What makes a really strong candidate? Is it excellent grades? Taking challenging classes? Lots of extracurricular activities? SAT/ACT Scores? Essays? Leadership or volunteering? Are any of these more important than others?
I think the first thing that admissions counselors look at is a student’s curriculum, especially if the student is applying to a highly selective college. A student might have straight A’s, but if the courses are all easy, this won’t be very impressive. They look for depth in various disciplines (e.g., 4th year of a foreign language, 5th year of math, etc.) and challenging courses (Honors or AP’s in some subjects). Grades in these classes represent the next most important criteria for admission. At some highly selective colleges, SAT or ACT tests can be very important. At other highly selective colleges – those that are test optional – test scores don’t matter. At less selective colleges, they may be required but are less important than grades and curriculum. The other factors – recommendations, essays, extracurricular activities, interviews – vary in importance from college to college.
Students should read applications thoroughly and make sure that they follow directions and respond to every prompt with care. If a student completes an application haphazardly, it will most likely be perceived that the student is really not all that interested and admission will be negatively affected. Essays should be free of grammatical, spelling and syntactical errors.
Before students submit their applications, it’s a good idea to step back, read everything carefully, and ask themselves if there is something important missing that the reader should know. On most applications, there is an Additional Information section where students can impart information that will help to put their application in context.
Jane M. holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from UC Santa Barbara and is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605). She began working as an educational consultant in San Francisco in 1983 where the focus of her work was, and continues to be, on college counseling and conducting psychoeducational evaluations.
Before I answer this I’d like to state upfront that there are three hurdles that applicants must clear to gain admission to the top colleges. So bear in mind that you can’t focus on just one quality for your candidacy at the expense of others.
This said, most admissions officers to whom we have spoken agree that demonstrating fit is the one quality that most impresses them when reviewing applications. This means showing the school that you understand what makes it unique as well as what you have to offer and, consequently, why you sincerely want to attend that school.
Far too many applicants view the admissions game as purely numeric. Smart applicants realize they need to put 100% of their best effort into each stretch school they target. Consequently, they understand why it is better to apply to 10 schools with each application reflecting 100% of their best effort than to get stretched too thin and apply to 20 schools with each application only reflecting 50% of their best effort.
So, in conclusion, be sure to spend the time to demonstrate a strong fit with each stretch application you submit. Quality will triumph quantity every time.
Rarely is anything more important to Admissions Officers than solid grades, a challenging curriculum, and good standardized test scores. However, objective measurement factors alone do not necessarily yield a “yes” answer. After a student has attended to transcripts and tests there is still a fine opportunity to impress. Admissions Officers anticipate reading about obligatory community service, but what does the student love? What sincerely moved this student’s heart and mind?
Can I talk directly to the student now?
Don’t just tell colleges about your passions, prove it! With whatever time is left in high school, take a concrete step to pursue your passions. Make your community service reach more people in a better way than ever, or see to it that more people contribute their efforts. If you are on the Student Council, talk to adults in school or outside it to hear what they made of their own Student Council experiences. This could lead you to someone remarkable and, if so, just step up to meet them. If you love your parts (large or small) in the school play, can you get a bit part in a local company? Can you help backstage or in the ticket office? If you won’t try something you might love or if you are “too busy”, well step back and think about it. Admissions officers don’t find intentions nearly as interesting as actions, so get going.
Maybe you are a second term junior or a first term senior and you have already spent about thirty evenings at your Municipal Court, working on your inner Clarence Darrow or your Jack McCoy. It’s time to reach down inside and consider why you first went and what kept you coming back. What did you see? What moved you? What was worthwhile?
My answer to the excellent question is, “Pursue your Passion.” Don’t wait, do it – starting yesterday. Then think deeply about how you have made yourself better or added to your community before you upload a single document into a college application.
Larry is a graduate of Cornell University and the Director of the College Admissions Program at a consulting company. He is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), a member of the Higher Education Consultant’s Association (HECA), a member of the New Jersey Association for College Admissions Counseling (NJACAC) and a member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC).
What impresses Admissions Officers most can depend on the type of school and the type of applicant. Generally speaking authenticity, honesty and humility are qualities that are greatly appreciated. Sloppiness, arrogance and laziness are not.
In terms of elements of the students’ academic profile, colleges often like to see that students are interested in learning and have challenged themselves academically. In terms of high school curriculum, that is reflected in choice of honors and AP courses, if available, continuing to pursue a foreign language even after having met minimum graduation requirements and taking more than the minimal number of courses. If students have a strong sense of what they want to focus in academically in college, it can be an asset if they have already taken courses and/or have worked or volunteered in that area. I advise that colleges like to get a sense of a student’s past, present and future both to understand who s/he is and what motivates him/her but also to determine whether they feel the college will meet his/her needs. Colleges want to admit students who will be successful in the classroom and the dorms (if residential) and will graduate so anything students can do to indicate that will enhance their application.
Jane H., MBA, has a proven record of providing personalized guidance to help students identify, apply and gain admission to the best colleges for them. She explains what colleges are looking for and why. She visits colleges and meets with admission officers to learn about their educational programs and institutional priorities. She teaches how to secure merit aid and that students have more control than they think.
The application is a picture of you designed to help the admissions committee get to know who you are. An honest picture is unlikely to show you are perfect. Like every human being, especially a teen age human being, you are in the process of development and in that process may have made some mistakes. Did you get a bad grade in Chemistry even though you care about the subject? Did you have a bad semester or have you been suspended? Trying to hide or ignore these blemishes is a bad idea. Thinking through the not so beautiful aspects of your portrait, acknowledging them, and explaining what happened, what you learned from the experience, and how you grew and changed, is an essential part of the application.
Admissions people understand that as a young person you are under construction, and construction can be a messy process. English teachers often preach, “show, don’t tell. Showing on your application that you have faced your missteps through your subsequent grades, your essay, and information from your counselor and teachers will go far in advancing your application.
Please don’t think that past mistakes will keep you out of college. I have worked with students who made all kinds of mistakes. When they didn’t try to hide them, but used them as stepping stone to growth, they were quite successful in the admission process.
Dr. Shapiro is a licensed psychologist and college counselor who works with students and their families at her office in West Newton, MA. She spent 16 years as chair of the Counseling Dept. at Newton North High School and is a former president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling.