What College Admissions Committees Are Really Looking For

The absolute number one factor in college admission is a rigorous high school curriculum according to a recent survey reviewed in the above-titled article. This year's survey of independent college counselors resulted in a somewhat different list for the top criteria used by college admissions offices, the top three being:

1.      Challenging curriculum

2.      Grades/GPA

3.      Standardized test scores 

Understandably, colleges want to make sure that students are up to the challenge of that school's academics. "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 regraded at competitive colleges," the article asserts.

Number 4 on the list, comprised by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), is the essay, specifically the personal essay.  Its purpose is to give admissions readers an idea of "who you are, what shaped you, and what makes you tick." Regardless of the subject, an essay becomes compelling through rich details and anecdotes and most importantly, an authentic voice. It doesn't matter what the student writes about as long as it's important to him/her.

Number 6 are strong teacher and counselor recommendation letters.  Indeed, these have become more important in the admissions process and students can actually enhance teacher letters by providing them with more information.

Ability to Pay

Interestingly, the IECA report notes two new factors in its ranking: the family's ability to pay at number 7; and a student's character and values at number 12.  It shouldn't come as any surprise that colleges and universities will keep an eye on the bottom line despite their rhetoric about "holistic reviews" and "need blind" admissions.

Character and values are reflected in the student's resume from which colleges learn how actively engaged the student is in school community, service and extra-curricular activities.  Colleges pay particular attention to unique skills, talents, and backgrounds.  Often schools will also look at how a student's values match those of the institution.



Building the College List - Part One

The college list is like a piece of art, a work in progress, constantly modified throughout the college search and beyond. While some high school counselors draft a preliminary list for juniors, most students will be on their own to begin, and then continuously develop, their own list of schools. This is the first in a three-part series on how to explore colleges to generate a strategic and sensible college list that best fits the student.

'reach'  'target'  'safety'

It is important to maintain a realistic attitude when researching colleges. All students should have a handful of each type of school: "reach, target, safety." Because the final list will have this variety in terms of selectivity, the preliminary list should also include colleges across a spectrum. 

Parent Workshop: Take the Stress Out

ESSENTIAL FACTORS:  Some of the essential factors for selecting colleges are location, size, academic majors, campus life, and of course, the student's current academic record. 

Location – how far from home do you really want to go? If you’ve had enough of northern winters, do you want to spend the next four years in sunnier climes?  

Size - do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?  If you're in a small high school and want the feel of a lot more people around you, consider visiting some of the larger universities (at least 25,000 undergrads), but also visit colleges with 10 to 12,000 undergrads in order to compare. If you're in a large public high school and prefer smaller classes and greater access to professors, consider visiting smaller colleges (4,000 undergrads or fewer).

Academics - If you have some idea of what you'd like to study, checking the list of majors and minors is important. Many universities will have schools specific to areas of study (business, education, communications, engineering, etc.). If you have no idea whatsoever what to major in, review the majors at the liberal arts colleges.

[Part Two of this series will cover the specific criteria with which to gauge academic majors and minors as well as the quality of academic programs]


What Do Colleges Want in An Applicant? Everything…

The above-titled article in the New York Times last year is a genuine representation of today's college admissions process  - "a maddening mishmash of competing objectives, " as the subhead states. Yet, the piece points out that "only 13% of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants."  Hence, casting a wide net is always in the student's best interest.

Many colleges rely on "holistic" evaluations where an applicant's personality and character are assessed in addition to the numbers (grades and test scores). At Trinity College, admissions officers now look for "evidence of 13 characteristics - including curiosity, empathy, openness to change, and ability to overcome adversity" as they review applications.  How do admissions readers judge? From information included in essays and recommendation letters, which make these components especially important.  

Even More Student Info

Yet because of the increasing number of applications each year, some admissions offices seek even more information about applicants.  At Olin College of Engineering applicants are selected to compete in a two-day audition. They work in small groups to complete a tabletop design challenge and later more complex tasks (i.e. designing a new campus building). Evaluators observe how students collaborate and communicate with one another. "This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment," explains Olin's dean of admissions. 

Some colleges are exploring alternative ways to measure student potential. One asks applicants to demonstrate their "emotional intelligence" to highlight their ability to work with others, and another wants students to display "their fire for learning."  The new Coalition application, accepted by more than 130 campuses, features a virtual "college locker" where students can upload videos and written works throughout their high school years and then include them in college applications.  

Yale's dean of admissions is pleased with such options: "Now, we have the ability to get to know a student better from a different type of submission."  He goes on to describe one high school senior who submitted a four-minute video documenting his Eagle Scout project in which he was involved in constructing a veteran’s memorial. 

