What do Colleges Look for in Applicants?
- What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?
- What are My Chances of Admission?
To many high schoolers, college admissions feels like a secretive process in mysterious rooms behind closed doors. What actually goes on? What distinguishes a good applicant from a bad one? What are admissions officers looking for?
If you are like any other high schooler, these thoughts have probably ran through your head more than once. We are here to put a stop to your endless hours of wonder and anxiety surrounding college admissions. In this post, we will explain exactly what colleges are looking for in applicants so you can feel more confident going into the process and best position yourself to stand out among thousands of other applicants.
What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?
When most people think of getting into a highly selective university, their first thought is probably that they need stellar academics. However, your class grades and test scores are only a part of the admissions decision. In fact, many colleges use your academic performance as a benchmark to see if you make it pass their cutoffs, and then place a larger emphasis on other aspects of your application. In order to determine if you pass the threshold, admissions officers use something called the Academic Index.
The Academic Index streamlines the process of sifting through students’ academics by aggregating their GPAs, class rank, and test scores into a single numerical score. Every school has a different Academic Index threshold they use, so your AI score might pass a less selective school’s screening process but not a highly selective Ivy League’s.
The good news about the Academic Index is that your grades and scores don’t mean everything when it comes to your admissions chances so you don’t necessarily need a perfect 4.0 or 1600 to get into college. That being said, since colleges use AI scores to see if you meet academic cutoffs and determine if they should read your profile, if your AI score is too low, the rest of your application might not be reviewed. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, you can work on boosting your GPA to get a higher AI score. If you are a junior or senior, you should focus on improving your test scores to maximize your AI score.
Extracurricular activities are another huge factor in your college application. Admissions officers are looking for engaged, motivated students both inside and outside the classroom, and extracurriculars showcase the latter. Some factors that influence the weight of an extracurricular are the length of time you’ve participated in them, the time commitment you devote, the leadership experience you’ve developed, and the prestige of the activity.
You might hear people say that you need to display a diverse array of interests and join every club offered at your school; this is not necessarily correct. The common misconception when it comes to extracurriculars is that admissions officers are looking for well-rounded students, when in actuality they are looking for students with a highly developed interest in 2-3 areas.
For example, consider which applicant sounds more impressive. A student with an interest in playing piano and working with kids has competed in state competitions, played with the local symphony orchestra in their city, started and is president of a club at their school to connect high school band students to elementary students learning instruments, and volunteered with the Girl Scouts to help girls get a music badge. Alternatively, another student is interested in government but wants to be well-rounded so they are a member of the debate team, Model UN, Model Congress, the school newspaper, JV basketball, and JV baseball. The second student is so concerned with joining everything that they don’t hold any leadership positions and can’t fully commit to any one of their clubs.
The key to standing out in college admissions is to look more like the first student. You should discover your niche and explore those 2-3 interests deeply. It’s even better if you are able to connect your separate interests in a unique way—a student who enjoys nature and coding might develop an app to let people scan plants and flowers and figure out what type of plant it is.
When it comes to understanding your extracurriculars, there are 4 tiers you should understand:
- Tier One Extracurricular Activities
Tier one activities are the rarest, but most impressive activities you can have. They demonstrate significant time commitments over the course of high school and exceptional achievement or leadership.
Tier one activities might be things like being a highly recruited soccer player or obtaining national attention for math/science competitions. Winning prestigious national academic prizes such as the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) or an Intel Award are examples of tier one achievements.
- Tier Two Extracurricular Activities
Tier two activities are also fairly rare and highly desirable. However, they typically require less time and fewer requirements than tier one activities. They show dedication and a history of commitment to an area of interest. A typical student may have one or two tier two extracurriculars in their high school career.
Holding a leadership position in a well-known club like the Model UN, debate team, or Science Olympiad is an example of a tier 2 activity.
- Tier Three Extracurricular Activities
Tier three activities are more common and students are expected to have a few extracurriculars that fall into this category. They are not as time consuming as tier two activities, but they are still important when applying to colleges as they show a complete picture of how you spent your time in high school.
Tier three extracurricular activities include being a member, or holding a minor leadership position, of a club such as Model UN, debate team, or Science Olympiad. Athletes who receive player of the week awards or play in regional teams would fall into this category as well.
- Tier Four Extracurricular Activities
Finally, tier four activities are the most common and every student will probably have 3 or 4 tier four activities on their application. These are the clubs you were a general member of and didn’t put in a huge time commitment for.
