Anyone who is involved in applying for admission to a university course of study has to wonder on what basis the admissions officers make their decisions. For students and parents alike, uncertainty on this topic can be a source of great anxiety. For many, the actual admissions process is like a ‘black box’, the insides of which are mysterious.

For help on this topic, students and parents can turn to admissions consultants who have acquired specialised knowledge about the admissions process. Some of this knowledge is based on contact with admissions officers who make the decisions. Another source is scientific studies conducted by psychologists and sociologists who are specialists on the topic.

For example, in a study published in 2019, Don Hossler and five colleagues report on the factors that matter in admissions decision-making at a range of universities in the United States. They published their findings in the Journal of Higher Education in an article called ‘A Study of the Use of Nonacademic Factors in Holistic Undergraduate Admissions Reviews’.

The first stage in their research was a survey of earlier work on the topic, including studies that covered admission to highly selective institutions in the US and UK, such as Anna Mountford Zimdar’s (2016) book, Meritocracy and the University. Hossler et al. study conducted rigorous interviews with 19 admissions officers working at a range of institutions. The authors also took into account what an additional 241 admissions officers had said in response to a detailed survey about their decisions.

Some of the main findings of the Hossler study are somewhat obvious and quite reassuring. The admissions experts report that the most important factors on which decisions are based are the academic indicators: grades, test scores, and academic awards. Yet that is far from the whole story. At the most selective institutions, most of the applicants who go to the trouble and expense of applying are admissible as far as the standard academic indicators go. So the admissions officers at these selective, sought-after institutions have to turn to other variables as they make their decisions. In some of the less selective, public institutions, these other variables play a lesser role, but sometimes they make all of the difference to whether a student is admitted or not, as attention to special factors may save a promising student from being rejected on the basis of academic factors alone.

Academic factors rank first in order of importance to these decisions, but another kind of factor comes in second. These are called ‘contextual’ factors. These pertain mostly to the school from which the applicant is applying and to the socioeconomic and ethnic background of the applicant. The school-related factors include such things as whether the school offers advanced placement courses, and the institution’s track record in placing its graduates successfully in selective universities. Contextual factors related to the individual student include such things as whether the parents had a university education; the family’s income and location are may also be taken into account. Some very well endowed institutions boast that their admissions procedure is ‘blind’ to the question of whether the student will need financial assistance. In other places that is not so.

The main topic of the study conducted by Hossler and his colleagues is a kind of factor that was said to come in at third place, namely, the so-called ‘nonacademic’ factors. Hossler write that many families and students ‘struggle to understand’ what factors in addition to grades and test scores will determine the outcome of an application. If their interviews and surveys are reliable, the answer to that question includes a range of somewhat nebulous but all-important factors that are not, strictly speaking, academic, but which are believed to be indicators of the applicant’s ability to succeed in university studies.

So what are these key nonacademic factors (or NAFs) as reported by the sampling of admissions officers? These are factors pertaining to the student’s motivation, individual qualities and skills, and attitudes. Amongst these factors, two subcategories emerged as being most decisive. First of all there are ‘performance factors’: is the student highly motivated? Disciplined and hard-working? Capable of teamwork and leadership? Well-organized. Gifted with special proficiencies? Does the student have the elusive quality, or cluster of qualities, evoked by the word ‘grit’? Hossler et al. note that this term crops up often in the literature, but without there being any one definition. ‘Grit’ would appear to refer to the ability to overcome obstacles and to show resilience and a stubborn determination to succeed.

After the so-called performance factors there are the nonacademic factors that fall under the category of ‘attitudes’. Here we have ethical or moral convictions, the individual’s self-concept, and such traits as flexibility and intercultural sensitivity. If the university in question has a predominant ‘ethos’ or value scheme, the obvious question is whether the applicant will fit in or be out of place.