Expert Advice

Understand the selection process

At the Vanderbilt Office of Undergraduate Admissions, we practice holistic, context-based application review process. Put another way, we take into consideration more than just your academic profile – we look at all parts of your application to get to know your passions, achievements, and interests, academic or otherwise. We also work to understand your application in the larger context of your circumstances. This can mean evaluating your high school grades in the context of the curriculum offered at your school, understanding how a job or family commitment impacts your high school experience, or recognizing the effects on your life of events in the world.

When we review applications, here’s what we evaluate:

  • Academic achievement
  • Standardized test scores, if submitted
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal essay and short answer
  • Extracurricular activities, leadership, and engagement

One thing we do not consider in the application review process is demonstrated interest. While we welcome students to visit campus, participate in virtual visit programs, and contact their admissions officers with any questions, we do not track these interactions for the purpose of the admissions review.

We approach the selection process with a spirit of positive advocacy. Every applicant is treated with dignity and respect, and we train our readers to find reasons to admit each candidate rather than reasons to deny.

We understand that the college admissions process can be stressful and confusing at times, and we hope this page helps applicants and their families better understand and feel comfortable with the process. We’ve also developed an admissions glossary to help you navigate the lingo.

student working on a laptop outside on campus
Alumni hall at dusk

Build Your College List

The first step in the college application process is to think about the kind of college experience you want. This is an opportunity to dream big and envision your ideal college environment. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What do you want to study?
  • Will your school help make your education affordable?
  • What size is right for you?
  • Do you want to do research in college?
  • How do you like to have fun?

Consider the college characteristics that matter most to you.

We encourage you to use the Vanderbilt Dream College tracker to help with this process. Our interactive tool is a simple but effective way to compare different colleges on the questions that matter most to you.


Prepare for College Academics

We recommend you take a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, the most appropriately demanding schedule your high school has to offer. A strong academic transcript is what many schools will view as the most critical piece of your application. If your high school offers advanced, honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate courses it's recommended you pursue those as appropriate. You should challenge yourself without getting in over your head.

Since Vanderbilt uses a holistic admissions review process, we do not have minimum coursework requirements. Most successful candidates will present a curriculum that includes the equivalent of five academic subjects each year for four years. Recommended course work includes 4 units of English, 4 units of mathematics, 4 units of natural science, 2 units of foreign language, 2 units of social science/humanities, and 4 units of additional course work in these areas, or other academic courses such as engineering science, computer science, social science or natural science research, or advanced work in the humanities. Close attention will be paid to the rigor of course work presented. It is highly recommended that candidates applying to the School of Engineering have taken calculus, calculus-based physics, and chemistry.

first-year students cheering at founders walk

Choose a Decision Plan

As you move through the college application process, one important choice is what decision plan to use. Colleges offer varying decision plans with different deadlines, different levels of commitment, and different dates when you’ll find out admissions decisions. The options differ for each institution, so it’s important to understand the specific policies for any school where you choose to submit an application. Below are some general descriptions, typical of decision plans you may see at different schools.

Early Decision: Early Decision is a binding decision plan in which an applicant commits to attend the school if offered admission. As the name suggests, Early Decision plans offer students the opportunity to submit an application before the regular deadline and find out their admissions decision earlier in the process. Early Decision applications typically require some type of signed form (an Early Decision Agreement) that indicates your intention to enroll upon admission. Students admitted through an Early Decision plan are expected to withdraw all other applications and submit the matriculation fee (or fee waiver) upon receiving the offer of admission.

Students applying Early Decision are strongly encouraged to research the financial aid policies of an institution. For example, it is important to know that Vanderbilt meets 100% of demonstrated financial need for all admitted U.S. citizens and non-citizens without the use of loans, and regardless of decision plan. Keep in mind that these policies will vary between institutions. You can use a school’s net price calculator to get a good estimate of what that package might be.

Note: Vanderbilt offers Early Decision I and Early Decision II. These are both binding early decision options – the difference is that Early Decision II is simply later in the process.

Early Action: Early Action offers students the opportunity to submit applications before the regular deadline and find out their admissions decision earlier in the process, much like Early Decision. The distinction from Early Decision is that students applying through Early Action plans are not committed to their Early Action schools, and still have until May 1 to either accept or decline their offers of admission.  Students who are not admitted Early Action may be “deferred” to the Regular Decision deadline, though these policies will vary between schools.

