Illustration: Gary Neill

Inside BC Admissions

It’s never been more difficult to get into Boston College. We spoke with John Mahoney ’79, vice provost for enrollment management, about how the selection process works, and what students can do to make their application stand out.

For the first time ever, Boston College this year surpassed 40,000 undergraduate applications...for 2,300 spots in the Class of 2026. As BC has continued to climb the rankings, becoming ever more selective in the process, many alumni have wondered about the state of admissions at the University. What does it take to get into BC these days? What is the future of standardized testing in the application process? What is Early Decision, and how does it work? To answer these questions and many more, we sat down with John Mahoney, vice provost for enrollment management. We asked him about how the applicant pool at BC has changed through the years, how applicants are evaluated, and what they can do to stand apart from the crowd.

There’s much more to this conversation. To listen to the entire Boston College Magazine podcast, click here

BC seems to regularly set new records for the number of undergraduate applications it receives.
Last year we had a 35 percent increase in applications. That was largely driven by the fact that, because of the pandemic, we made it optional for students to submit standardized test scores. This year was also test-optional. The applications increase was more modest, 2 percent, but we still set a record with 40,400 applications for the Class of 2026, which will have 2,300 students.

What do those numbers tell us about BC’s selectivity? When all is said and done, we’ll offer admission to about 6,500 students in order to enroll that class of 2,300. In other words, we’ll admit about 15 percent of the applicant pool. That will be a new record. The most capable students are seeking the best academic institutions in the country, and BC is in that universe now. We’re one of those schools they aspire to.

Will standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT continueto be an optional part of BC’s application process? I don’t know what the future holds, but test-optional is something we’ve committed to for one more year. We’ve not committed to it beyond that. We’re doing research right now. We’ve kept standardized testing because we do believe that it adds value—it’s not the be all, end all in evaluating applications, but tests are a good predictor of success in the freshman year. For the Class of 2026, 43 percent of applicants chose to submit standardized test results. For the Class of 2025, which just completed its freshman year, half submitted scores and half did not. We’re researching how they did—we’ve looked at their first-semester GPAs, for example, by submitters versus non-submitters. We’ll continue that study into the next academic year.

What is the profile of a student who’s accepted to BC these days? Test scores during the pandemic have been skewed because those who choose to submit are likely to have high scores, but the mean SAT score for students who submitted scores and were admitted to the Class of 2026 was 1,484. And the mean ACT was 34, with 36 being the maximum score. So for students looking to apply to the contemporary Boston College, I think good guideposts are SAT scores of at least 1,400 to 1,450, and minimum ACT scores of 33 to 34. Does that mean students should not apply if they’re below those levels? It doesn’t mean that at all. What it does mean is that the other aspects of the application—the grades, the rigor of the program, the AP courses—need to be strong.

Those are very high bars. How does the challenge of being accepted to BC today compare with years past? The competition is much higher today than it was when I became director of admission in 1990. But I would go back even farther, to when I was a student here from 1975 to 1979. There is just no question that the caliber of student today is greater than it was at that time. Look, I got a first-rate education here at Boston College. There were professors who changed my life. But BC was a different institution then. It drew some students from outside the Northeast, but it was mostly a regional institution. I was a commuter for all four years here, and BC really didn’t have housing available for students who lived locally. But we couldn’t stay regional. The overall number of high school graduates has plummeted. When I graduated from BC in 1979, there were 3.2 million high school graduates in the country. By the time I became director of admission, the first couple of years were down to 2.4 million. And the biggest drop-off was in the Northeast. So BC had to begin to recruit nationally and internationally. From a demographic standpoint, that was just sheer survival. But the other thing that was happening concurrently was that BC’s academic reputation was steadily rising.

What does BC’s emergence as an elite institution mean for the children of alumni? Some additional consideration is extended to children of alumni in the admissions process, but it’s inevitable that we’re going to disappoint some young people who come from BC families. Boston College has become one of the nation’s premier universities. As alumni, we are proud of that. We celebrate it. We also have to recognize that as selectivity has gone up so much, it’s become much more challenging for our own children who were raised on the BC tradition to get in.

Portrait of John Mahoney

John Mahoney Photo: Lee Pellegrini

Beyond grades and test scores, what are the more subjective qualities you’re looking for in an applicant? Believe me, this evaluation is holistic. The numbers are just the first pass. Next, we look at the human being behind the numbers.

