By Amy Feins
Have you ever wondered what that secret formula might be that makes the college application of one student stand out from the rest? Wonder no more. There is no secret to the college application—or, if there is, you are about to be in on it. Here are three pieces of college application advice.
The College Application: What Do Colleges Look For?
1. To get your application read, you must meet the school’s minimum requirements.
You may have been told that for schools that perform “holistic” admissions, each application is read “at least twice,” meaning that two separate readers go over every application. This sounds like a lot of work. And it is—which is why that first “read” may not be as in-depth as you might imagine, and that first “reader” might be a computer. If you want your application to be read, in detail, by a pair of human eyes, you need to be a qualified applicant.
When I worked in admissions we had 10 staff members working in pairs. Our applicant pool was around 25,000 students, so each person on a team had to read 2,500 applications. The “reading” season for us for the college application ran from about January 15 to February 15. That’s roughly 30 days to read 2,500 applications, which averages out to more than 80 applications per day. But we didn’t really read them all. If a student was clearly not qualified (GPA far below our average, low test scores, lack of rigor in the academic program) then that application was considered “read” and marked DENY. Why would we waste time reading essays and letters and looking at activities of a student who is not academically qualified? Academics come first.
To put it simply, you should only apply to schools for which you are “in the ballpark” academically. Don’t waste your time and money applying to schools because you think you have as good a shot as the next kid. You don’t—unless you have the grades, rigor, and scores that place you squarely in that 60–70% of the “accepted” range. (Unless you’re an Olympic athlete or similar, you don’t have the exceptional qualities to make up for being on the lowest end of a school’s academic requirements.)
2. Think carefully about why this school is a fit for you before applying; it will show in your application.
So once we have determined that you’re a strong academic candidate for your school, your application will be read. Thanks to applicants with low credentials, that robust pool of 2,500 files per reader is now down to 2,000. My region had room for about 250 admits. This means that my partner and I had to find—and fight for—250 students from that pile of 2,000 qualified applicants. They were all smart, and they all would probably be successful at our institution. For all intents and purposes, the college application of these students were all academically substantially the same. We weren’t going to quibble over who had the extra AP class or the difference between a 760 and 770 on the math section of the SAT. At this point, an application needed something more.
What admissions readers notice when they are reading thousands of applications is the student who has put some thought and time into their specific application to that specific school. Beyond academic qualifications, admissions readers look for the college application of a student who has thought about the types of schools where he or she can make the most of the next four years.
Some students like to hedge their bets by applying to a whole boatload of super-selective schools. I call this the “cast a wide net” approach, and it is a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, applying to 20 schools with 5% admit rates doesn’t change the admit rate. It is still 5%. Second, there is no way that all 20 of those schools are a good fit for you.
I always cringe each spring at news reports of how some brainiac kid got into all eight Ivy League schools. Even though the Ivies are oh-so-prestigious, they are still different. A student who will be a great fit for Dartmouth will probably not be a great fit for, say, Columbia. The schools have very different academic, social, geographic, and cultural strengths and weaknesses. I find it hard to believe that someone truly believed that each of those colleges would fit like a glove.
3. Demonstrate the three qualities that make applications stand out.
Okay, so you have your list of 10–12 schools (three “reach”, four “reasonable” and three “ready to welcome me”), and you are confident that you will be both happy and successful at any of them. There are no schools on your list that you would not attend.
Now, and only now, can we address that secret formula for crafting the college application that gets noticed:
Your application must convey your identity. Every section needs to focus on what makes you you. From the electives you chose (maybe art and drama, or perhaps robotics and computer programming) to your clubs at school to your summer activities, the reader needs to get a feeling for what makes you tick.
Simply put, your application needs to honest. If you think an admissions reader won’t be able to tell when you’re fudging the numbers, you’re wrong. You aren’t the first person to create some bogus club in your junior year in a flagrant effort to pad your resume. Don’t do it. If you are going to lie and cheat—that’s what it is, after all—on the college application, then what kind of contribution are you going to make on campus? I, for one, do not want to find out. Being truthful will make you stand out, even if that means revealing that you spent your whole sophomore summer playing Pokemon Go.
There needs to be some thought, some purpose, behind your actions. Did you join clubs just for the sake of joining them? Or were you actually interested? A standout application will be bursting with intention. Perhaps you discovered painting and drama in your freshman year. Then you volunteered at a local day camp that summer helping with the drama production. Then you helped paint sets for the fall show and discovered that you liked it more back stage then in front of the audience. You worked with a local theatre company as a junior in their set design department. And you picked up some stage management experience along the way.
All of this tied in with the fact that you love to write and took a play writing class at the local college in summer school between junior and senior year. Can you see what’s happening? You are discovering your interests, honing your passions, and the clubs and activities on your application reveal that intention. Your essay is about how cool it was to watch your set come to life, and your teacher letters speak to your contributions in creative writing and in the drama department. Your predicted major of English with a minor in Theatre confirms all the above and ties up your application with a neat and tidy bow.
Boom—that’s how to stand out in a college application. Sure, you bombed Algebra 2 and weren’t the president of the science club, but it’s no big deal. Your application shows the reader who you are, how you got there, and where you might be headed. You have identity, integrity, and intention. Get ready to get noticed for much more than your college applications.
College Admission Criteria: What Do Colleges Want?
Confused about just what admission staffers are looking at when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of applicants they collectively screen each year?
The National Association of College Admission Counseling’s 2012 State of College Admission Report—which is based on surveys of thousands of colleges and universities—offers some insight. Here is their list by percentage of the most influential college admission criteria.
Note that the percentages are the number of colleges and universities that say the factor has “considerable importance” in the admission decision.
College Admission Criteria
83% Grades in college prep courses
66% Strength of curriculum
59% Test scores
46% Grades in all courses
23% Class rank
19% Teacher recommendation
19% Counselor recommendation
7% Extracurricular activities
Amy Feins is a Certified Educational Planner. She is the director of college counseling at a high school, and has previously worked extensively in college admissions. She also maintains a private consulting practice, AMF College Consulting and Test Prep.