College Admissions: What’s Most Important?

College Admissions officers try to build a diverse and balanced class of motivated, involved, and qualified students with genuine interests, impressive achievements, interesting talents & experiences, good character and real personalities – with the potential to “fit in” and be an asset to the school.   Passion, intellectual curiosity, maturity, leadership, commitment and energy are particularly important.

The admissions committee looks for evidence of these qualities and achievements in the application, essays, interviews, recommendations, and extracurricular activities.

The most competitive schools have far more qualified applicants than places in the incoming freshman class.   So, it’s critical for even the most qualified candidates to stand out in a positive way.

Here’s what Admissions Officers focus on:

Curriculum
A rigorous class schedule shows intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge yourself and that you are comfortable with hard work. Strong grades in honors and AP courses are typically more impressive than perfect grades in regular classes.

Grades and Class Rank
Junior year is most important followed by first semester senior year. Freshman and sophomore grades are typically less significant especially if there is a pattern of improvement. Along with the transcript, high schools provide colleges with a senior class profile. Admissions officers review the profile of your high school to gain perspective of your academic achievements vis-à-vis other applicants from different high schools.

Standardized Test Scores
SAT/ACT scores are a major admissions factor at most colleges. Impressive scores will put you in a higher category. Scores provide a standard measure to compare applicants from different schools and backgrounds.

Extracurricular Activities, Athletics, Avocations & Summer Experiences
In past years, most successful applicants were well-rounded high-achievers. There is a growing preference, especially at the most selective schools, for high achievers who are also “angular” or “focused” candidates. These successful students typically possess a special activity or unusual characteristic that sets them apart from other applicants. This is commonly referred to as a “hook”. Admissions officers look for quality over quantity. Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important as most colleges now prefer to see fewer activities that really interest you and where you are involved in a significant way. Evidence of passion, leadership, initiative, commitment and making a real difference is critical.

Community Service
Few colleges have a community service requirement, but volunteering is considered an excellent venue to show character, compassion, and self-fulfillment through helping others. Evidence of increased responsibility and dedication over time is especially impressive. That said, community service is often a criteria for obtaining scholarships.

Work and Entrepreneurial Experiences
Part-time work experience, an internship or summer job, even starting your own business can provide excellent essay material to showcase your maturity, initiative, work ethic as well as interpersonal and time-management skills.

Application Essays
Application essays are a prime opportunity to stand out with well-composed essays about what makes you a truly special candidate — your passion, personality, character, personal achievements, background, special talents, sense of humor, inner resilience, writing ability as well as your reasoning for choices you have made. Colleges look for articulate, well-written, thoughtful essays providing insight into your personality, values, and goals.

Recommendations
Admissions officers rely on letters of recommendation to round out and confirm their picture of you as a candidate. It is important to cultivate good relationships with your guidance counselor, teachers, coaches, employers and others who can recommend you highly.

Interview
Your meeting on-campus, or with an alumni interviewer (typically in your local area) is usually the only in-person data point that colleges have to evaluate you. Colleges value this input to corroborate their picture of you from other sources. It is also an excellent opportunity to convey your genuine interest in a particular college or university, to ask insightful questions and show your good sense of humor, maturity and interpersonal skills.

Level of Interest & Potential Fit
Admission officers have a preference for applicants who appear knowledgeable about their college and seem highly motivated to attend. Colleges care about their yield (percentage of accepted applicants who enroll). All factors being equal admissions officers typically favor the applicant most likely to attend, not necessarily the one with the highest score and GPA.

Other Factors
There are numerous other factors that can play a role in the admissions decision including: geographical diversity, athletics, legacy, ethnic heritage, socio-economic background and ability to overcome adversity.

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