Note: Vanderbilt does NOT offer an Early Action decision plan. Please refer to the admissions office of each school you are applying to for institution-specific policies.

Regular Decision: The vast majority of students who apply to a given institution will do so through Regular Decision, and you can apply Regular Decision to as many schools as they would like.  While the application submission deadlines will vary between institutions, Regular Decision deadlines typically fall in early January, and offers of admission usually are sent out in late March or early April. In most years, students admitted through Regular Decision have until May 1 to either accept or decline their offers, and each student is only permitted to submit a matriculation fee (or fee waiver) to one of the institutions to which they have been admitted.

Write Your Essay

The essay can be an important part of the application that helps us get to know you and understand what you would contribute to our campus community. We want to get to know you beyond your academic record, and this is a part of the application where you can show us who you are. It’s important to remember that there’s no single right way to write your college essay, and no perfect topic that works for every applicant. While there are no rules, here are some tips that can help you put your best self forward:

  • Keep the “personal” in personal essay. To be honest, we don’t really care what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you. For instance, don’t spend the entire essay detailing the life of your favorite and most accomplished family member, but rather focus on how that person has affected you and your life decisions. This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered – more than anything, we want to know about you!
  • Don’t try to guess what we want to hear. If you ask a hundred different admissions counselors what their favorite kind of essay is, you will likely get a hundred different answers. Instead of trying to figure out what topic will get us most interested, focus on a topic that lets your passions show.
  • Tell us something we don’t already know. When writing your essay, be sure to keep in mind all of the other pieces of your application we already have. Don’t use this space to summarize your extracurricular involvement or your academic achievements if we’ve already seen these things in other parts of your application. We know there’s more to you than just grades and leadership roles, so use the essay to show us.
  • Ask for input – but not too much. Your parents, friends, school counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know you and your strengths, and they can help you decide how best to showcase them. Keep in mind, however, that we want to hear your unique voice in the essay – not that of your parent, friend, or teacher.
    We understand that you might use other forms of assistance, such as ChatGPT or other forms of AI, as you prepare you essay. For example, you may rely on an essay-writing class to help brainstorm topic ideas for your essay. Or you may use grammar tools available online to check grammar in your writing. Or your may ask a parent or guardian or peer to read your essay and offer feedback on clarity or offer advice regarding structure of the essay. However, you should understand that it would not be proper to ask a teacher or parent to come up with the essay topic or to re-write your essay. Likewise, AI should never be used to replace your own independent thinking. As you complete the essay portions of the application, you should always use your own voice and write about your own life experiences.
  • Edit, proof, polish, and breathe. Beyond gaining insight into you personally, the essay is also a way to show your written communication skills. Treat this essay like any class assignment – write it early, proof and revise, look for spelling and grammatical errors, and make sure it is presented in a clean and polished way. With that said, don’t panic if you discover a misspelled word or a misused comma after you hit submit – our holistic application review process means that no one element makes or breaks an application, including typos.
Nicholas S. Zeppos dining hall

Request Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a great way for us to get to know you better through the eyes of teachers or counselors who know you best. These letters can help us understand the type of student you are and imagine how you might add to the campus community, both academically and in other ways.

At Vanderbilt, we require each applicant to submit three letters: two from teachers who taught you in a core academic area (preferably either junior or senior year), and one from your assigned school counselor. Here are some tips for the process of selecting your academic teachers and soliciting their recommendations:

