Quintessential Careers:
The College/Graduate School Admissions
Domino Effect

The College/Graduate School Admissions Domino Effect

  • Grades/G.P.A./Class Ranking
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Activities/Experience
  • Application Essay
  • Recommendations

by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.

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  • The College/Graduate School Admissions Domino Effect states that there are five key steps of applying and getting accepted to the colleges or graduate schools of your choice. If you ignore any one of the steps, or do one poorly, then the likelihood of getting accepted decreases dramatically -- just as if you pulled a domino out of a chain of dominos.

    The five phases of a successful college/grad school application:

    Grades/G.P.A./Class Ranking

    Grades matter. There's no question that your grade point average (weighted or unweighted) is a key part of the admissions equation. Admissions committees view your grades as future indicators of how likely you are to succeed in undergraduate or graduate classes.

    Because just about all colleges and universities use grades as part of a scoring index, if your grades are weak, you'll need to compensate for this problem by performing at a much higher level on one or more standardized admissions tests.

    If there were extenuating circumstances, such as the need to support yourself or your family, a serious illness, or other life-altering event, you should be thorough in explaining the situation on your applications.

    Finally, it's also important to note that grades in traditional "college prep" courses are often weighted more heavily than easier classes; and challenging yourself with advanced courses (such as AP or IB) are often given the greatest weight.

    If you are looking for help with grades -- in high school or beyond -- we recommend reading our sister Website, MyCollegeSuccessStory.com.

    Standardized Test Scores

    You need to perform well on whatever standardized test -- SAT and ACT for undergraduate and GMAT for business, LSAT for law school, and MCAT for medical school -- is required for admission. Most schools -- or ratings of schools -- list score ranges of recently admitted students.

    And while some students, who now face a battery of standardized tests practically every year in school, should be quite adept at taking these kinds of tests, it makes sense to practice for these tests -- whether that means buying a book, using tutors, or taking a prep course.

    Always strive to do your best the first time, but know that you can take these tests repeatedly. Note, that while some schools will use your highest scores, others will take the average of your scores.

    Students looking for more help and resources related to standardized testing for undergraduate studies should visit our Standardized Testing Resources for Teens.

    Students looking for more help and resources related to standardized testing for various graduate programs should visit our Graduate School Resources.


    Undergraduate colleges like to see applicants who have shown leadership in one or more volunteer or extracurricular activities. Remember that quality is favored over quantity, thus do not to join as many clubs as possible, but show a deep and long-term commitment to one or two particular activities -- and be sure and take a leadership role in at least one of them.

    Graduate schools want to see both a passion and commitment to your field of study. The best programs require you to have experience in your field. For example, the best MBA programs do not admit applicants who do not have several years of work experience. Similarly, the best law schools and medical schools want to see you have had exposure to the legal and medical professions, respectively.

    Be sure to accurately portray your activities and experiences. And remember to provide detailed information about your activities/experience. Read more about positioning your experience by reading our article, Using Extracurricular Activities in College Applications.

    Application Essay

    If done properly, the application essay (or personal statement) is a chance for you cut through the other applications and make yourself stand apart from the other applicants. Some admissions counselors make initial judgments about an application's strength and standing by grading the personal statement before any other part of the application.

    Remember that while you can't go back and change your grades, class rank, or standardized test scores, you can control the quality of your application essay. Use the key tools of writing and rewriting and editing to produce a gleaming document.

    Your application essay should show self-awareness, honesty, and depth. Avoid ego-driven autobiographies, lying or exaggerating about circumstances, or having an essay that is a bit too polished for your writing skills. On the other hand, be extremely certain that your essay is completely void of typos, misspellings, and writing style errors.

    Get lots of tips, guidance, and resources in our Writing the College Application Essay or Writing the Graduate School Application Essay.


    This last domino is as important as the first; strong recommendations are a critical part -- perhaps the most critical part -- of the college application. Persuasive letters of recommendation -- ones that gush about the applicant -- can turn the heads of the admissions committee while average letters -- ones that could be written about any good student -- can raise doubts.

    There are definitely strategies in choosing the two or three people you are going to ask to write letters of recommendation. One of the keys is asking people who really know you and your potential. Read more suggestions in our article, Four Steps To Getting Perfect College Recommendations.

    Final Thoughts

    See also our article, Make Your College Application Shine: Six Strategies for Success.

    Grades/G.P.A./Class Ranking Standardized Test Scores
    Application Essay Recommendations

    For more information about pursuing an education, please visit our College Planning Resources, full of information, tools, and resources for students of all ages and types.

    Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

    QuintCareers.com Founder Dr. Randall Hansen Dr. Randall S. Hansen is founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web, as well CEO of EmpoweringSites.com. He is also founder of MyCollegeSuccessStory.com and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press, including the Quintessential Careers electronic newsletter, QuintZine. Dr. Hansen is also a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He's often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally, Dr. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal Website or reach him by email at randall(at)quintcareers.com.