Admission test scores (such as SAT and ACT)
  4. Grades in all courses
  5. Essay or writing sample
  6. Student’s demonstrated interest
  7. Counselor recommendation
  8. Class rank
  9. Teacher recommendation
  10. Extracurricular activities

Each college will have its own way of doing things, but here’s a look at the basics of the college admissions office process at colleges where admission is competitive.

Sorting Applications

Colleges receive a flood of applications from fall through winter, so the first thing they do is screen applicants to see if they meet the minimum criteria for admissions. They may do this electronically, looking at GPA and test scores, or they may use a formula that takes other factors into account. In any case, it’s a good idea to look at average GPAs and test scores for accepted students before applying, to see if you’re likely to make it past this stage.

Reading Applications

The college admissions department consists of a team of analysts and support staff who read and assess applications. The team may include college recruitment specialists, specialists in certain majors, even faculty members. The applications are usually given a first read and then passed on for reads by other team members if the candidate is a good match. These people read hundreds of applications, so one that stands out—for the right reasons—may give you an edge. A well-written essay, quality extracurriculars, even internships or summer programs can help you get noticed.

Academic preparation is most important as it is a strong predictor of how well many students will do in college. After academic preparation, they will then often look into other aspects such as your essay, letters of recommendation, and out-of-school activities to get a better picture of who you are. They’re usually looking for well-rounded students who are motivated as well as talented.

Sending Acceptance Letters

Colleges vary about how soon they inform students regarding acceptance. For instance, you might hear back in only a few weeks at a college using a rolling admission process. It might take a number of months for other colleges which have published deadlines and perhaps even published acceptance response dates. Acceptance letters might come with  an offer of financial aid as well. Once you’ve received all your replies and financial aid offers, weigh them carefully before deciding. Talk to people at the colleges or your school counselor. Most colleges don’t expect to hear of your decision before May 1, but make sure you check deadlines and send the required materials on time. And notify other colleges that you won’t be attending so they can give your space to someone else.

Creating a Waitlist

Colleges know that not everyone they approve will accept, so they maintain a waitlist in order to ensure full enrollment in the fall. Different colleges will have different sized lists, and your chances of getting in once waitlisted will vary widely. If you are waitlisted, decide whether you want to remain in consideration and then notify the college as soon as possible. It’s a good idea to send a follow-up letter explaining your strengths and why you want to attend that particular school. And make sure you don’t miss other deadlines while you wait to hear back from waitlist schools. You may want to send a deposit to your second choice school in case you don’t get in. Your counselor can help you strategize.

Issuing Denials

Even though there are many strong applicants to a college, the fact of the matter is that at many campuses, they just don’t have the space to accept everyone. Colleges often send denial letters throughout the year. As a student, the most important thing to remember is that there are many colleges where you can enroll and be successful. In the end, it’s what you decide to make of college that matters most. If you find yourself in the spring of your senior year without having been accepted, talk to your school counselor and try the College Redirection tool on for assistance on getting matched to a great college option.

Asking for Commitment

Colleges will  usually provide you with a deadline for committing. Once you’ve decided which admission offer to accept, you’ll need to send in your acceptance letter, a deposit, and often a separate financial aid award acceptance letter as well. They’ll want your senior year transcripts and possibly other things such as vaccination records. Make sure you send everything in on time, and only accept admission to one college. It’s okay to send a deposit and then forfeit it if you get into your waitlist school.