  • First, and most importantly, choose your teachers wisely. Try to select teachers who know you well and can accurately characterize you as a student. This does not always have to be the teacher who gave you the highest grade, or the popular teacher who receives the most recommendation requests, or even the teacher who had you in the class that corresponds to your intended major. Teachers who have seen you grow and improve over time are particularly good choices; some of the best letters we receive are from teachers who saw their students struggle with and then overcome academic obstacles.
  • Choose your teachers early. Teachers are busy, and they receive many requests for recommendations throughout the year. It’s important to give them as much time as possible to write your letters – both for their own sanity and for the success of your application. Give your teachers time to write a thoughtful recommendation that will provide us with the most helpful information as we review your application. Keep in mind that our regular decision deadline, along with those of most other schools, falls right after the holiday break, and many teachers and counselors may be difficult to reach during that time.
  • Make sure your teachers are well informed. Although your teachers will primarily be characterizing you as a student in the classroom, it might be helpful to provide them with some additional context. If your school allows, consider sending your teachers a summary of your achievements and activities. You will also want to keep these teachers up to date on what these letters are being used for; if it is a recommendation for the Common Application, they should avoid mentioning any specific college or university by name, as their letters will be sent to each institution on your list.
  • Submit additional letters of recommendation with caution. While some schools allow you to submit recommendation letters in addition to those that are required, use discretion when doing so. If you have an elective teacher, athletic coach, religious leader, or other person in your life who you think could provide a different perspective on you as a student or community member, you could consider adding an additional recommendation letter if the college permits this. Adding additional letters to your file simply for the sake of adding letters, however, will not increase your chances of admission.
students on campus during fall
first-year students cheering at founders walk

Consider your extracurricular activities

  • List your activities in order of importance. Although our admissions counselors will certainly read the entire list, it is often helpful to know right off the bat which activities you spent the most time on and feel most passionate about.
  • Highlight leadership, commitment, and impact. If you held a leadership role in your organization, make sure the scope of that leadership is accurately captured in the description. That being said, we know that leadership titles are not the only way to portray success, and we value any type of involvement that demanded considerable amounts of your time and energy over the last four years. If you made a real difference on your campus or in your community through one of your activities, emphasize that impact, regardless of whether or not it came with a title or official leadership role.
  • Depth over breadth. When we say that we like our students to be actively involved, that does not mean that we expect you to sign up for every club and organization at your school for the sake of beefing up your resume. We’d much rather see a genuine commitment to one or a few activities than superficial participation that doesn’t offer a significant contribution.
  • Don’t leave anything out. School-affiliated activities like academic clubs, student government, and athletic teams are not the only avenues through which students can demonstrate achievement outside the classroom. If you’re heavily involved in your faith community, hold a part time job, or regularly spend time helping your family around the house, make sure these types of commitments are highlighted on the activity list.
  • Give us as much context as possible. When we are advocating for our applicants, it’s helpful to have as much information as we can get. If you feel that one of your activities needs a little bit of extra explanation, either regarding the activity itself or the nature of your involvement, don’t hesitate to add information in the additional information section of the application.

Apply for financial aid

A key component of the college search and application process is understanding how you will pay for college. Many schools offer generous financial aid – for example, Vanderbilt's financial aid program Opportunity Vanderbilt has been recognized as #1 Great Financial Aid by Princeton Review. In order to take advantage of these programs, you must apply for financial aid. As with other parts of the application, make sure you understand the financial aid policies of each school, because they may differ. Here are our general tips on navigating the process.

  • Do your research. Explore the differences between schools, because what you are expected to pay will vary from school to school. Understand that some colleges (including Vanderbilt) will admit you without regard to your family’s ability to pay. Some colleges (including Vanderbilt) meet all of your demonstrated financial need. And some colleges (including Vanderbilt) do not ask students to take out loans to pay for college.
  • Complete the Net Price Calculator. Work with your parents or guardians to complete the Net Price Calculator or the MyinTuition Quick College Estimator. These tools help estimate what your family may be expected to pay toward your college education.
  • Plan around the deadlines. Make sure you understand the deadlines for submitting your financial aid application and supporting documents. These deadlines can differ depending on the schools you’re applying to and the decision plans you choose, so pay close attention.
  • Gather the required forms and documents. For U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens, schools require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and some schools (including Vanderbilt) require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile provided by the College Board. We use these applications to determine eligibility for federal, state, and institutional assistance. Visit our financial aid site to learn details about applying for financial aid at Vanderbilt. You’ll need this info to complete the financial aid applications as accurately as possible:
    • Parent(s) Federal Tax Return and W-2s
    • Student Federal Tax Return and W-2s
    • Records of untaxed income such as child support and interest income
    • Information on cash (savings and checking account balances), investments, and real estate
    • Note: For international applicants, we require only the CSS Profile.