What Are They Looking For?

What Are They Looking For?

A Method to the Admissions Madness

Your Application: The Pieces of the Puzzle

Think of a puzzle. It comes in a box wrapped in plastic, shiny, with a clear picture of a very interesting and intriguing image. We open the box to get a closer look and there are lots of tiny colorful pieces in a state of disorder. We struggle to imagine how we will be able to recreate the image on the box. But, if we keep the big picture in mind and focus on the individual pieces we will eventually be able to recreate the cover image and people will marvel at our persistence, our problem solving, our accomplishment.

A puzzle might the best metaphor for an application to selective colleges and universities. We begin with a picture in our mind of the person we have become and the person we would like the admissions officers to see. The application will consist of different pieces that will represent the experiences, skills, characteristics, and accomplishments that make you a very interesting and intriguing applicant. So, what are those pieces and how do we put them together to create a clear picture of a person that people will want to see on campus in the fall?

Most colleges and universities require the same pieces but they have unique ways of evaluating and weighing the different components of the application. Each college and university will develop and use their own version of a rubric to evaluate applications, but there are fairly standard requirements to complete the application. In no order of importance, the application is comprised of the following:

  • GPA
  • Course Rigor
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Strength of School
  • Essays
  • Class Rank
  • Demonstrated Interest

In or Out?

A growing population of 18-24 year olds, an increased emphasis on obtaining a bachelor’s degree, and increasing high school graduation rates have led to more students applying to college and, therefore, a more competitive landscape in college admissions. While the average number of applications has almost doubled in the past decade, the average acceptance rate has been cut in half. Unfortunately, this means that selective colleges and universities have had to adhere to strict requirements when it comes to an applicant’s GPA and standardized test scores and some institutions will focus only on the applicants who meet the minimum requirements.

But what about all the pieces of the puzzle that make me an interesting candidate who can add tremendous value to the institution? Not to worry, there are ways to make the pieces of your puzzle stand out.

The “Holistic” Approach and “Fit”

Colleges and universities recognize that students are applying from sometimes very different school districts, communities, educational backgrounds and social classes. Therefore, admissions offices will account for these differences by creating a system that will make comparisons more equitable. Once they can establish that there is an academically qualified group of applicants that exceed the number of available slots, they need to look at other factors to see which applicants would add the most value to the campus community.

The most common approach is to evaluate the academic portion of the application to qualify students and then rely on the parts of the application that represent the “non-cognitive” characteristics of the applicant. These are the characteristics that show persistence, determination, grit, cooperation and leadership. These characteristics can be determined by evaluating the applicant’s extracurricular activities, personal essay and letters of recommendation.  This is known as the “holistic” approach.

Other institutions that are more selective and the majority of applicants are academically qualified may begin by assessing the needs of the campus in order to create a vibrant and diverse community of learners. These institutions are often smaller and focused on a liberal arts education. Therefore, they will look for students that “fit” the needs of the campus and will be able to thrive and contribute to the campus as a whole.

All Things Being Equal, What Really Matters?

The reality is that the admissions process, like life, is not consistently fair, equal or equitable. Although many institutions work really hard to create systems that provide equal opportunity, there are many qualified students who do not get accepted to their best fit college. So, what can you do?

  • Take control of the process.
  • Cultivate and pursue your interests.
  • Master the skills that align with your interests.
  • Find the schools that align with your values, interests and needs.
  • Learn as much as you can about the admissions process in higher education.
  • Create equity by achieving your highest grades possible and excelling on the admissions tests.

Work hard, be prepared, get Prepified!


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