As you prepare your application for your first-choice college or university, you can’t help wondering what the college admissions officials are really looking for in potential students.
Well, they look at all the things that you’d expect (test scores, grades, letters of recommendation and your activities), and some things you wouldn’t. Mostly, they’re searching for responses that will tell them a lot about you.
“We want the student to come alive in that application,” says James Knight, an assistant director of college admissions. “Sometimes the applications are just too thin, or they are full of things that aren’t relevant. We want to know the real student, and we can often tell if that’s what we are getting in their application.”
“We’d love to see straight A’s, but that’s not what is going to determine whether we think a student is a good fit here,” says Alida Tallman, an assistant director of admissions at Rice University (www.rice.edu). “We want to know about the person. That’s what colleges are looking for.” Tallman explained that admissions counselors at Rice look at grades, standardized test scores and letters of recommendation. There simply isn’t any single admission requirement.
Rice also seeks students who show “intellectual curiosity” in their schoolwork and who are involved in activities outside of class. That involvement should be more than just symbolic, says Colleen Hillmeyer, director of admissions at the University of Denver (www.du.edu). “We want to see some depth when it comes to their participation in activities. It’s fine to have a long list of items in which you’ve been involved, but we want to see if you have stuck with them and taken them seriously. Have you been thoroughly involved and been a leader, and can you show us why the activity interested you?”
Hillmeyer and other counselors say that, too often, applicants try to impress the college admissions reps rather than just describe their interests clearly and accurately. Knight says your application should be a portrait of you. “Include activities that tell your story,” he suggests. “Tell us truthfully about you.”
At the University of Pennsylvania (www.upenn.edu), counselors also look for students who do a good job of describing themselves and making a case for why they are a good fit at Penn. “They are often trying to guess what they think we want to hear,” says Gwynne Lynch, a regional admissions director for the Philadelphia-based school. “They are better off telling us about themselves and why they think Penn would be a good place for them.”
Lynch says she was concerned by a published report she read about a student whose mother spent hours helping her daughter with a college-entrance essay about choosing a favorite word. The two carefully researched options, and the mother was deeply involved in helping the student write the essay in a way she thought would impress admissions personnel. “That essay would not say much about the student,” Lynch says, “and we can sense that.”
You should provide details about your life and interests, she says. Rather than just listing music as an interest and activity, for instance, spell out that you played violin for five years and performed a solo for the entire school. Details about an important part of your life are sometimes more important than a laundry list of every activity and interest.
Lynch and others also say that the presentation of your application is also important. Do it neatly and carefully. “It’s a real red flag for us if there are a lot of errors in the application. We especially want to see that a student can write clearly without a lot of mistakes,” says Knight. “Writing is a critical skill to have.” He suggests that you consider including additional proof of your writing skills—perhaps a copy of a paper on which you did well.
It is also critical to get a sense of what each school thinks is important. At Purdue University (www.purdue.edu), for instance, Jerry Ripke, assistant director of admissions, says his staff doesn’t consider essays. They’re mostly concerned about academics—particularly if your record is headed in the right direction. “We look closely at trends in achievement, or lack thereof. A downward trend can hurt an applicant, whereas a strong upward trend can help, even if that applicant’s overall GPA is not as high,” he says.
Think you’ve already met the admission requirement?
Other admissions officials agree and note that students with strong academic records and other qualifications should not rest on their laurels. Sometimes a decision can be made based on your senior-year record, after you’ve already applied. “They need to hit the ground running their senior year—and not just in the application process,” says University of Denver’s Hillmeyer. “They need to keep up the pace with their work in school, too.”
She also notes that admissions officials are impressed by people who have overcome obstacles. If you’ve worked through a personal or academic problem, tell about it on your application. But don’t make excuses for bad grades or test scores. “I can tell you one thing that turns us off immediately: a student who doesn’t take responsibility for a bad grade and blames it on the teacher or their workload,” Hillmeyer says. “That’s not going to help your chances.”
Now that you know what colleges are looking for, here are five things you can do to make your application catch an admissions officer’s eye:
Know their school. Using specifics, tell them why you chose their school.
Quality, not quantity, is important when describing your activities. Having lots of activities is good, but showing that you thoroughly pursued an interest is even better. Tell the admissions people about the activities you stuck with. Provide details about your interests.
Focus on your writing. You don’t have to dazzle them with big words or a sophisticated style that isn’t you, but clear, thoughtful, honest writing is something most schools look for.
Be honest. They want to find out about you, and they will be frustrated if the application doesn’t show them that. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your best foot forward; just make sure it’s your foot.
Don’t make excuses. Everyone has had a teacher they felt wasn’t fair. Unless it was a major roadblock that seriously affected your performance, don’t bother spelling out problems. Showing how you prevailed over a serious problem is a good thing, but complaining is not.