Applications for Fall 2016 are in and aspiring BYU students will begin to find out if their extra efforts were enough. College applications have been the focus for most potential BYU students. Family, friends and school advisers have most likely bombarded them with the “how-to-get-into BYU list,” but the list may be rumors instead of factual advice.
Amanda Ayre, a sophomore studying business, said she was emotional when she found out she was accepted into BYU.
“I wasn’t sure if I would get in,” Ayre said. “It wasn’t natural for me that I was going to get in. I purposely took AP classes so that it would look good on BYU’s transcript and took an ACT class to prepare me. I had to work really hard.”
Grades, ACT scores, Advanced Placement (AP) classes, extra-curricular activities and seminary graduations are among the list of “should do’s” that potential students refer to as their key to get into BYU.
However, despite the hard work, there is no guarantee that admission will be granted. Among the stress of applying for higher education, BYU students-to-be are also plagued with the fears that could keep them from becoming a Cougar.
Taylor Zundel, a junior at BYU, said she was nervous she wouldn’t be accepted when she was applying.
“I had heard rumors that if you lived in Utah it was harder to get in,” Zundel said. “I felt like my grades and ACT scores were just average for BYU, so I was nervous I wouldn’t get in.”
Students seem to agree there are many ideas and rumors that circulate about BYU admissions, how it works and what exactly can get them into BYU.
Rumor #1: Applying for Summer Term increases a student’s chances of getting into BYU.
Applying for summer does not increase a student’s chances of being accepted. Todd Hollingshead, BYU media relations manager, said all admissions are done equally. The same criteria and methods used to accept students into Fall Semester are used in Summer Term as well. However, students who are accepted and attend Summer Term will be considered first for fall on-campus housing accommodations and class registration.
Rumor #2: You must meet a certain ACT score to be admitted into BYU.
While the average ACT score for freshmen students last year was 28.95, there is not a minimum score requirement. The ACT score is part of the student’s overall academic record. This record also includes the student’s high school GPA which is considered “the foundation and central focus of admission decisions,” according to the BYU admissions website.
The admissions website stated “BYU is looking for students who are accomplished in a variety of areas — not just academics.” Hollingshead recalled sessions where he has seen the admissions counselors discuss students who were accepted that had lower ACT scores but a better overall application for the university.
Rumor #3: The essays are the most important part of the application.
The entire application is important, but when it comes to setting individual students apart from the competitive numbers, the essays carry a lot of weight in acceptance consideration.
Hollingshead said students who are applying to BYU are very competitive.
“They’re all extremely excellent in academics and have extra-curricular activities that they’re involved in,” Hollingshead said. “When you look at yourself in comparison to other high school students maybe you’re right at the top, but for applicants at BYU, you’re all right at the top.”
The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2011 State of College Admission report showed private colleges assigned greater importance to essays and writing than public colleges did.
“Trying to separate yourself is really the challenge and that’s why essays can be important,” Hollingshead said.
Rumor #4: It’s harder to get into BYU now than it was a couple of years ago.
About 50 percent of applicants were accepted in 2015 — that is higher than the percentage of students accepted in both 2013 and 2014. However, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “the national average acceptance rate had been decreasing slightly, from 69.6 percent in 2003 to 63.9 percent in 2013.” The association also included that institutions are considered to be most selective if they accept less than 50 percent of applicants.
Rumor #5: If students didn’t go to seminary, they can’t get in.
Seminary graduation could improve a student’s chances of being accepted, but it is not necessary. In 2015, 96.2 percent of students who were accepted into BYU had graduated from the four-year seminary program according to the BYU Admissions website. The Admissions Council considers the ecclesiastical endorsement and then academic records. Then each application is evaluated according to seminary attendance, service, leadership, personal essays, individual talents, creativity, AP/IB courses taken and unique or special circumstances, as well as other factors that enhance the individual’s application to BYU.
Rumor #6: If students live in Utah, their chances of getting in are lower.
Based on an answer on the BYU admissions website to this question, “there are no quotas for any race, religion, country of origin, state of origin or any other demographic. The only limitation is the overall number of students we are able to admit each semester.”
Morgan is from Draper, Utah. She is currently attending Brigham Young University and majoring in Journalism. She is hoping to work for an online paper one day.
The concept of “best fit” resonates fervently among college and university campuses across the country. Research shows 77% of college freshmen applied for admission to at least three colleges or universities. More than 28% of students submitted seven or more applications (NACAC, 2014). But students are not alone in hoping for the best fit in a particular college environment. Increasingly, colleges seem concerned with identifying, admitting, and enrolling students who ultimately represent a particular campus. Further attention to selectivity and yield rates has contributed to wide implementation of holistic admission review philosophies. Application essays, recommendations, extracurricular evaluations, student portfolios, and the like are just a few of the methodologies today’s admission offices utilize. The endgame, ideally, is facilitating a dynamic merger of student-and-campus wherein enrichment, for both parties, is realized.
