High School 2 College

March 27, 2019

What Are Colleges Looking For?

A balanced student used to be just what colleges were hoping for:  a student who gets good grades, high SAT scores, plays the clarinet and soccer, and helps at the local food pantry for the hungry.  Then colleges realized that if they enroll an amazing scholar, a world-class clarinetist, a star soccer player, and a devoted community service activist, a college could have a balanced incoming freshman class even though each student only had one area of expertise.  The sought-after student, therefore, should exhibit what was called “passion.”  Unfortunately, what that college got was a class with some very odd albeit accomplished people who had almost nothing in common.

In the past several years, colleges have not been looking for balance OR passion.  They seem to want what can best be described as “consistency.”  If a student says he wants to be an engineer, he should be getting excellent grades in honors math and science classes.  His math SAT scores should be high.  He should be doing science research or participate in the science club or science Olympiad.  He should be volunteering at the local elementary school to tutor younger kids in math or science, or, even better, he should start a science club in the local middle school.  Even his paid work should be about science or engineering – he might work at a Home Depot or Game Stop store or be the nature counselor at a day camp.

If a girl wants to be a biology major and she likes to dance, she should be a junior teacher at her dance studio, and she should organize other dancers to perform at a local hospital or senior center to combine medicine and dance.  Her grades in honors science classes should be high, but she should also perform in a school dance group or musical theater when she’s not working at the local hospital’s gift shop.

Colleges also want to see kids follow through on their commitments.  If you are a boy scout, continue on to become an eagle scout.  If you take taekwondo or karate, achieve your black belt.  If you played tennis as a child, play it all four years of high school.  If you start taking Spanish in 7th or 8th grade, keep taking it all the way through 12th grade, whether you like it or not – unless it’s a severe drag on your grade point average.

Once a college finds a stack of students with commitment and consistency, good grades and good scores, and a handful of very positive teacher recommendations, how does it decide which of those students to accept?

Much of the criteria are completely beyond your control.  (This article discusses how grades and scores aren’t always what determines who gets in.)  A particular college may want more girls in a certain major.  It may want more students from the mid-west.  It may want a tuba player, not a clarinetist.  It may want fencing, not soccer.

Is there anything a student can do to differentiate herself from the crowd?  I’m glad you asked!

First, there’s the application essay.  If a student is clearly a shoe-in, a uninspired essay might but likely won’t change that decision.  If a student is clearly unqualified, an amazing essay probably won’t change that decision, either.  But most students fall somewhat in the middle – a reasonably good fit, but fungible, that is, exchangeable for any other student with those qualifications.  That’s where a stellar essay can help.  Colleges are looking for an essay that doesn’t merely review what’s already listed on your Common App activity page.  Colleges want an essay that is so clearly YOU that even without your name on it, everyone in class would know that essay could only be yours.  What is there about you, about your story, about your interests that distinguishes you from the rest of the soccer team or your fellow dancers?

And one of the biggest things colleges look for now is “demonstrated interest.”  Because the Common App has made it so easy to apply to dozens or even scores of colleges with one or two clicks, no college is really sure if you’re applying because you genuinely want to go there or if you’re applying just because it’s easy.  So show the colleges you’re applying to some love.  Visit their websites and enter your name and contact information in the “send me more information” page.  And when they respond with an email, open that email and click on the links.  (Yes, colleges can tell when you open their emails, how long you wait to open the email, whether you click on the link, whether you assign yourself a password – and it counts!)  Visit the college if possible, take a tour, and check out the admissions building.  Stop by the college’s booth at a college fair or attend an information session (don’t forget to sign in so the college knows you were there.)  Email the college with a question (but not one whose answer is already on their website).  And don’t dare skip attending the meeting when a college representative visits your school’s guidance department, even if it means missing a class you’ll have to make up.  Those representatives aren’t merely traveling salespeople for the college — they’re the actual admissions counselors who decide who gets in!

If  you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email through my website.  If you need help with choosing colleges to go on your list, or assistance with the essay or the Common App, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

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