What College Admissions Committees Are Really Looking For

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by Bettina Weil

Many students applying to college this fall will no doubt fret over every detail of their applications. The truth is, however, that college admissions committees do not treat all aspects of the application equally. So, students should take heed not to worry about things that don’t matter all that much and concentrate on the ones that do.

That conclusion is based on an annual survey of nearly 2,000 independent educational consultants, released this past summer by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). The survey, What Colleges Look for in High School Students, suggests that while grades and standardized test scores matter, there are a number of significant changes and surprises that challenge common assumptions about college admissions. Number 1 on the list: A challenging curriculum. New to the list: a rigorous high school curriculum. The much-discussed student presence on social media? Not so much.

Many students and parents are surprised to hear that the leading criteria universities want to see isn’t grades (#2) or standardized test scores (#3), but rather evidence that a student took as rigorous a high school curriculum as they could. Colleges want to know that their future students are up for an academic challenge from taking a calculated risk with their coursework while in high school. Grades and scores are important, but it is far better to take on a challenge, show some grit, and if necessary, earn a slightly lower grade. Nowadays, a transcript with easy courses and straight A’s is not well regarded at competitive colleges.

Item #4 in the ranking—the essay—is also the most misunderstood. The essay tends to be more important at smaller and independent colleges. But too many students think the essay is about construction, grammar and format. While these matter—typos and bad grammar should never happen, the essay must show insight into a student’s unique personality or life-shaping experiences. This essay should help the reader—that all-important admission counselor—better appreciate who you are, what shaped you, and what makes you tick. That doesn’t mean a student needs to save the elephants in Africa or go on an expedition to the Himalayas. They’d much rather see students focus on a simple event or a cherished object. Simple and insightful is the magic formula.

There are two new items ranked on the 2018–19 list from IECA. Debuting at #7 is the family’s ability to pay. While some schools are “need blind” in their admissions decisions, usually the most competitive, most are not. Increasingly, colleges take into consideration who can contribute to the school’s bottom line. The other new criterion this year was a student’s character and values (#12). Colleges increasingly contemplate what campus life will be like and how a particular applicant will add—or detract—from the campus. Colleges want to see active participants in campus life, students with special skills or talents, as well as those whose values fit a college’s view of itself. Colleges also seek diversity, striving for a campus made up of those from varied cultural, social, economic, geographic, religious, and occupational backgrounds (#9).

Much has been written in recent years about two areas: demonstrated interest (how an applicant demonstrates a genuine desire to attend) and social media (what a student’s online life reveals). Demonstrated interest varies from college to college, and social media exposure is of less importance than other items.

Every college is unique, so each emphasizes something different in its process of reviewing applications. One of the great benefits of hiring independent educational consultants is their knowledge of such differences and their ability to share this information with students and parents, so that they, in turn, can make informed decisions.

Bettina Weil is the founder and principal of Weil College Advising, based in Westchester. Web site: www.weilcollegeadvising.com  Phone: 914.723.8080  Email: info@weilcollegeadvising.com.

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