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The college application process can seem pretty mysterious to the uninitiated.

But what colleges want from their applicants isn’t a secret. Schools telegraph what they’re after in the form of big data that’s available online to anyone.

High school students can use that data to apply where they will be strong candidates, boosting their chances of admission and financial aid. Here’s what to look for:

Use data to find your best match

Each year, colleges supply reams of admission and financial aid statistics, known as the Common Data Set, to satisfy the demands of various education publishers, says college consultant Lynn O’Shaughnessy. The information can be found by searching for the college’s name and the phrase “common data set,” or at college comparison sites such as CollegeData.

Among other figures, the statistics for each school include:

The cost to attend.

How much student loan debt the average graduate incurs.

What percentage of applicants are accepted.

Average grades and test scores of incoming freshmen.

At Stanford University, for example, 75 percent of incoming students for the 2016-2017 academic year scored 700 or above on their math SATs (the top score is 800), 94 percent had grade point averages above 3.75 and 95 percent ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

Top-flight grades and scores don’t guarantee entrance into any selective school, of course. Stanford accepts just 5 percent of those who apply. But knowing the stats of the incoming class can help students eliminate long-shot choices and focus on schools where they’re more likely to gain admission.

Target schools that want you

Having grades and test scores that are above the school’s average can help with both odds of admission and financial aid packages, college consultants say.

The best financial aid deals may come not from highly selective schools or large public universities, but from smaller liberal arts colleges that are trying harder to attract good applicants, says Vita Cohen, a college consultant in Chicago.

“I tell students, ‘Please consider being the big fish in a smaller pond,’” Cohen says. “Why wouldn’t you want to be at a place where they’re throwing rose petals at your feet?”

Clues to how a school evaluates applicants can be found in the data set’s “admissions factors.” These detail how each school weighs 19 admissions criteria, from class rank to extracurricular activities.

Many schools, for example, rate as “very important” the difficulty of the applicant’s high school courses and his or her academic grade point average. Some heavily weigh standardized tests; others don’t.

“Level of applicant’s interest” is another differentiator. Colleges care about their “yield,” or the percentage of applicants who accept an offer of admission. Some want to see definite signs of interest from applicants, including campus visits and responding to emails from the admissions office.

Avoid ungenerous schools

Most colleges don’t fully meet the financial need of their students, even after federal student loans are factored in. Families are expected to come up with the additional money on their own, often through parental or private student loans.

The size of those gaps depends on the generosity of each school.

The cost of attending New York University and the University of Southern California, for example, is roughly the same: about $72,000 a year. USC, however, fully met the financial need of 80.4 percent of freshmen who received financial aid. NYU fully met the financial need of only 9.1 percent of its first-year aid recipients.

Families who don’t have financial need can get discounts from many schools in what’s known as “merit” aid. In general, merit aid is less likely at public and highly selective schools that can attract plenty of applicants without it. UCLA, for example, offered merit aid averaging $4,847 to just 2.6 percent of its freshmen. (UCLA’s cost of attendance is $31,916 for in-state residents and $59,930 for out-of-state students.)

University of Puget Sound, a private liberal arts school in Tacoma, Washington, gave merit aid to 42.2 percent of its freshman, knocking an average $16,832 off its $63,510 cost of attendance. Each college has a “net price calculator” on its site to help applicants understand how much they’re likely to pay out of pocket annually.

And costs matter. While a college degree is important, consultants warn students against overdosing on debt to get one.

“You don’t want to be 22 or 23 and saddled with debt that’s going to cripple you,” Cohen says.

Liz Weston is a certified financial planner. Email her at lweston@nerdwallet.com.

Related link

NerdWallet:How much should I borrow for college?

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