While students and parents think that the process by which colleges choose whom to admit is all about the qualifications of the applicant, in reality it is about a whole lot more. Ultimately colleges are self-serving. Many of their admission policies and practices are designed with their own interests and agendas in mind. Knowing that fact and understanding what colleges generally value in the process helps parents and students. Translating that knowledge into action makes students stronger applicants.
A college’s decision to become test optional is a perfect example. There are currently over 1000 colleges and universities, including more than 300 “top-tier” institutions, which are test optional. These schools allow students to opt to not submit the ACT or SAT. In so doing, they generally increase the number of applicants which has the effect of lowering their admission rate and making them more selective. Schools generally report the test scores of students who enroll. Being test optional also allows them to admit some students without having to report their lower test scores when having to do so would have hurt the colleges’ position in the rankings.
Colleges review a student’s academic profile (transcript, test scores and, to put that performance in context, the high school’s profile) to help them predict the likelihood of academic success in a student’s chosen area of study. Reviewing essays written by the student and information written about the student by others (recommendations by teachers and guidance counselors) enables colleges to consider information about a student’s interests, character, activities, ambitions, motivation and more. All applicants can’t be the Brainiac. Many have other strengths and qualities, like a high emotional IQ. Through the visit process and the development of their applications, students have various opportunities to let colleges know about these positive and highly desired traits.
Colleges want to know that if they offer a student admission the student is likely to enroll (yield). Their admission decision is partly based on their assessment that the student will be someone teachers want to teach and other students want to live with on the dorm floor. They want to know that the student will contribute in the classroom and to the residential life of the college, graduate and then continue to contribute with money or good will as a successful and proud alumnus! Every step of the way, it’s useful to keep these points in mind.
Since colleges want to know that an applicant has been thoughtful about the process of researching and considering colleges in general and their unique institution in particular, it’s important to engage with them and “demonstrate interest.” For starters, students should go to a school’s website to sign up and get on their mailing list. (Try going to admissions and the link for requesting information.) They should visit colleges. If a college offers interviews, they should take advantage of those opportunities to engage with them, learn more about whether or not the college provides the kind of opportunities they are discovering they might want, and present themselves in their best light. (However, I don’t recommend interviewing until later in the process when the student has a clearer sense of colleges and themselves.) Currently, it can even be important to visit or engage with schools that may have been classified earlier as “safety schools.”
Students should learn about the individual mission of the colleges they are considering by listening for information about it during the information session or searching and reading about it on its website. On the applications, some colleges ask supplemental questions about why a student wants to attend that school or what the student wants to study and why at that school. Drafting essays through the lens of understanding what the student is looking for in a college environment and how that fits with the college’s unique mission will ensure strengthened, targeted and more effective essays.
Published in the Education section of The Scarsdale Inquirer and The Record Review on January 18, 2019