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A hook, in college admissions parlance, is any advantage that makes you attractive to a particular college. This varies from school to school and from year to year. You may try to hide your hooks, preferring to be admitted on only your merit, or you may choose to fight furiously to exploit even your most inconsequential connections.

How hooks impact college acceptance

Having a hook can give you a higher rating from the get-go or even move your application from the deny pile into the admit (or waitlist) stack. They most often come into play when admission officers are judging equally qualified candidates. If a college has to select one of two students who look the same on paper and one is the child of an alumnus and the other is not, the child of the alumnus is probably going to be the one decorating a dorm room in the fall.

However, connections aren’t everything, especially if you don’t have the grades. In most cases, your connections won’t be enough to overcome a poor academic record. One college even turned down its own president’s son!

What hooks are important in the admission decision?

Wondering what hooks are most revered among admission officers? It varies, but some are pretty universal.

Alumni connections

Don’t assume that you’re a shoo-in just because your mom or dad went to your dream school, but you can expect that your folder will be reviewed very carefully. If you’re denied for any reason, the decision will be painful for the college.


Playing a sport can give you an excellent boost come admissions decision time. If you’re a superstar you can earn a full scholarship, but even a less exceptional track record can up the odds for your college acceptance. However, some students (and parents) overestimate the weight that athletic ability carries in the admission process and expect an athletic scholarship to be their financial saving grace. Don’t assume you’re getting an award until you get one.


Colleges normally give you the option of describing yourself as a member of one or more of these groups: American Indian or Alaskan Native; Black or African-American; Mexican-American or Chicano; Puerto Rican; Other Hispanic-American or Latin American; Asian American or Pacific Islander; or multiracial.

Many colleges aggressively recruit students from underrepresented minority populations, and financial aid opportunities are great. Most admission offices have a counselor who is in charge of this effort, and this person can serve as good source of information as well as an advocate in the admission decision process.

Talent in the arts

If you’re a painter, poet, musician, or perhaps a dancer, you can really make your application stand out — unless you’re applying to a specialty school in the arts. In that case, your talent must compete against the talent of all the other applicants. However if you’re applying to a more generalized institution, being an artist may balance any weaknesses in your application and may improve your chances of receiving a college admission letter.


At a public college or university, being an in-state resident is obviously a hook. At many institutions, coming from an underrepresented region can also be an advantage. Southeastern colleges love to see North Dakota and Montana zip codes on applications, while Southwestern schools welcome candidates from Vermont and Maine.

Some high schools are known as “feeder schools,” meaning that many students from that school typically apply and many may receive college admission letters. In such cases, your guidance counselor will be familiar with the college in question and can help predict how you may stack up.

The invisible hook
The admissions decision is not always clear. One reason that one student gets admitted to a particular college while a similar-seeming applicant does not can be due to a fuzzy factor known as “institutional needs.” These needs are likely to vary from college to college, and from year to year, and could relate to a host of factors — academic, athletic, or otherwise. Ultimately, the best way to prepare for this invisible hook is to apply to colleges to which you’re well suited.