According to the NACA State of College Admissions Report, there are three big factors for admissions (on average). These are your grades, how challenging of a curriculum you took, and your test scores. About 80% of admission officers reported that a student’s grades on their core academic classes were important. Your core classes would be math, science, english and not electives. Roughly 68% of admission officers would rate the overall curriculum you took as important. They are asking, did this person challenge themselves. Now if you look at more prestigious schools that have an acceptance rate below 50% then this grows to about 83% in importance. The survey also showed that 59% of admission officers would report test scores such as the SAT or the ACT as important in their decision. Obviously, the more prestigious the school, the higher this percentage rose. There are many other factors that are looked at such as essays.
Essays are increasingly becoming more important to all campuses but the previous three are more important. This is just an average estimation. Each college and university has their own admittance standard and priorities. The trick is in figuring out exactly which priority is highest. Generally speaking, if you have good grades in core classes, too a challenging curriculum and have decent test scores, you should be good.
When looking at your extracurricular activities, essay, work history, and achievements; schools are looking for a number of things. Specifically they want people with some initiative, leadership, and a sense of social responsibility. Many are looking for a willingness to take risks and a commitment to service, or some sort of talent or ability. Schools want a diverse group of students. Of course they want valedictorians but they also want those whom will involve themselves with various extracurricular activities, sports, music, and more. In general, they want well rounded intelligent people. If you can show that, then your chances in getting into the school of your choice are good.