College Bound: Academic Criteria for Admission

Author: Maria Finan


College Bound is the Notre Dame admissions podcast. Episode 2: Academic Criteria provides an overview of the academic information we consider when reviewing applications. Listen to the episode or read a transcript.

We’ve talked about holistic and contextual review, but you’re still probably wondering what else we’ll be looking at in your application. In short, we look at everything; hence the term “holistic review.”

To give you a sense of what that includes, I’m going to focus on the academic factors of our review process. We’ll cover the non-academic pieces next week.

Academic Rigor

When reviewing your academics, the first thing we’re going to look at is the rigor of your coursework. We like to see students challenging themselves academically, across the disciplines.

Every high school differs a bit in what it offers, so we always look at rigor based on what is available to you. At some high schools the International Baccalaureate curriculum is the most rigorous curriculum offered. At other high schools, advanced placement (AP) courses are the most rigorous. We also see schools that offer dual enrollment courses, honors courses, or other challenging curriculums. 

Based on what your high school offers, you should choose a curriculum that will help you prepare for and demonstrate your readiness to do work at the collegiate level. It is important to take care of yourself, so we do like to remind students that just because your high school offers 40 AP courses does not mean you should try to take 40 AP courses. Balance is important (and so is sleep)!

Classroom Performance

It’s important to make sure your curriculum is challenging, but not so challenging that you are unable to excel in the classroom. We will look at your grades, your GPA, and your class rank (if you high school provides it). Many schools use drastically different grading scales, so we will look at your GPA in the context of your high school. We do not put all students on the same GPA scale; rather, we look at what information is provided by your high school to get a sense of how you are doing academically.

Keep in mind, it’s not just important to do well in your classes, but also to take the right classes. For example, you need to take at least two years of a foreign language (American Sign Language does not count), and four years of English. Some majors in the STEM fields require additional, or specific math and science courses. Be sure to check the requirements here.

Test Scores (Optional—yes, really!)

Lastly, you can submit the SAT or ACT, if you so choose. For the 2020-2021 school year, we are test-optional. This is a provisional year, which means we will review this policy to decide whether or not that will be the case in future years.

We have gotten a lot of questions about test-optional and whether or not it is really optional. YES, we really mean that it is OPTIONAL!

You can test, and submit your scores. Or test, and not submit your scores. You may not be able to test due to safety or access issues (which is completely okay). You may have tested a while ago, and that score may not represent your full academic potential, so you may opt not to submit that test score. Or maybe you only tested once, and you don’t want to submit that score. 

Regardless of why you choose not to submit a test score, please know that you are not disadvantaged in our process. Without a test, we will still automatically review you for our merit scholarships and honors program. There is no program, major, school, scholarship, or anything else that requires a test score! When we say optional, we mean optional.

If you have a test score, and you want to submit it, you certainly can! We know that some of you do have a test score that you are proud of, or that represents your academic potential. We would love to have you share that with us if that is the case. The choice is up to you! 

Please don’t reach out asking us whether or not you should submit your test score. It is one piece of your application, and we couldn’t possibly advise you without seeing your whole application. Your high school counselor or parents/guardians will likely have some good advice for you, so consider asking them for their input. You can also read our FAQs.

One final note on testing, you do NOT need to submit SAT II Subject Tests, or AP scores. The only testing required is for international students whose native language is not English. Learn more about international application requirements.

Final Thoughts

We know that the pandemic has been disruptive to your schooling and your lives, and that’s to be expected. As is the case for your whole application, context is important, and so is who you are as a person (hence the non-academic part of our review process). If there is something about your application that relates to COVID-19 that needs more explanation, please use that section on the application to briefly convey any information that will provide us with helpful context.

If you’re looking for even more insight into our holistic review process, you can learn more about our evaluation criteria. Take a deep breath, keep working hard, and have fun! 

Whether you’re a freshman just beginning your college search, or a senior preparing your application, please know that we’re rooting for you. We can’t wait to read your application!

Maria Finan is an admissions counselor with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She is the regional counselor for Colorado and parts of California. Read Maria's profile.