Focus – Factors within your control

I like to divide college admissions into two categories: factors you can control and those you cannot.

I often see applicants, families, and even high school counselors focus on the wrong things. Often, I see benign lamentations about the difficulties of one’s academic environment or how admissions didn’t use to be so difficult. Sometimes this speculation ventures unintentionally into the troubled waters of diversity, race, or perceptions of fairness. I have engaged in more than a few conversations that turned ugly.

Factors outside of an applicant’s control

  • the competitiveness of the other applicants in the pool
  • state and federal law
  • the number of applicants for a given major
  • the needs of the university
  • how admissions committees measure and calculate the desirability of an applicant
  • essay topics
  • the competitiveness of one’s high school
  • biographical factors like race or income
  • how UT handles non-ranking schools
  • preferences for in-state versus out-of-state applicants
  • the mood of your reviewer


This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. There are many things that you cannot change. Though interesting and a huge influence on you admissions outcomes, obsessing over things like the top 10% rule or how UT doesn’t consider the competitiveness of your school takes away from focusing on factors one can control.

Factors within your control

  • your essays
  • your expanded résumé
  • who writes your recommendation letters
  • your desired majors or universities
  • how you spend your summers
  • your academic course selection
  • engaging with admissions professionals
  • seeking out resources in your school and community
  • your activities outside of class
  • when you apply
  • your attitude and effort

Of course, there are other factors you can control to an extent. Take ownership of what you can improve upon.

One factor that doesn’t fit neatly into this division is test scores. To a point, an applicant can study, seek out tutoring or preparation resources, or advocate for accommodations. After a certain point, there are diminishing returns and students hit a ceiling on how high their scores can go.

For instance, I am not a particularly strong standardized test taker. No matter how many months I studied for the GRE or the LSAT, I wasn’t going to increase my score by much or at all. You can’t take blood from a rock. Fretting over what applicants perceive as a low score (but is typically well above the national average and suitable for many universities) doesn’t do much good either for your mental health or admissions chances.

Conversations about factors you can and cannot control typically surface when results are released. Confronting rejection, applicants, families, and high school counselors often turn to things outside of their control to explain a particular admissions decision. Rarely do I see applicants concede: “I just didn’t spend enough time on my essays. I applied last minute. I didn’t get strong recommendation letters.”

Blaming factors outside of one’s control is psychologically convenient and an understandable tendency. It is also a little dishonest. College admissions won’t be the first time you have been told know as a result of an arbitrary process. There are graduate and medical school, grant or scholarship applicants, internships, and job interviews to look forward.

If you have put forward your best effort and optimized things within your control while not receiving a favorable decision, then it comes down to separating judgments of your own self-worth based on a complex process.

Taking ownership of one’s college applicants begins with a focus on what you can control, putting forward your best effort, and accepting both success and failure graciously.