All too often I hear students talk about their grades and test scores as they hope to gain admission to one of the super-selective colleges. And while strong grades and outstanding test scores are absolutely important aspects of the process, they are far from the only ones. Admissions counselors across the country will read many more applications of standout students than they are capable of admitting. They are looking for specific factors, many of which can change from year to year based on institutional priorities such as needing a particular instrument in the band, filling seats in a new program or trying to expand geographic reach. When the dust has settled, many applicants who have worked hard to achieve A’s, who have scored well on the SAT or ACT, and who have received honors or awards for their achievement will be left out.
Is it fair? No, it isn’t. But, then again, very little about the college admissions process is fair. Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech, recently wrote an excellent piece about this very idea. If you haven’t read it yet, you should:
Today, I wanted to share some insight as to how your applications are read. This protocol will vary by some degree from school to school and from counselor to counselor, but understanding how each part of an application is looked at can be of value to the current crop of rising seniors who will be sending out applications in just a few months.
- The Application Itself
Information such as citizenship, ethnicity, family dynamics, and parents’ educational background are all of interest. These details set the table for who you are as an applicant and where you come from. High school information is also included but many admissions counselors will rely on your transcript and school profile to understand just how competitive you are.
When it comes to activities, the question now moves to what you will add to the campus community. Admissions counselors are looking for commitment, impact, initiative and passion. The bottom line: an activity that spans a lot of time throughout grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 says a whole lore more about what’s important to you and how you will benefit the college than one that was done one time, on a Saturday, during 9th grade.
- The Transcript and High School Profile
Your school profile is incredibly important to admissions counselors. Not only does it tell them the percentage of graduates who go on to four-year colleges, but it also sheds light on your high school’s curriculum. How many AP courses are offered? What about honors courses or dual enrollment? Do you have an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum? Admissions counselors want to know how well you challenged yourself based on what you had available to you. So while your transcript shows them what you did, it’s the school profile that shows them what you could have done.
Colleges will typically require recommendations from the school counselor and at least one teacher. Depending on the school, a second teacher recommendation may be welcome as may be a recommendation from a coach, mentor or employer. Heck, some colleges even allow you to have a parent or your best friend submit a recommendation on your behalf. Regardless of the lineup, recommendations should be carefully considered. Admissions counselors are looking for key descriptions of you in action. Therefore you should think about the teachers who can provide evidence of your intellectual curiosity, your energy and enthusiasm for learning, your grit and resolve for when you had to work through some challenging material, and your humor and kindness towards others.
- The College Essay
I’ll get into essays in more detail as we head into the summer, but the more personal you can get with your essay, the more it will help you stand out. Admissions counselors don’t want essays that are academic or formulaic. Instead they want something organic; something that helps them become more interested in you as a person, especially at the most selective colleges where A averages and near perfect test scores are the norm. It’s a crowded pool and your essay is one of the very opportunities you have to show who you are as an individual.
- Demonstrated Interest
Admissions counselors are trying to admit a class of students who are most likely to enroll. This is called yield and it’s an important term in the college admissions world. Predict yield too high and you don’t have enough classes or residential beds for the incoming class. Predict too low and the college is running in the red. Neither is a scenario that colleges want to do deal with. The problem is that as the average number of applications students submit each year increases, it becomes harder for schools to know who their “real” applicants are.
And that’s why you demonstrate your interest. Because you want admission counselors to notice not only your academic qualifications, but your true interest in attending their college. Not all colleges track interest, but if you are applying to one who does, you want to make every effort to connect with them along the way.
There are other aspects of the process that can be taken into account, but the bottom line here is that you cannot just rely on your grades and test scores alone to help you gain admission.
If you would like some assistance with your college search process, contact me today for a free consultation.