Common Data Set 101

The Common Data Set can be a great tool for researching colleges and universities. You can learn what a Common Data Set is by reading the post that I wrote yesterday:

Researching Colleges With the Common Data Set

Today I’m going to explore how you can use the Common Data Set to gain insights into what admission officers are looking for at an individual school. For this example, I’m going to use Cal Tech’s CDS.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Obtain a school’s Common Data Set.

To do that, you’ll want to Google the name of a school and “Common Data Set” to find the document. As I mentioned yesterday, most schools post their Common Data Sets on their websites. Look for a school’s latest CDS. By now, most schools have posted this document for the 2009-2010 school year.

The document will either be saved as a PDF or an Excel spreadsheet.

2. Head to Section C.

Section C of every Common Data Set is going to be titled, First-Time, First-year (Freshman) Admission.

You’re going to discover lots of statistics about a school’s latest crop of freshmen including SAT/ACT scores and grade point averages. These are the sort of stats that you can find if you buy those big thick collegiate guides from Princeton Review, Fiske and elsewhere, but any Common Data Set will provide more in-depth numbers.

Statistics that can be particularly revealing in this section involve the acceptance rates of men and women. Sometimes the gender acceptance rates are very similar at colleges, but sometimes they differ dramatically. That’s the case with Cal Tech.

For the 2009-2010 admission season, 3,318 men applied to Cal Tech and 390 men were admitted. That’s an acceptance rate of 11.7%. In contrast, only 1,095 women applied and 284 were accepted. That’s an acceptance rate of 25.9%. Obviously, women have an advantage at this school where 58% of the students are men. You will see this same phenomenon if you look at MIT’s Common Data Set.

3. Check Out Basis for Selection

We’re still in Section C, but I want you to scroll down to line C6. Here is where every school shares what academic and nonacademic factors the institution weighs — or doesn’t weigh — when making admission decisions.

The schools ranks a total of 19 factors in four ways:

  • Very important
  • Important
  • Considered
  • Not Considered

It’s rare to see a school rate only one factor as very important, but that’s the case with Cal Tech. That one factor is the rigor of secondary school record. I’d interpret this to mean that if a student didn’t take a lot of Advanced Placement or other comparably rigorous classes, you can forget about this school.

Cal Tech considered seven factors important:

  • Class rank
  • Academic GPA
  • Standardized test scores
  • Application essay
  • Recommendations
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Character/personal qualities

It can also be interesting to see what a school doesn’t care about. Cal Tech, for instance,  does not consider whether a applicant has expressed interest in the school before applying. The school also doesn’t care about interviews or what state a student resides.

In contrast, some schools favor applicants who have visited their campus, had an interview and requested materials. That’s referred to as “demonstrated interest.” Some schools also give brownie points to students who live outside their  state or region.

There’s a lot more to discover in any school’s Common Data Set. In my next post, I’m going to share some additional ways to examine a school’s Common Data Set.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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