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So What do Colleges Want to See on that Application?

Before my children were even in high school, I knew admissions results for our state universities were released in mid-February. Every year, on those evenings, my phone and social media channels would light up with news: either joyous (snapshots of computer screens welcoming high school seniors to the university) or disappointed (sad or crying face emojis, no words necessary).

The days following admissions results are no less fraught with emotion, as parents proclaim what, exactly, either got their child into the colleges of their choice –– or kept them out. “My friend’s son got into the University of Florida. She said it was because he had a job,” one mom told me in a conspiratorial whisper. “That’s what they really want. My daughter is dropping AP English so she has time to work at the mall. That’s going to help her get in.”

But –– despite my friend’s confidence in her ability to read college admissions officers’ minds –– I have learned that if there is one general rule to succeeding in college admissions, it’s that there are no general rules to succeeding in college admissions. Each university’s admissions office will have its own institutional goals in mind when it reviews applications. And applicants will be evaluated within the contexts of their own circumstances and high school settings.

Don’t Skimp on the Transcript

Many college admissions officers state that a student’s transcript –– both the course selection and the resulting grades –– is the most important element of an application. Even in senior year, “It’s important for students to have four or five core academic classes on their schedule,” said college consultant Sara Harberson, founder of Admissions Revolution and a former college admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin & Marshall College.

What About Test Scores?

What comes next in importance after the transcript is not so clear-cut. More than 900 colleges, for instance, are now test optional and do not require an SAT or ACT score for admission or, in some cases, even for merit scholarships. At other schools, standardized tests are still critical to the selection process.

One way to determine the priorities of the schools your senior is applying to is to look at the Common Data Set in the admissions section of the chosen university’s website. The Common Data Set is a set of standards and definitions of data about college enrollment straight from the colleges themselves. The information is compiled by surveys courtesy of the College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report.

By Googling Duke University’s Common Data Set, for instance, you can see that Duke does not consider a student’s class rank at all in the admissions process. This might be good news to seniors stressing about whether that B+ in physics will drop their rank too far. The University of Florida’s Common Data Set reveals that the essay is ranked as more important than standardized test scores in their application process by university officials.

College Admissions advice from an Admissions Officer

Erica L. Sanders, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan, says there truly is no easy answer to what colleges want most in an application.

“As you probably can guess, we get many more applications from academically qualified students than we have space to admit,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate reality. But it means we have to look at other aspects of an applicant’s record for evidence that they will be successful here.”

This is why a holistic review process is so important to a highly selective college like the University of Michigan, Sanders said. “We’re looking for evidence that the student will have the academic drive and personal motivation to challenge themselves and take advantage of the opportunities we have to offer and how the student’s experiences will lend to our campus community,” she said. “We look for evidence of passion and enthusiasm. We look for students who push themselves, embrace academic rigor, and are involved in their communities.”

That can’t always be found in a GPA or an SAT score. “Applicants should think about how they can convey these ideas in their application. This includes their essays, the supplemental questions we require on the application, and who they select to write their recommendation,” said Sanders. “We truly take all elements of an application into account when making a decision.”

In other words, everything counts –– which can be good news or bad, depending on your student’s application.

Does “Demonstrated Interest” Matter?

What about demonstrated interest –– the buzz phrase students see going around on Reddit or College Confidential? On top of everything else, do students now have to worry about whether a college is tracking if they open their emails or if they visited campus?

The answer will vary by individual college. As far as the University of Michigan is concerned, Sanders assured nervous parents and students that while Michigan does take into account demonstrated interest, it is not measured by visits to campus or calls to the office (as is the case at some schools).

“What we actually look at is the evidence of interest for the field of study an applicant seeks to pursue or what the student believes the university can specifically provide as they pursue their academic and personal goals,” Sanders said. “This might be clubs or organizations, work experience or volunteer experience. It might also be appropriate course selection in STEM for an engineering applicant, music experience for a music applicant, medical interest indicators for nursing, etc.”

Be Your Authentic Self

In the end, what will make an applicant stand out is something not quantifiable by a score or a grade, added Harberson. “You can’t please everybody in this process, but you need to make sure this application represents who you are—your authentic self and not someone that you think they want.” Ultimately, this is what should be reflected in your student’s essay and in their choice of extra-curricular activities. So, while you may think they need to choose the debate team over anime club, the best rule of thumb may well be this one: Let your student decide.

Allison Slater Tate

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and a college admissions counselor in Orlando, Florida. She has four children ranging in age from 8 to 18, and she is not a fan of distance learning. You can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @allisonstate.

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