What College Admissions Officers Want
If you’re one our nation’s rising seniors, you’re gearing up to apply to colleges over the next 12 months. The process seems daunting from the outset. Not only do you have several online application forms looming ahead of you, but you also have to:
• prepare for and take standardized tests (SAT, ACT, and possibly SAT IIs)
• continue and excel in your extracurricular activities
• write existential personal statements that expose your innermost thoughts and feelings
• ask for glowing teacher and counselor recommendations
• spend weekends and vacations visiting colleges or weekday evenings attending admissions presentations in your community or high school
• interview with alumni or admissions personnel
• and research and apply to scholarship opportunities
– all while keeping up your grades in the most rigorous courses available to you.
So with all of these obligations, where should you really be focusing your time and attention? Or, in other words, what are colleges really looking for when they evaluate candidates?
First and foremost, most colleges will evaluate your academic record. This is what makes or breaks most students. Grades, course selection, and standardized test scores demonstrate your college readiness, and if you don’t measure up to the thousands of other American and international applicants who are applying to the same schools that you are, your file will almost immediately make its way into the “Denial Pile.”
The best way to avoid this fate with a substandard transcript and testing record, meaning you academically sit in the lower 25th percentile of applicants, is to be a member of an underrepresented minority, a celebrity or child of a wealthy donor (known as development cases), a recruited athlete, or someone who has overcome difficult circumstances to become a college bound student. Sometimes there’s something in your portfolio that indicates that you will meet an unfulfilled campus need, but that is difficult to determine from the outside and you shouldn’t count on it!
If you’re at or above that 25th percentile point, that’s where a great application can make a difference in whether or not you get admitted to the college of your choice. Of course, that depends on whether or not a college uses a holistic admissions process. If they don’t, your test scores and GPA will be placed within a matrix, and if you fall below the cut off point, you will simply not make the cut. In cases where colleges do use a holistic admissions process, you will need to:
• highlight your greatest contributions and achievements in the Activities section or in your résumé
• compose an interesting and articulate personal statement and supplemental essays
• demonstrate your love for learning, discipline, maturity, independence, growth, passion and grit in every item you submit
• show your enthusiasm for the school in your applications, essays, interviews and all other interactions with the college
• ensure that your letter writers substantiate your claims of greatness
• and explain any unusual circumstances that may have affected your academic performance over your 4 years of high school.
Colleges will be evaluating this material according to a number of factors that vary in importance from school to school. These criteria standardized by the Common Data Set include: Class Rank, Letters of Recommendation, Essays, Interview, Level of Applicant’s Interest, Extracurricular Activities, Volunteer Work, Particular Talent or Ability, Personal Character or Qualities, First Generation to Attend College, State Residency, Geographic Residence, Legacy Status, Religious Affiliation, Ethnicity, and Work Experience. This range in factors, as well as your lack of control over some of them, is what makes college admissions feel so nebulous, inexplicable or unfair at times.
And what if you’re in the top 25th percentile of applicants? Will your academic record guarantee you a spot in the upcoming class? Not necessarily. When colleges receive applications from stellar students, they may question whether or not you are using them as a “Safety School.” If they think you are, they could very well reject you. Or, if you’re applying to one of the nation’s top colleges, they will be looking at much more than your GPA and test scores to see how you will contribute to their community. In fact, over the last five years, 69% of applicants with perfect SAT scores did not get into Stanford. An admissions reader for Berkeley describes a similar situation at that premier public university, where students who would seem automatic admits actually get rejected because of the subjective element of the holistic process. As such, be cautious, and never assume that you will get into a school just because you are an academic star.
With that being said, you don’t have to be a victim of circumstance. Focus on your academics, then on everything else, and you will inevitably land somewhere great. Never forget that you are primarily a student – colleges after all are institutions of higher education. Once you adopt that mindset, everything else should fall into place.