BYU Institutional Background
Owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Brigham Young University occupies a unique niche in the landscape of higher education. The Provo, Utah, campus is home to more than 30,000 students. While 98% of the student body are members of the LDS church, every student participates in ecclesiastical interviews as part of the initial application process and then annually as a condition of continuing enrollment. The endorsement is a fundamental factor in admission and subsequent matriculation. However, other academic and non-academic elements are included in BYU’s admission evaluation. While holistic admission policies have been fashionable and productive at many colleges and universities, BYU, established in 1875, has long been mindful of more than academic merit.
Quantity of Applications. As a private, faith-based university, “best fit” is an especially important component in admission selection. Specifically, adherence to the University’s Honor Code, academic excellence, and social influence are core areas wherein applicants can demonstrate an ability to assimilate and thrive at Brigham Young. It’s the charge of the University to attract, admit, and retain these students. With a firm enrollment cap, at a time when competition to attend BYU has never been greater (13,000 fall applicants, 54% admission rate, 28.8 ACT average, U.S. News’ Most Popular University title four of the last six years), the holistic review has taken on an increasingly significant role.
Over the last decade, BYU has seen over a 50% increase in applications, from roughly 8,500 in 2005 to 13,000 in 2014. Utah, BYU’s top feeder state, expects a 31% increase in the number of high school seniors by 2022, the second largest gain in the country (NACAC, 2014). Other states ranking high for an expected increase in high school seniors also place as top 10 feeders to BYU (Nevada, #1 for expected increase – 35%; Texas, #3 – 28%; Colorado, #4 – 25%). Additionally, there is similar growth expected in the U.S. LDS population of high school seniors. The current and projected rise in the number of BYU applicants places added emphasis on the admission selection process.
Quality of Applications. While recognizing the demand for admission to BYU, the quality of academic success seems to be mirroring the increase in application quantity. For example, Table 1 illustrates the academic comparisons between the fall 2007 admitted class with the recently admitted class of 2014.
While the increase in academic achievement is noticeable, BYU recognizes there is more to the college experience, especially at a faith-based institution where overall campus engagement is a priority. The University’s admissions process should – and does – reflect the need to consider other strengths and potential contributions outside of the classroom.
Non-Academic Admissions Factors
While both the sheer quantity and academic quality of applications to BYU continue to surge, the University’s mission remains closely tied to its sponsoring organization. Ecclesiastical fit is the primary factor in admission consideration. In this regard, grades and test scores matter little if the ecclesiastical endorsement indicates a worrisome match.
But perhaps more applicable to the general population of college and university campuses across the country, other important variables are strongly considered in BYU’s holistic admission evaluation. The balance of this article will focus on two specific factors: evaluating extracurricular activities, and assessing the essay section of the student application.
Extracurricular Activities. According to the NACAC 2013 State of College Admissions report, the top 10 most important factors in rendering college admission decisions were the following:
- Grades in college prep courses
- Strength of curriculum
- Admission test scores (ACT, SAT)
- Grades in all courses
- Essay or writing sample*
- Student’s demonstrated interest*
- Counselor recommendation*
- Teacher recommendation*
- Class rank
- Extracurricular activities*
While the top four factors are academic indicators, five of the next six elements (noted by asterisks) take into account much different variables. The weighting of extracurricular activities varies from campus to campus, as does the method of evaluating such activities. The Common Application, for example, asks applicants to list extracurricular activities in the order of interest to the applicant. This exercise is mostly free flowing and dependent upon the applicant’s ability to prioritize and weight activities. More importantly, the applicant must also discern what would be most impressive to the colleges. BYU’s model differs in that the University lists 63 specific activities, divided by activity type (Athletics, Service, Employment, Military, Music/Performing Arts, etc.). The applicant is then invited to review the list and simply check the appropriate box if he or she has participated in that particular activity. The 63 selected activities are meant to align with the University’s aims and mission. Here is an example of the School Leadership section of the BYU extracurricular activities review:
School (These may apply to high school or college)
- Served as an officer of an official school club
- Served as Chief Editor of school website or other major publication
- Served as captain of a varsity athletic team
- Served as student body officer of entire school
- Served as class president (of freshman, sophomore etc. class)
- Served as student body president of entire school
For some activities, if the box is checked, a pop-up window will appear, asking for further information in an effort to provide additional context.
While it may seem an exercise in “whoever checks the most boxes wins”, BYU recognizes that not all activities are created equal. Depth will outweigh breadth. Focused and singular accomplishments in a particular domain will be more meaningful than surface involvement in several types of activities. Leadership opportunities are especially commendable.
In addition to simply checking boxes, the applicant is also asked to complete a Noteworthy Accomplishments section, with the following instructions:
“You may use the following boxes to either expand upon a listed activity or introduce an unlisted experience. This is by no means required, but can only serve to your advantage to complete. We encourage you to write about experiences that are meaningful to you personally. Please include the months and years of participation and the total hours spent, and limit explanations to no more than 100 words or 500 characters. In excess will not be visible.”
