You gotta have the stats. Students have to have the desired objective criteria, i.e., the grades and the test scores, to get in.
But there will be lots of applicants with the same, or even better, grades and test scores. So the question is always, "How do students set themselves apart?"
Here's what colleges are looking at once they determine that a student has the academic chops:
Colleges weigh the subjective criteria differently, but the most selective colleges put more emphasis on the essay. It's the student's best opportunity to share his personality, demonstrate his ability to think critically and write well, and convince admissions that he will bring something special to campus.
Fewer and fewer colleges offer students the opportunity to have an evaluative interview. Many colleges provide what's referred to as an "informational" interview, but it does not factor into the college admissions decision. Very few schools require an interview. If the student lives within driving distance, it is expected he will come to campus for the interview. Skype interviews are used for students who live far away.
This is a relatively new concept being embraced by an interesting variety of small- to mid-size colleges and universities. College rankings are based in part on a college's yield; this is the percentage of students who say "yes, I'm coming" after mulling over all their acceptances.
Colleges have entire "Enrollment Management" departments that crunch numbers to calculate exactly who will attend if accepted. Harvard, Princeton and Yale rejected between 92 and 94 percent of their applicants but had yield ranges of 65-80 percent. That means that 20-35 percent of the students accepted at these schools chose to go elsewhere.
Colleges have figured out that if a student visits, sits in on a class, sends a thank-you note, makes a connection with an admissions representative either at his high school or at a college fair, requests an interview, etc., it means he's interested. These behaviors demonstrate a greater likelihood that he'll attend than the "stealth" applicant who has never set foot on campus or communicated with the admissions office.
Students need to inquire if the colleges they're interested in value "demonstrated interest." If they do, it is important that the student make sure the college tracks his communication, which may mean registering when he attends a campus visit because it will be logged into his application folder. Some colleges ask what contact a student has had with the college on the application itself.