So how do you get a sense of that human being? We get it from teacher and guidance counselor testimonials, but we get it from the students, too, in the form of essays—the personal statements are critically important. BC is a member of the Common Application, so there’s a Common Application essay. But we also ask a BC-specific essay question that’s aligned with our mission and identity. The BC Admission website lists those questions for students interested in applying to Boston College.

What makes for an effective essay? I have read tens of thousands of admissions essays—I’ve got a manila folder on my desk where I’ve saved some of the very best I’ve seen. The essay is a way to distinguish yourself from thousands of other qualified and deserving students, and I think the single best piece of advice that I can give is, tell us a story about yourself. It should be self-revealing, not self-glorifying. And don’t overthink it. These stories comprise what I call the family folklore. They’re the stories that you and your family laugh about, cry about, have told over and over. They’re stories of adversity, stories of success, stories of failure. Choose one and tell us that story. Because the essay is a vehicle for you to tell us something meaningful and important about you.

What sets the essays in your folder apart from the thousands of others you’ve read? Let me give you an example of a great one. Here’s the opening sentence, which I’ve never forgotten: “Everybody saw it and laughed.” I was hooked right away. This young lady used that opening sentence to tell a story about an elementary school poster project. This student had been assigned to make a poster about North Carolina. Now keep in mind her opening sentence—“Everybody saw it and laughed.” She went on to describe that, unlike many of her classmates, she had done everything by herself. She had cut out the picture of the state bird and the state flag. She’d written down the motto. She’d used Elmer’s glue. So the poster was a little bumpy, the writing was a little off kilter, but she’d done the whole thing herself. Now on the day of the presentation, there were all of these other posters, glorious laser-printed ones that clearly had the fingerprints not of young elementary school students—you know whose fingerprints they were. But this young lady took pride in the fact that there was no parental involvement with her poster. Yet she described people walking by and giving disdainful stares at her self-made poster. They were laughing at it. But she was proud anyway. She’d done it herself. She wrote that she had always been independent and outspoken, following her own path. Her parents had given her that kind of freedom. She said that she was going to push things, and that the poster project revealed the kind of independent-minded, strong-willed young woman that she saw herself as. I could see the person behind the words. She told me what we would be getting if we enrolled this young woman. And to this day, I think about her poster. That’s a final piece of advice: Have a lingering image from the story that will remain with the reader.

Are there specific extracurricular activities that make anapplicant stand out? We’re not going to dictate to you the things you should be doing. We want to see what you’ve done, what you’ve made your own, and what you are going to bring to the Boston College community. So let me dispel any notion that there’s a formula we’re looking for. You decide what you’re interested in. Colleges don’t dictate that. BC is proud to be a Division I sports institution. I like to think of us also as a Division I arts institution. We’re looking for great musicians. We’re looking for people who can make contributions to the debate team. We’re looking for students who’ll be writers for the literary magazine. And we’re hoping that students have some understanding of and appreciation for what Jesuit education is about. So when the admissions office is reviewing applications, that’s the way we approach the process.

BC introduced the Early Decision option to the application process a few years ago. What is Early Decision? Early Decision requires a binding commitment from students. They sign that, if admitted via Early Decision, they will enroll at BC and withdraw all other college applications. So it’s a big decision. The first Early Decision class was enrolled in 2020, and we’re getting ready for our third class. About 50 percent of the incoming freshman class applied via Early Decision. We have two rounds: Early Decision I in November and Early Decision II in January. The second round is for students who were not admitted to their top-choice institution during Early Decision I and view BC as their clear next choice.

Students who apply Early Decision are committing to attend BC even before knowing whether they will receive financial aid. Does that favor students from wealthier backgrounds? It’s a good question. Obviously, if you’re making a commitment, you have to know that you can afford to pay the significant costs of higher education these days. Fortunately, Boston College is one of just twenty-one need-blind institutions in the country that meet the full demonstrated financial need of every student we accept. If you’re from a more middle-income or lower-income family, if you’ve decided that BC is the place for you, we hope that you’ll take that Early Decision leap because we’re confident that we can come up with a financial aid package that will make it affordable for you. It’s a matter of institutional priority here to make a BC education affordable to great students from all kinds of financial backgrounds. About 40 percent of our undergraduate students receive institutional need-based grants. In the academic year of 2021–2022, we spent $160 million on need-based grants. There are nowork-study jobs or loans factored into that amount—that’s pure institutional money. So roughly $35 million to $40 million a year per class. The annual operating budget here is about $1 billion, so that’s more than 10 percent of the operating budget. 

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