A series of five free-writing sections allows for the applicant to provide, in 100 words or less, additional information regarding specific activities of their choosing. By combining the “checked boxes” approach with the “mini-essay” approach, BYU has a method of evaluating extracurricular involvement at both quantitative and qualitative levels. The University’s application readers see both the checked boxes and the written comments as the application is evaluated.
The Importance of Essays. As previously noted in the NACAC study, applicant essays are the leading non-academic factor in a college’s admission decision. Of the responding colleges, 58% listed essays as having “considerable” or “moderate” importance. For BYU, the essays are used less as an indicator of college-writing proficiency, but more as a glimpse into the applicant’s background and worldview. When reading essays, BYU instructs its evaluators on the principle, “Content over form.”
BYU typically asks applying freshmen to answer three questions. During the fall 2014 cycle, freshmen answered an essay question about a trial or character building experience he or she has shouldered. The second question addressed specific reasons for applying to BYU. The third essay was one wherein the prompt simply asked if there was anything else the applicant wanted the admissions committee to know and consider.
Each essay provides its own meaning in the BYU admissions process. The character building essay can, among other things, provide context for some perceived deficiencies in the application. Perhaps there was a noticeable absence in the depth and breadth of extracurricular activities, but the essay reveals significant health struggles or multiple moves by the family. The last essay (the Anything Else? essay) allows for the applicant to address a myriad of potential topics, depending on what’s important to the individual. Students have often provided more information about an endured trial. Some applicants share further insights into an absorbing extracurricular activity. Others have submitted poetry, original music compositions, a short story, and so on. Some of the admissions committee’s most memorable essays are derived from the Anything Else? prompt.
Regarding the second essay which addresses why applicants are applying to BYU, early results from longitudinal institutional research (BYU, 2010) show a correlation between high levels of campus engagement and identified reasons for selecting BYU as a preferred choice for college. While there may be many reasons for choosing to apply to BYU, some are more meaningful than others. As members of the admissions committee read and evaluate this particular essay, alignment with institutional values is stressed. When alignment occurs, there is an increased likelihood of a more robust campus experience, in and out of the classroom. When campus engagement is a goal, the admissions application can be an instrument to discern the student’s potential to contribute to that end.
The idea that the college years are more than simply earning grades and diplomas would likely resonate with most people. If the college experience itself is more than an exercise in academic prowess, the admissions process to attend college should reflect as much. The holistic nature of BYU’s admissions process has allowed access for students who normally would not be competitive for admission based on standard academic measures, yet are predicted to contribute to the campus in meaningful ways. While the student may feel fortunate to be admitted, the University certainly feels privileged to welcome those who manifest potential to make a significant impact on campus and also appreciate their time in the distinctive environment. Of the various rankings assigned to the BYU experience, it’s perhaps the institution’s positions in the top 10 of If I Could Do It All Over Again and Best Overall Student Experience (niche.com) that resonate most. Earning the Princeton Review’s #1 Most Stone Cold Sober title for the 17th straight year isn’t far behind!
A holistic admission review can mean more than selecting an applicant based on a variety of contributing factors; holistic can also denote examining the potential long-term relationship of the applicant to the university. An admissions committee is not only admitting a freshman class, it’s admitting someone’s roommate, admitting the following year’s sophomores, future graduates, an alumni base, and a cadre of students who may carry the college’s name for a lifetime. The time spent on the front end of the process is well-worth the endeavor.
National Association for College Admissions Counseling. (2014). 2013 State of College Admission. Retrieved from http://www.nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Pages/default.aspx
Niche.com. Brigham Young University Rankings. (2014). Retrieved from http://colleges.niche.com/brigham-young-university/rankings/
Smith-Barrow, Delece. (2014, January). National Universities Where Accepted Students Usually Enroll. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2014/01/30/national-universities-where-accepted-students-usually-enroll
Thompson, Carolyn. (2014, August). BYU keeps No. 1 ‘stone-cold sober’ title in Princeton Review; Syracuse is top party school. Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/58259349-78/university-college-princeton-review.html.csp
BYU Institutional Assessment & Analysis. (2010). BYU Freshman Surveys Combined Report. Provo, UT: Author.
Travis Blackwelder is the Associate Director of Admissions at Brigham Young University. He has been employed at BYU for 11 years. Travis earned his bachelor’s degree from BYU and a master’s degree from Harvard University.
Author’s Note: I would like to acknowledge that BYU’s Dr. Norman Finlinson, Executive Director of Student Academic and Advisement Services, and R. Kirk Strong, Director of Admission Services, were co-presenters at the recent AACRAO Annual Meeting in Denver.
Editor’s Note: An expanded version of this article, including specific implementation measures and how nonacademic factors are assimilated into the holistic admission review process, will appear in a future issue of AACRAO’s College and University.