More Work, More Worry

While all of the above may ease the job of admissions officers, what does it mean for the 17-year old completing a college application?  More work, more worry. Now students have to make sure their recommendation letters say just the right things about them. And the ever-daunting personal essay now looms even larger as it takes on more weight with admissions readers.  Do Yale applicants now have to become filmmakers to be considered? College officials seek to make their own lives easier without any regard to how it impacts the poor teens who are at their mercy. 


Why Fall Visits Are So Important

Most juniors begin college campus tours in the spring and find out that they really should have started earlier. Why the rush? It is virtually impossible to visit 8-10 colleges in a space of 3 spring months, especially when those 3 months are also consumed with test prep, extra-curriculars, and keeping up grades.  Placing this kind of pressure on students is precisely what independent college counselors and savvy parents try to avoid. So let's break it down.

~ Why does my teen need to see so many colleges?  There is nothing better than walking around a campus, sitting in a classroom, listening to students in the cafeteria, checking out the dorms, and speaking with professors to give a prospective student a real sense of what that college is all about.

Yet, this is far from the only reason to see as many schools as possible. In the past three years, college admissions reps are placing increasing importance on "demonstrated interest." Colleges want to see and hear why a prospective student wants to attend. These days, an applicant must prove why a particular college is such a good fit for him/her; students must 'demonstrate' their 'interest' in a personal way.

--- Demonstrating interest:  The insights, impressions, recollections a student feels on a college visit are crucial to expressing substantive demonstrated interest.  The more personal details a student includes in an essay or in email to a college admissions rep, the more genuine that student's interest becomes. It's almost as if the prospective student needs to gather firm evidence to make a solid case to support his/her desire to attend. The application alone is not enough anymore.

How do I select colleges to visit? Because high school counselors typically do not begin the college list process with juniors until January, students and parents are left on their own to do so. College guidebooks are a good start, especially those categorized by state. There are enough colleges within a 2-hour drive from any major city to explore. Criteria to consider include location, size, weather, and academic concentrations.

~ Do I really need to go along on the visits? Yes. Many colleges have activities and discussions specifically for parents. Moreover, parents are most likely to be the note takers and record keepers and writing down as much as possible is critical.

Independent Counselors - Independent college counselors are a tremendous resource for families pulling a list together in a hurry. Counselors know the small, medium and large colleges nearby as well as which schools focus on liberal arts, business, sciences, etc. Counselors also provide families with:

  • specific instructions to streamline college website research

  • key questions to ask on a tour

  • important steps to take before and after the campus visit to build relationships with colleges.


Pros & Cons of Applying Early Decision

Every fall, high school seniors finalize their college lists and question if they should apply Early Decision (ED) to a given college.  Parents wonder if there is any advantage to applying early to a school and worry if their child does submit an ED application, will the family lose the opportunity to compare financial aid offers from a number of colleges.

Higher Acceptance Rate for Both ED and EA

According to the 2017 edition of NACAC's State of College Admission survey, colleges reported an average increase of 10% in the number of Early Decision applications between fall 2016 and fall 2017.  The number of acceptances of ED applicants also increased, by 11% for the same time period. Colleges that offer Early Decision reported a higher acceptance rate on average for ED applications relative to all applicants: 62% versus 51%. 

Similarly, the number of applications submitted through Early Action (EA) increased as well, this time by seven percent. For fall 2017, 40% of applications to colleges with Early Action admissions plans were received through EA applications.  The admit rate for EA applicants was 73% on average compared to an admit rate of 66% on average for Regular Decision applicants.

Hence, there is a significant advantage to applying EA to colleges and there is no down side. There is a down side to applying ED regarding financial aid. Early decision is a binding agreement and an acceptance means accepting the school's financial aid award even if a better one may have been offered from another institution. If a student receives an ED acceptance, the student will receive one - and only one - financial aid offer.  Also, early acceptance typically includes a deposit on enrollment. If you back out of the commitment, you lose your spot and your deposit.

You Can Say 'No' to ED Acceptance

If a student applies for financial aide when he/she submits an ED application, and financial aid officials determine that the family does not qualify for aid, or qualifies for less aid than the family was hoping for, the student can decline the acceptance without penalty provided this is done immediately.  This rarely happens, almost 90% of students accepted through ED do enroll in that institution.


Channeling Inner Kindness in the Personal Essay

Kindness counts.  That's what this recent post reminds students as they approach their college application essays. "...the best essays are born when students dig deeper and share something that makes them tear up, or causes their eyes to twinkle or their tones to shift," confides Jennifer Winward in this Washington Post article. Greater authenticity emerges when students write about moments of genuine kindness.

