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What We Look For In An Application

Posted by on Monday, February 3, 2014 in Application Process, File Reading Explained.

If you are a senior reading this blog post right now, you are most likely relieved that your application is complete and submitted, but you also may be wondering what is happening to that application, now that it is safely in our office.  If you are a junior or a sophomore, you might be building or paring down your college list and wondering what it is that each school you’re considering values in a prospective student.

The Old Gym, home to the offices of (some of) the OUA's 27 counselors.

One of our most important missions here on the admissions blog is to lift the veil of mystery and let you in on the answers to questions just like these. Below you will find an outline of the five major components that each of our admissions counselors looks for and values in a Vanderbilt application.

Academic achievement: As we employ our holistic application review process, our first priority is to ensure that students are academically prepared to succeed at a rigorous institution like Vanderbilt.  The official high school transcript and Common Application School Report are the primary tools we use to gauge academic achievement.  We are looking for students who have challenged themselves with a rigorous curriculum and performed well in those classes.  As always, context is king, and our assessment of your curriculum, grades, GPA, and class rank, will all be done with the understanding of what is offered and permitted at your particular high school.

Standardized test scores: While your transcript gives us some insight into how well you have performed in comparison to your closest peers (the other students at your high school), your performance on standardized tests will tell us how well you have performed in the greater context of all high school students across the globe.  The Vanderbilt student body is incredibly geographically diverse, with current undergraduate students from 49 US states and over 50 countries, and your SAT and/or ACT scores help give us an idea of the academic force you might exhibit when you are all in a classroom together.

Extracurricular involvement: Of course Vanderbilt is not just a collection of classrooms thrown together on a campus, but a vibrant community of service, athletics, performing arts, culture, religion, music… and the list goes on and on.  Once we have ensured that you will be academically competitive in our process, we look to see what else you have been doing throughout your high school years.  We do not value any one particular type of involvement over another – we want to build a community of students with many diverse interests – but we are looking in every case for both commitment of time and effort, and strong leadership skills.

Personal essay: At this point we know what kind of student you are, how good of a test taker you are, and what types of things you have been involved in on your campus and in your community… so what else do you think we should know about you?  The personal essay is your chance to answer that question.  Regardless of which prompt you select, we are looking at this portion of your application to learn more about what skills, character traits, points of view, or life experiences you would bring to the Commodore community.

Recommendation letters: The final element required of all Vanderbilt applicants is a set of three recommendation letters – one from your guidance counselor, and two from core subject area teachers, typically from your junior or senior year.  In most cases, these letters serve to support all of the other pieces of your application and reaffirm what we’ve seen in your transcript, test scores, extracurricular activities, and personal essay.  It is certainly one thing to hear how you describe yourself as a student, person, and community member, but we also want to hear from your academic and personal mentors to learn their perspective on your achievements.

And that, my friends, is what we are looking for as we dig around in your Vanderbilt application.  If you read Jay’s post on positive advocacy, you know that our role from here on out is to be your personal cheerleaders, finding and highlighting those unique elements of your file that will demonstrate what you would contribute to our community as a Vanderbilt Commodore.

As always, if you have further questions about your application or our evaluation process, feel free to reach out to your own cheerleader: your admissions counselor.

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  • Just_Bounce 2.0

    February 5th, 2014

    How big does senior course load weigh into the application process?

  • Jay Watson

    February 6th, 2014

    Your senior course load is one of several factors considered in the academic portion of your application – along with grades, GPA, class rank, etc. Your curriculum itself is also considered within the context of what is available/required at your high school. Thanks for the question!

  • с

    February 6th, 2014

    Thanks for this one

  • Transfer

    February 20th, 2014

    How many transfer applicants does Vandy intend to enroll this year?

  • Jay Watson

    February 21st, 2014

    Vanderbilt typically enrolls about 200 transfer students each year. Thanks for your interest!

  • Jeremy O'Brien

    March 19th, 2014

    Are there any specific extracurriculars admissions counselor a enjoy seeing from applicants such as religious activities or things like NHS and Ambassadors? Thanks for this blog… very helpful insight! Very hopeful on this upcoming notification letter!

  • Jay Watson

    March 20th, 2014

    Thanks for the question, Jeremy. For extracurriculars, we look for a steady commitment to meaningful activities beyond what is required by school. We aren’t looking for any specific kinds of activities – what matters most to us is that we see a student engaged in a meaningful way. Hang in there, decision time is almost here!

  • Elinor Grace Courson

    March 24th, 2014

    Hi there Mr. Watson and Ms. Pippen! Thank you for taking the
    time to write articles for eager students like myself. I am finding them very informative. Your answers are helping to ease a lot of the anxiety I experience when
    thinking about applying for college. I have one follow up question to ask. As a
    rising junior, like all my peers I still have yet to decide exactly what I want
    to major in. I use my extracurricular clubs, mission trips, etc. to get
    involved in my school and community in addition to narrow down what my interest
    really is. As a result I have a lengthy list of assorted extracurricular
    activities. There is a hand full that I have participated in for multiple years
    and truly enjoy, but plenty I have participated in for only a year or so. In
    regard to what would run through the mind of a Vanderbilt Admissions Officer, which would they prefer to see on a potential student’s application? A lengthy list of diverse extracurricular activities including a few that display exceptional participation or less than a hand full that show superior participation?

    Thank you again!

    Elinor G. Courson

  • Jay Watson

    March 25th, 2014

    Hi Elinor, thanks for your interest. First, let me say that we admit students who match both of your descriptions, so it’s not an either/or situation. Regardless of the number, we’re looking for students who have gotten involved in activities they are passionate about and have shown some leadership or strong commitment in those activities. It’s certainly not going to count against you or any other applicant that you have explored different activities to find your passion. And you can use the writing supplement as an opportunity to explain which activities are most important to you put your involvement in context. I hope this helps. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your admissions counselor during the application process.

  • AC

    September 21st, 2015

    How does Vanderbilt treat homeschoolers and their curriculum?

  • Jay Watson

    September 21st, 2015

    Home schooled students submit the same application information and are evaluated the same as other applicants. You can read more about our process for home school students at

    We have an admissions counselor who works with all home school students as well. You can find that info at

    Thanks for your interest!

  • John

    September 8th, 2016

    how likely is a 3.7 GPA applicant with a 1550 new SAT score and above average extracurricular chance?

  • Jay Watson

    September 20th, 2016

    Hi John, thanks for your interest in Vanderbilt. Because we use a holistic approach to evaluating applicants, we can’t tell you your odds of admission based on this info alone. You might consider looking at the admitted student profile to get a sense for the attributes of students we have admitted in the past. Also, keep in mind that each year the applicant pool is different. You can see the Vanderbilt profile at

  • Jay Watson

    September 14th, 2017

    Hi Khan, thanks for your question and your enthusiasm for Vanderbilt! As you may know, we practice a holistic approach to admissions. That means we look at all aspects of an application in order to get a evaluate an applicant. As an applicant you can help us understand your situation through the application — for example, there is a place on the application for you to add notes to help your admissions counselor to understand why your transcript may not reflect your academic abilities (or why your grades from senior year are the better reflection of your ability). Having test scores that fall in the VU middle 50% is a solid aspect, and I would definitely encourage you to apply. You can also reach out to your VU admissions counselor to discuss your personal situation or ask questions. You can find your counselor at Thanks again for the question!

  • Khan

    September 14th, 2017

    Thank you so much for your reply! That’s really encouraging!