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6 Reasons Why You Should be Using the Common Data Set

The Common Data Set (CDS) is a data collection tool intended to increase college admissions transparency and ensure that data on all colleges and universities are made easily accessible.  


The initiative is partnered with the three main organizations in the higher education community and college admissions data — College Board, US News & World Reports, and Petersen’s. These affiliations mean that the CDS is reliable and highly-respected, and contains the most salient information to know as an Independent Educational Consultant. 


Note that the Common Data Set is an initiative, not a database itself. This standardized form is completed yearly by each participating college, who then independently release their data. You can typically find a school’s CDS form through a simple Google search; Princeton’s Office of Institutional Research also has a helpful page that provides the last 10 CDS reports from a wide range of top-ranked schools. 


What is featured in the Common Data Set?

The Common Data Set is broken into 10 main categories: General College Information, Enrollment and Persistence, Freshman Admissions, Transfer Admissions, Academic Offerings and Policies, Student Life, Annual Expenses, Financial Aid, Instructional Faculty & Class Size, and Degrees Conferred. Within these broad groups, there are multiple subcategories — data sections include details on student demographics, admitted student grades and testing scores, breakdowns on acceptance rates, and many more. 


The sheer amount of information included in Common Data Set reports can seem intimidating to parse through, especially since not all categories are particularly useful for IECs seeking to assist their students. In this post, we’ll review the 6 most useful features of the Common Data Set to employ in your admissions consulting business!


6 reasons to use the Common Data Set


1. Determine your students’ admission likelihood

The CDS provides college-specific information on the average GPA, standardized testing scores, class ranking, and other statistics on admitted students. General admissions information pages may include some of this information, but it is usually rather vague — most commonly only the 25th and 75th percentile of SAT and ACT scores are provided, and occasionally average GPAs as well. 


The Common Data Set includes far more detailed information than most online resources, breaking down admitted student statistics by percentage. Beyond providing the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile of standardized testing, the CDS lists the exact percentage of students who scored within a given score range (i.e. 500-599, 600-699, 700-800) for each individual section of the SAT. Similarly, percentages are given on admitted student GPAs and class rank, split by small intervals. This means that you’ll have incredibly detailed context in where your student lies within the general applicant pool, and precisely how many similar students a college typically admits. 


Although these data are by no means sufficient to calculate a student’s actual odds of admission, they do provide a highly detailed benchmark for a student’s overall position within the applicant pool. 


2. Identify areas to emphasize

A major benefit of the Common Data Set is the information it provides on colleges’ priorities in applicant evaluation —  colleges often emphasize certain aspects of a student’s profile, with significant variation between schools. 


Since not all elements are weighted equally, the relative importance of factors such as grades, essays, extracurriculars, testing scores, letters of recommendation, interviews, legacy status, and other factors may vary. This can contribute to both determining admission likelihood and the most important features of your students’ application. 


For example, if an otherwise strong applicant has a weak spot in extracurriculars but stellar standardized testing scores and grades, a strategic IEC should recommend schools that de-emphasize extracurriculars in favor of these more quantitative elements. 


A particularly important consideration is with interviews, which hold some of the greatest variability. While most schools do offer interviews, in some cases it is almost irrelevant in admissions decisions. At other schools, applicants who do not pursue an interview opportunity or make a poor impression can endanger their candidacy. For example, Princeton and Stanford state that they “consider” student interviews in admission decisions — the lowest priority ranking apart from “not considered.”  On the other hand, the University of Rochester states that interviews are an “Important” feature in candidate evaluation. 


Though this is a strategy worth pursuing, note that these are very subjective data that cannot be perfectly standardized across schools — Washington University in Saint Louis notably ranks every academic- and extracurricular-linked factor as “Very Important.”


3. Deferral and waitlist strategy

Of course, acceptances and rejections are not the only decisions applicants can receive from colleges. Perhaps even more stressful than outright rejection is being waitlisted. 


In these cases, students may ultimately be admitted to the school if an insufficient number of accepted students decline to enroll. However, waitlisted applicants have almost no context on what this means in reality, and whether they actually stand a chance. 


Of course, waitlist decisions put students — and IECs — in a stressful position. There is incredible uncertainty as to whether students have a chance of being admitted from the waitlist. Students will want guidance on their course of action — is it worth accepting a spot on the waitlist? What are the odds of gaining admission from the waitlist? How do schools decide which waitlisted applicants are admitted?


Although it’s impossible to accurately predict an individual waitlisted student’s results, the Common Data Set does include statistics that can give students a more realistic sense of their odds. On the Common Data Set, schools are asked to report the number of waitlisted students, the number of students who accept a spot on the waitlist, and how many students on the waitlist are ultimately accepted. 


There can be shockingly stark differences between schools, both in terms of how many students are waitlisted and the waitlist acceptance rate. For example, the last data released from CalTech indicated a 9% acceptance rate from the waitlist (15 of 167 students), a rate over three times higher than their overall acceptance rate of 2.7%. On the other hand, Princeton reported waitlisting 1348 applicants, none of whom were ultimately accepted. 


4. Circumvent unpublicized admissions data

Some colleges such as Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Cornell have begun to withhold data on yearly acceptance rates. While these schools frame their motivation as reducing student anxiety over admissions and preventing applicants from panicking over low acceptance rate, this has largely backfired in practice.  


Ambitious students want to approach the college application process strategically, which means knowing where they stand among other applicants. Even though schools may not publicize these data, they can still be found on the Common Data Set, helping students understand their odds at any given institution.


5. Track admissions trends over time

As acceptance rates drop and college applications become increasingly competitive, it may feel impossible to keep track of the admissions landscape. Similarly, with the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action and changes to standardized testing requirements, data on student demographics and SAT or ACT scores is increasingly in flux. 


Since colleges submit a new Common Data Set form for each admissions cycle, you’ll be able to track how these statistics change year-over-year. This will both ensure your recommendations are fully up-to-date and allow you to make predictions about ongoing trends to prepare you for upcoming cycles. 


6. Easily compare school statistics

Beyond the sheer amount of information IECs need to have on hand about a vast range of colleges, creating effective strategies for your students demands an ability to synthesize and compare these school-specific data as well. When you’re speaking with students about financial aid, acceptance rates, student demographics, or any other topic covered in this post, you typically won’t discuss each school in isolation. For example, if you’re helping a student fill out the FAFSA, you’ll want to ensure you can provide the same information about each school. 


Since the Common Data Set is a standardized form, you won’t need to worry about gaps in your knowledge about any school on your student’s list. Each school releases the exact same information, helping you to confidently answer each question you receive about each of your students’ schools.



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Alexej is a graduate of Princeton University, where he studied Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Humanities & Sciences. Alexej works in college admissions consulting, and is passionate about pursuing research at the intersection of humanities, linguistics, and psychology. He enjoys creative writing, hiking, and playing the piano.


Image Source: Common Data Set logo

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