 Winward cites the 2016 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common,  which found that colleges are drawn to applicants who show concern for others, promote good citizenship and civic engagement, and develop personal responsibility.  The report included specific tips for parents including:

1)     If your teens help to run the household, babysit a younger sibling, or make other significant family contributions, make sure they write about it on their applications.

2)     Alleviate test pressure by discouraging students from taking the same standardized test more than twice.

3)     Have teens engage in meaningful community service not high-profile causes or traveling to exotic countries in the hope that this will make the application stand out.

4)     Encourage students to be authentic and honest about their interests and accomplishments.

 Channel Your Inner Kindness

Indeed, the most compelling essays are the most self-reflective and express ideas and feelings the student has discovered about him/herself in the midst of an experience, event, or activity.  “The students who talk about moments of genuine kindness reveal more authenticity than those who focus on other subjects,” Winward points out.  She advises students to consider situations and times when they have been the kindest and the people who benefited from the kindness. “Being yourself and channeling your inner kindness to build character should be the focus.”

 Winward suggests that students record themselves speaking about something that they love, something disappointing, or something that truly gets them fired up about life.  Upon listening to the recording(s), students find where their voices perk up revealing the event or time, and the accompanying emotions, to write about.  It's a sensible strategy especially for students struggling to find what to write about.  Often the richest essays are about activities the student doesn't consider all that exciting, Yet, the WHY behind the activity can expose a great deal about personality.


Why It's So Hard to Get In ~ Part Two

While there is no secret to being admitted and no one can guarantee you will be admitted to a specific institution, there are ways to better your chance of being admitted:

  • Good grades. Push yourself to get the best grades you can get.

  • Advanced classes. Push yourself to take academically challenging classes. If your school offers AP, IB, or honors courses, take those classes if you are up for the challenge. In addition, take more than the required classes. For example, if your school only requires three years of math, push yourself and take a fourth year.

  • Participate in meaningful activities. Don’t sign up for every club and organization your school offers. Instead, find activities you enjoy and really dive in and get more involved than just attending meetings.

  • Show your passion for the college. Sign up for the mailing list, visit campus, and talk to your admissions counselor. In addition, if possible, show your passion for the institution in an essay if you are asked to submit an essay on why you want to attend the institution.

  • Make a connection with your admissions counselor. Talk to your admissions counselor and ask your questions. This can show you are very interested in the college, as well as letting the admissions counselor get to know you. Build a relationship with your admissions counselor. Later on when the admissions committee is making their decision, this connection could come into play. The admissions counselor may “go to bat for you” if you made a positive impression on them.

  • Stand out from the crowd. There may be hundreds of students who are applying with identical grades and test scores. This is why it is important to do things that make you stand out. Make sure your admissions essay is meaningful and unique. Share your activities in a way that ensure the committee sees your passion and interest.

  • Be authentic. After reading hundreds of applications and essays, many admissions decision makers can spot students who are being insincere. Be yourself throughout the application and essay.

When applying to colleges with low acceptance rates, there is no guarantee you will be admitted. If you are not admitted to one of these colleges, it doesn’t mean you are not qualified. Keep your head high and know that you will find and be admitted to a different school that may be a better fit for you.

Why It's So Hard To Get In ~ Part One

Students often fear the college journey because they’ve heard so much negative hype around it.  Especially now when the admissions world has become so competitive, students often feel that the deck is stacked against them.  One of my missions as a counselor is to instill in students a sense of confidence and assurance that many, many colleges will be thrilled to welcome them onto their campuses.

It is important to maintain realistic expectations as students embark on their college roadtrip.  Understanding how college admissions departments operate may help to balance those expectations. Here’s a look at why it’s so difficult to predict outcomes.

·         Admissions committees make decisions.  Depending upon the size of the college, one or two admissions counselors may review a student’s application, or an entire committee will convene to review and discuss an applicant. Committees include not only admissions counselors, but the admissions director, faculty and sometimes additional administrative staff. The committee at each individual college will evaluate an application differently depending upon the criteria that are most relevant to each school.

·         Admissions department are not only admitting students to that college. They are also admitting students to specific academic disciplines. Popular majors, such as business, may have a lot more competition than a less popular major. This is one reason a straight A student applying to a popular major may not be not be accepted, but a B student is admitted to a less popular major.

          Admissions decisions are very subjective. When admissions committees receive thousands of applications with similar grades and test scores, other factors become critical when making decisions. What is important to one decision maker could be less important to another. Some admissions decision makers may feel a connection with a student and want to take a chance on the student while another committee member may decide not to admit. Lastly, admissions committees can change every year.

Learn what students can do to boost applications in next week’s blogpost, Part Two.

