By Eric Garneau
What Do Schools Look For?
During a recent segment on the Today show, Iowa's Grinnell College shared some insight into its admissions process. The key point: Seth Allen, Grinnell's dean of admissions, explained that it's truly impossible to know exactly what most highly-selective colleges are looking for from their applicants. So while college-bound students can shape certain aspects of their applications in their favor, there will always be factors beyond their control.
However, this isn't to say that students are completely mistaken about the things that get them accepted into college. Grades, test scores and letters of recommendation are all still important. But students need to keep in mind that college admissions are subjective, and the value of those elements is relative, not absolute.
What Students Can Control, Somewhat
Admissions officers are liable to look at students' grades in comparison to the difficulty of the curriculum they undertook. Students who challenge themselves with some advanced placement classes, for instance, may give themselves an edge. In addition, Allen reported that their school typically looks for students at the top of their classes, which makes the value of one's grades relative to how other students performed in that school. Allen also noted that one of the biggest 'red flags' in an application is when grades dip late in a high school career. Even if a student takes a more difficult courseload, he or she should be sure to maintain a usual level of performance.
After-school activities go a long way toward making a student seem well-rounded. However, New York Times educational expert Jacques Steinberg warned against overloading. 'Kids and parents tend to think you need a million activities when commitment to a few activities, something outside the classroom for a few years, often will suffice.'
Many students fear the essay required to apply to more selective colleges, perhaps reasonably so. According to Steinberg, students need to utilize their essays to 'come alive as a person in a way their test scores and grades don't make happen.' In other words, personal essays provide a place for students to illuminate aspects of their academic and personal lives that aren't otherwise clear. Sometimes this can make all the difference, especially between two students with similar academic qualifications.
What They Can't Control At All
Colleges like to bolster their ranks with students from diverse socioeconomic, geographic, gender and age backgrounds. Therefore, it may end up that students applying to selective schools have a slight edge just because of where they live, how they grew up or who they are. These aren't the sole determinants of who gets accepted where, of course, but they can make a difference, especially in cases where other factors are essentially equal.
The truth is that what colleges look for in new students isn't an exact science. They want as diverse a crop of incoming freshmen as possible, and what that diversity entails in any given year can't possibly be known by students who apply. Both Allen and Steinberg agree that the best thing a student can do is, to quote Steinberg, 'relax a little bit, be yourself, just put yourself out there and let the chips fall where they may.' They also both agree that failure to get into your favorite college isn't necessarily a reflection on you, your parents or teachers; it could just be that you didn't have that unforeseen factor the college ended up looking for at the time. Chances are you'll be a great fit somewhere else, though.