What Are Colleges Actually Looking for Right Now?
The college application is a lot more competitive (and complicated!) than it was when we parents applied to college. More and more students are choosing to attend college after high school. Truthfully, that is not a bad thing. It means colleges are having to step up their game to be more attractive to students, too. It’s also easy to forget how many colleges and universities are really out there. You absolutely can go to college if you want to. That is the first thing to understand. The strategy game comes if you narrow it down to a handful of highly competitive schools that you really want to go to. Or if you decide that you absolutely won’t attend anywhere but a particular university - and that university has a 10% acceptance rate.
So, how do you increase your chances of being accepted to your dream school? What do colleges really want to see these days?
The truth is, they want to see exactly what you think they do, but maybe not in the way you think they do.
GPA. They do check your grades! But they also look at the kinds of classes you take. They want to see rigorous courses (like AP classes). And senior year grades DO matter. They also look at improvement over time. A low B in 9th grade is not as costly as a C or D junior year. The caveat here is that grades still matter even in the harder classes. If you are struggling to keep a C in an AP class, it’s probably better to take the regular class and get an A or B.
Your personal essay. With so many colleges going test-optional this year, the essay holds a lot of weight. This is where they meet YOU. It says a lot when you take the time to check for spelling and grammatical errors (or when you don’t). Start early, edit often. Get a lot of people to read it. Have someone who doesn’t know you well read it. The admissions committee doesn’t know you either. Be specific, be humble, have a sense of humor. This where you want to talk about the lessons you’ve learned and how you are growing as a person. Your character traits (see #3 and #4) really have a chance to shine here. Use it.
Commitment. To a hobby, a community service project, a job. The rule of thumb used to be to try as many different things as you can. Now, colleges want to see what you can stick with. It’s a great idea to try a lot of different things when you are younger. Then pick one or two and become invested in them.
Leadership. This is one that a lot of students misunderstand. It doesn’t mean you have to be the president of everything (although if you are, great). Leadership is shown in so many other ways. It is really a culmination of character attributes. It starts with the commitment from number 3. It can be found in so many different areas. Do you regularly tutor your peers? Did you have to step up to help your family in a difficult situation? Did you help train a new person at work? Do you come early or stay late after practice to help the coach every week? Those are the kinds of things that develop leadership. Be specific. Then ask someone familiar with the situation to write you a . . .
Reference letter. These carry a lot of weight these days, too. Ask someone who knows you well and will write a great letter for you. One should be from a teacher, preferably junior or senior year. It’s a good idea to ask someone from your life outside school, too. A family friend is ok, but someone who actually works with you and can speak to your character is a better idea - a coach, boss, club leader, etc. These letters need to be specific and not just a list of your activities and accomplishments.
Test scores. These potentially carry less impact now as most schools have gone test-optional. Many colleges have indicated that they may stay that way permanently. That does not mean that you should not submit scores. Most schools still require them for scholarships. You should definitely submit them if they are at or above the 75th percentile for that school’s scores. If they are lower than the average, it’s probably better to let the rest of your application speak for you and skip the scores.
Remember, while college can be a huge part of your life, it really only represents 4 (or maybe 5 or 6) years of your entire life. While it is exciting and daunting and nerve-wracking to choose, your college experience is not about an acceptance letter, it’s about what you do once you get there!