Making the Counselor Recommendation Shine

While a teacher's recommendation may emphasize a student's academic abilities and attitude toward learning, the guidance or college counselor can focus more on the student's personal growth and role within the school community. The counselor should address the student's strength of character and interpersonal skills as well as the student's goals in college.

Details & Examples

The most memorable recommendation letters tell a specific story. Rather than listing everything under the sun, they target key strengths and qualities.  Often, admissions officers are impressed by a student's commitment to developing expertise or cultivating skill in a certain area.  All the more reason why the counselor’s letter should include examples and anecdotes.  Not only do stories help the student come to life and differentiate her from others with similar qualities, but they also show that the counselor has gotten to know the student.  Letters that indicate a relationship with the student carry more weight.

Yet in most high schools, the counselor drafting the letter does not know the student well and that’s where the student must make a greater effort.  In a letter or email, share your ideas with the counselor who will be writing the recommendation letter to accompany your applications.  Try to answer as many of the questions below as possible to provide as much information as possible. Elaborate with details, examples and stories.


·         What are you most proud of in your time in high school?

·         What do you believe your greatest area of academic growth has been?

·         What classes have you enjoyed most in high school and why?

·         What have you chosen to learn on your own?

·         What are you educational/career goals


·         How have you spent your past two summers?

·         What experiences and/or activities have been most important to you and why?

·         Is there anything in particular that you really want colleges to know about you?

Forge a Bond

Make sure to thank the counselor for his/her time and volunteer to stop by the office to follow up.  The counselor may have some questions for you or you may want to suggest that he or she speak with a coach, or a teacher other than those already writing recommendation letters.  The more you develop a cordial relationship with the counselor, the more likely he/she will be to advocate for you strongly when speaking with college admissions representatives.


College Planning for Students with Learning Differences

The college journey is nerve-wracking for all students, but it can be especially worrisome for students with learning issues.  Although many LD students want to be like everybody else at college, it is important to recognize that learning difficulties will continue in this new academic setting. The college student must advocate for himself and follow through with the academic supports available at college. 

To learn about the college search for students with learning differences and/or ADHD, please join me for an exclusive parent workshop on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 6:30pm.

One of the most important things for LD students to recognize is the amount of structure and support that high school provides. High school students spend roughly six hours a day in class with almost daily contact with teachers who get to know them.  College schedules vary daily and in general, for every hour of class time, college students spend three hours of out of class time preparing assignments and/or studying.  For LD (or ADHD) students, this amount of time may be doubled.  

Time Management is Critical

The most significant challenge that LD students face at college is the balancing act between social life and academic demands. Distractions are endless in college, which only exacerbate the difficulties of time management. All the more reason to find a college where the academic support is easily accessible and strongly encouraged. 

So what should the college search for LD students entail?  Speak with teachers and counselors at your high school who know you and can honestly evaluate the level, and types, of academic supports you will need in college.  Listen to their suggestions and share them with the college counselor at your school so that he/she can sensibly guide you through the admissions process.   

Support Varies College to College

Because the level of support varies from college to college, it is imperative to identify those schools that offer the specific academic supports that you need. This is where the school advisor - or independent counselor -  can, and should, provide the appropriate direction.

Almost all colleges offer accommodations (i.e. extended time; note takers; adaptive software), but to obtain even basic accommodations, students must provide comprehensive documentation of the learning disability.  On every college website, you can find the specified documentation including the requisite educational testing, that each school requires. *Please note that an IEP or 504 is not adequate documentation; colleges want to see a fairly recent psycho-educational evaluation.

The levels of support that various colleges offer are below.  In general, Services are the resources available through the academic services office at no cost to LD students; Programs are exclusively designed for LD students and provide more in-depth and individualized support and often do incur an additional fee.   

Three Tiers of Academic Support at College 

Comprehensive  Support Programs

  1.         Frequent meetings with learning specialists to assist students with academic, organizational, and time management skills 
  2.         Typically staffed by full-time learning specialists 
  3.         May include workshops on study skills, etc. and special orientation. 
  4.          Additional fee for support service on top of tuition 

Coordinated Services 

  1.         Support office works with students who need help with academics, but staff typically does not include learning specialists. 
  2.         Students may seek assistance from staff to help with organizational skills and time management. 
  3.         May include workshops on test-taking skills,  and strategies for stress reduction. 
  4.       Services are free of charge. 

Basic Support 

  1.         Available through the college's Office of Student Disabilities, which also oversees specific accommodations. 
  2.       Student must advocate for himself, register with office and provide documentation. The office will not track down, or follow-up with students. 
  3. ·      Services are provided free of charge. 

For further guidance on the college search and admissions process for students with learning differences, please join us for an exclusive parent workshop hosted by Noodle Pros on Wednesday, October 3 at 6:30pm. Register here.