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What do Colleges Want?

What Do Colleges Want?
The Total Package: Courses, Grades, and Activities

Courses.  When college admissions officers look at transcripts they also look at the levels of courses.  Admissions officers say that they like to see applicants challenging themselves by choosing academic subjects beyond the requirements.  By selecting rigorous courses every year, including senior year, students are showing that they are taking their studies seriously and are willing to work hard.  

Grades and Class Rank. Grades count!  By getting good grades in high school, students are demonstrating to admissions officers that they will be able to do college-level academic work.  The grade point average (GPA) is often used as a criteria by admissions committees in making their decisions.  Another indicator of academic ability is class rank, which shows where a student's GPA is in comparison with other students in the class.

Activities. When you list the activities that you participated in while in high school, you are filling in the rest of the picture of who you are.  Colleges are interested in knowing what you might be able to contribute to the college community in skills, talents, and interests.  These activities may be athletics, clubs, volunteer work or paid employment.  Especially noteworthy are activities that involve special talents, community service, or leadership (in student government or as a team captain, for example).  Students may have unique special talents (as musicians or debaters).  Community service is a good way to develop new skills while you help your community.  It is also a way to qualify for some scholarship opportunities.  Being involved with student council shows school spirit, leadership, and the ability to work with peers and teachers.  Many students have jobs while in high school.   

Working and keeping your grades up demonstrates that you can manage your time well.  
Self-directed learning projects also show that you know how to manage time. Peer support activities such as peer mediation or tutoring provide the opportunity to help others while you improve your own social skills. In deciding on your activities, it will make a better impression to choose a few activities in which you are very involved rather than joining many organizations as a senior.  

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So What Else Do Colleges Want?

 

No two colleges are looking for exactly the same student -- yet, there are some elements important to all. The College Board asked college admission officers to tell what's hot, and what's not.

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Challenge Yourself in High School

The first thing we look at is academic achievement, how well students do in their high school curriculum. Were interested in students who have taken the most rigorous courses. Are they stretching their minds, looking for academic challenge?
Admissions Officer, University of Rhode Island

 

The most important and most telling part of your application is the high school transcript.  When we evaluate your transcript, we look closely at the quality and challenge of the courses you have selected in high school, as well as your level of achievement in those courses.  Typically students who are most competitive in our admission process have taken 4 years in each of the core areas (English, math, natural science, social sciences/history and foreign language) and have challenged themselves with a selection of the honors and advanced placement courses which may be offered at their high school.  

Admissions Officer, Providence College

I'm interested in the strength of a student's curriculum and in students who challenge themselves by taking honors courses and Advanced Placement® classes. If a high school offers these classes and a student decided not to take them, it says that the student did not rise to the challenge.
Admissions Officer, University of New Hampshire

I like to see students who have challenged themselves by taking the extra math or writing courses that are beyond what is required.
Admissions Officer, Northwestern University

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Put Test Scores in Perspective

If colleges do not have experience with a particular high school, test scores enter the picture. They're a consistent piece of information to add to the overall evaluation.
Admissions Officer, N.C. State

We're interested in students who have taken the most rigorous courses, but standardized scores are also important. We take the best verbal and math scores, so we encourage students to take the tests more than once. We do not require that they take the SAT ® II: Subject Tests, but these do give us additional academic information about the student and they can help with placement in some schools.
Admissions Officer,  University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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On Essays and the Value of Being Yourself

Essays measure a student's ability to write a good composition. Also, a student can choose a topic to write about that reveals creativity, personality, and value systems that can't be revealed by grades alone.
Admissions Officer, Case Western University

I'm interested in the energy of a student's application. We ask students to write one large essay. Enthusiasm and a good writing style are important. If a student's essay is flat and boring, that implies that a student does not have the energy we're looking for at Northwestern.
Admissions Officer, Northwestern University

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On Recommendations

As a rule, the more selective the institution, the more extracurriculars, leadership, recommendations, and things of that nature come into play, to help discern among good candidates when we have limited spaces to offer.
Admissions Officer, Northwestern University

We ask for recommendations from the guidance counselor or the head of the student's school and a teacher. These are important because they tell us how a student is perceived by her classmates, how she fits into her community, what leadership roles she has taken. If I see that for some reason a student's grades dipped, a guidance counselor or teacher can explain what happened.
Admissions Officer, N.C. State  

We look at recommendations, but so many kids are not on a level playing field. In some schools there are 800 kids to two counselors who do not know anything about these kids. On the other hand, a class of 25 students in a private school may know their teacher very well. This person would be able to write wonderful recommendations. So recommendations can't always be a deciding factor.
Admissions Officer, Smith College

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Extracurricular Activities

We value leadership, but not everyone is a leader. We also value contributors, the followers. Contributors demonstrate that they have the ability to follow through, which is a very valuable quality. Also, time management is important. Being able to balance out a busy school schedule and extracurricular activities implies that a student is disciplined and can handle responsibility.
Admissions Officer, Case Western University

I look for depth behind students’ extracurricular activities. I want to know what students say they got out of them and why they have stayed with them over time.
Admissions Officer, University of New Hampshire

Were looking for a commitment to and a passion for an activity outside of the academic setting -- we're looking for depth rather than breadth. A student studying ballet may have been involved in it for many years. The activity is more narrowly focused, but that's okay: Ballet takes time, commitment, and energy.
Admissions Officer, Smith College

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Rolling Admission and Cutoffs

We're a university with rolling admission [i.e., they accept students throughout the year]. Our cutoffs [minimum achievement levels for admission] ... look at three things: completion of a core curriculum, a certain minimum class rank, and a certain minimum test score for that rank.
Admissions Officer, Northeastern University

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Missing the Cutoffs

Many students who are not accepted enroll in a community college. We encourage them to complete their associate's degree and after that they can transfer to a four-year college.
Admissions Officer, Western Michigan University

For a student who has the core courses in place and a solid GPA but falls just short of the requirements, we would ask for more information, particularly about how hard you're working in your senior year. We want to see that you're serious about gearing up for the challenge of college.
Admissions Officer, University of Connecticut

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What about Selective Schools?

Leadership is particularly important, because we're looking for students who have the ability to make a difference at Smith. I'm very interested in students who have shown leadership qualities in high school ... a student who was president or senator of a class. We want candidates who aren't afraid to speak up and express their opinions in class, but we need a variety of students to keep us balanced.
Admissions Officer, Smith College

Involvement in extracurricular activities -- being committed to an activity outside of academics -- is also something we look at. [Extracurricular involvement] says that a student has a lot of energy. We do not give merit to one activity over another.
Admissions Officer, Northwestern University

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And Please Remember...

 

Admission standards aren't designed as barriers, but rather as guidelines to give you a sense of how you compare to others in our institution and how competitive you may be here. If you do not have the kind of record required, maybe you should look at other institutions that may be a better match for you. This puts you in a better situation to be competitive, to strengthen yourself, and to succeed in college.
Admissions Officer, Western Michigan University

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