Some sample tier four activities include being a member of a club like Model UN, debate team, and Science Olympiad. Athletes who played a sport throughout high school but didn’t earn any special distinctions would be in tier four. Volunteering often falls into tier four—unless you planned a large-scale fundraiser or raised lots of money for charity, in which case you would be in a higher tier.
While it differs for every student, you should aim to have 1 or 2 tier one and tier two activities, 2 or 3 tier three activities, and 3 or 4 tier four activities. This will show admissions officers the breadth and depth of your extracurricular interests.
Most colleges want to know how you think, what you believe in, and who you are as an individual. The essay is one of the most important parts of your application when applying to college because it represents who you are as a person. It allows you to express yourself in ways that you cannot do in other parts of your profile.
For more selective colleges, you should expect to submit 1) a personal statement and 2) school-specific supplemental essays. Some colleges might not have any supplements, while others might have upwards of 8 to 10!
Writing your essays might seem like the hardest part of applying to college, but remember that this is your real chance to showcase your personality, goals, and achievements to colleges. All you need to do is be honest and true to yourself. Admissions officers want to know what makes you unique. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when crafting your essays:
- Know your audience and their motivations. Why are you applying to this college?
- Find a unique topic that can be developed in multiple ways without sounding repetitive.
- Keep the tone conversational, but serious. It should not sound like a novel or essay from English class, but it also needs to be formal enough to convey your knowledge and intelligence.
- Keep your essay succinct. Colleges are looking for applicants who can communicate effectively through their essays, but they also don’t want people to ramble on about the same idea over and over again.
Recommendation Letters and Interviews
Compared to other aspects of your application, your recommendation letters and interviews are not as crucial. The rule of thumb is normally a good letter or interview won’t affect you, but a bad or stellar one might push you one way or the other if admissions officers are on the fence.
When it comes to recommendation letters, most of the work is out of your hands, but it is up to you to pick teachers who will write the best letter possible. You want your letters to showcase your academic drive and achievements, as well as personable characteristics like your persistence, creativity, compassion, thoughtfulness, etc. The teachers that write your letters should ideally be teachers you had in your junior or senior year—or a teacher you’ve had for multiple years who can comment on your growth—and you should have a good connection with them.
Interviews generally have very little impact on your chances of admission. Colleges are mainly interested in how you interact with others and if you can carry yourself professionally. While a good interview might not help you, a bad interview may hurt you, so take your interviews seriously. Be sure to look professional (business casual is best), but still be friendly and personable. Some helpful interview tips include:
- Be confident, not cocky. Colleges want people who will be able to contribute positively to campus life, not know-it-alls who think they’re better than everyone else.
- Be yourself. Colleges are looking to see if you have what it takes to fit in with their campus community and engage with their school.
- Be prepared for questions about yourself, your high school experience, and why you are interested in attending their college. You don’t want your answers to sound rehearsed, but have one or two things in the back of your mind so you don’t get flustered answering questions.
Another thing admissions officers take into consideration when reviewing your application is if you will fit into campus life. They get tens of thousands of applicants every admission cycle, so it’s important to them that they only accept students who genuinely want to attend and would mesh with other students.
Typically, your cultural fit and interest in a school are showcased through your essays. You can display the values that you hold, discuss certain programs or resources that align with your interests and goals, and demonstrate the unique perspectives you would bring to the campus. In addition to essays, some colleges also track demonstrated interest through things like visiting the campus, attending information sessions, going on alumni interviews, and even applying EA or ED.
Colleges want to see that you will do more than just work hard in the classroom. They want applicants who are eager to engage with the campus community and experience everything college has to offer.
Colleges are looking for a diverse campus community. Having diverse perspectives in classrooms and dorms allows students to learn from each other and develop skills like communication and empathy.
While your demographics don’t play a large part in your admissions decision, officers might take them into consideration to ensure they have a well-balanced class. When it comes to your demographics, colleges could look at your race (the most common factor often addressed in the media), your gender (usually for STEM departments that are historically male-heavy fields), your state of residence (for public colleges), and your legacy status (mainly for private colleges).
Unfortunately, this is the one area of your application that is out of your control, but luckily it doesn’t have as large of an impact on your admissions chances as factors that are in your control like your grades, extracurriculars, and essays.
What are My Chances of Admission?
After reading through all the different factors that impact your admissions decision, there might be a big question looming on your mind right now: what are my chances at my top schools? Have no fear because CollegeVine is here!
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