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Education: Applying to colleges? Here's what they want to see

By Rita Chakravorty Email By Rita Chakravorty
April 2020
Education: Applying to colleges? Here's what they want to see

Tips gleaned from over a decade of professional experience in college admissions 

College admission in the United States has become a complicated and contentious issue. Ridden with ambiguity, complexity, difficulty, and information overload, the process often leads to disillusionment. Google searches, dinner table conversations, concerned arguments, last-minute scrambles, late nights, and many more scenarios may seem familiar to many.

While competitive pressure, cost, and number of applicants have risen radically, the evaluation process has continued largely unchanged. Admissions officers continue to evaluate applicants by gauging student data (grades, course load, test scores), application specifics (essays, references, interviews), extracurricular activities, and personal qualities.

The most recent nationwide survey of Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) lists the top twelve criteria for what colleges look for in a student applying for admission. Each college is different, and accordingly, they have varying criteria and priorities within their admissions process. The process is also dynamic, so their requirements vary from year to year based on factors such as: economy, prior year’s application pool, changes in grants and endowments, environmental and political changes, school-specific changes in administration, new research, etc.​

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Here are some things which draw a college’s attention:

1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student, and may include AP or IB classes.

The primary reason one applies to college is to get higher education. You cannot look to study further if you are not curious and interested in learning. Selecting a course load in school that reflects curiosity to learn and challenge yourself prepares you for a rigorous college curriculum. While the course offerings may be regulated and restricted by the school policies and availability, finding a balance between interest, challenge, and graduation requirements can set you on a good track to add to the Academic Index (AI) that many competitive colleges use to measure a student’s competitive strength.​

2. High GPA in major subjects. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all A’s in less challenging coursework.

While competitive colleges examine the rigor of courses chosen in the high school, the Grade Point Average (GPA) is a major contributor to the AI. The GPA will have a direct bearing on class ranking whether your school reports it or not. Your competitive position will be judged relative to your peers. Core subjects are Math, English, Social Studies, Science, and Foreign Language. Besides these, there is always a plethora of classes offered as Electives. Within your school’s guidelines, choose what interests you. If you pursue something you like, chances are you will do well in those classes, which will definitely give your GPA a big boost.​

3. High scores on standardized tests. These should be consistent with high school performance.

Standardized Tests form an important component of your application. While a few colleges are now offering standardized tests as optional, most colleges look to these as important criteria in evaluating an applicant. Most four-year colleges in the United States accept both ACT and SAT scores. In making your decision, one strategy is to take practice tests for both, and choose to take the test on which you score better and with which you’re more comfortable. Your ability to score well is directly linked to the number of hours you spend taking practice tests. Colleges look carefully at test scores, and high scores have the benefit of potentially earning you additional validations, such as National Merit Scholarship or Presidential Scholar awards.​

4. Passionate involvement in a few meaningful activities inside or outside of school.

Find an area of interest that you are passionate about. Something must have drawn your interest enough to make you want to pursue it—either at or outside of school. Look for opportunities, reach out, and show initiative to engage and participate in those activities, so that you add a unique angle to your candidature. Instead of chasing a multitude of activities, it is better to pursue a few and show growth in those. Validations, awards, and honors will provide external confirmations of your achievements in the extra-curricular activities.​

5. A well-written essay that provides insight into student’s unique personality.

Essays are the best way to make yourself heard. It’s your chance to “speak” and tell them about yourself. It should convey a unique voice with an original, imaginative, and a well-written story. Often the prompts are posted early (the Common App essay for 2020-2021 is out already!), by August, so you can start as early as you can. Go through the different steps of essay writing process you learned in school, and work efficiently. No good essay will come out of a last-minute scribble. Instead of looking for perfection at the get go, write drafts and work over several iterations until you are satisfied. Have your teacher or someone else read it, especially someone who does not know you well, and have them assess you. What do they see, in between the lines, about you? Make sure there is humor, positivity, honesty, and emotional impact—things that will make your essay linger on the reader’s mind.​

6. Leadership inside or outside of school. Depth, rather than breadth, of leadership is valued.

What may have started at a participatory level should lead to leadership if true interest lasts. You should be inspired enough to be able to rise to a leadership position and guide others and/or take the activity to new heights. Spending meaningful time in your chosen activities can lead to change not only within yourself but also in the activity itself. Anything you pursue with commitment and zeal will be rewarded, and colleges will notice it. It also gives you so much to “talk” about when time comes time to write those essays.​

7. Demographic and personal characteristics that contribute to a diverse and interesting student body.

While some colleges follow the racial categorizations established by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which in turn relies on the United States Census data, there are subtle differences in how this information is reported and categorized. It may help to look at the specifics of where you are applying and understand how to position yourself. Colleges get more credit for being accessible and diverse by demonstrating that they have a healthy representation of all races and regions.

8. Strong counselor/teacher recommendations that provide personalized references.

No teacher writes a bad recommendation. In fact, because they always say positive things about the student, they often resort to self-generated templates. Oftentimes they, especially in schools with large student bodies, cannot put a face to the name. They say things like, “…has challenged himself with the highest level courses provided in our school and has contributed to the school’s student body with his participation in ….” That sounds like every other student. What have you done to forge a strong relationship with the teacher? Have you shown a keen interest in the subject he/she teaches? Asked a few extra questions? If you don’t give the teacher something to write about, your application will be lost in the pile of similar-sounding students. If the teacher knows you well, he can write about your personal traits that make you who you are. It gives the admissions committee a bit more information to read about you.​

9. Specialized talents that could contribute to campus life.

Can you be a part of a capella team, or an athlete at the school you’re applying to? What can you do to contribute? Talking about a skill set that may be unique, a talent that you can share, or an assistance you can provide on campus will give you the extra bonus points. While you are looking to learn and grow, they are also looking to what you can bring to the table and share with the community so that you will be an asset. Look at your candidature with a different point of view. If you were the admissions officer, why would you choose you?​

10. Intellectual curiosity exhibited through reading, research, and extracurricular pursuits.

What used to be an advantage once has now become a necessity. Some examples are AP classes and social service hours. These have all been overused to show an edge in candidacy. In order to gauge your academic strengths, colleges want to know what initiative you have taken to pursue your intellectual curiosity. If you are really keen to know more about something, did you go above and beyond what was asked of you?​

11. Student’s character and values conducive to being a good community member.

What you post on social media speaks a lot about who you are. Rely on good judgement when you make your profile public. What you say and who you are matters. A good place to showcase your character is in your essays. Let the admissions officers know who you are and what is important to you in what you write. A story about how you befriended someone in need, or adopted a family every Christmas, or spent your time at a local shelter speaks volumes about you.​

12. Demonstrated interest and enthusiasm in attending the college of choice (through campus visits, etc.)

Some schools will openly state that “demonstrated interest” plays a role in their admissions decisions. They want to know if you have been so interested in attending their college that you have taken time to visit, checked out their website for information regarding departments, research, and updates, followed their social media, and stayed in touch with the admissions officers. They will want you more than the other student who is applying just for a lark or because of parental pressure. It may seem like a lot, but starting early is the key. If colleges are expecting it, then it means students are delivering it, and if some students can, you can.


Rita Chakravorty is the founder and lead consultant for CollegeSmartboard, a one-on-one college admissions counseling service. She has 15 years of pedagogical experience in Elementary, Secondary, and Higher Education, and close to 10 years in college admissions counseling. She is guided by the scientific methodologies of Design Thinking and Six Sigma in her practice. As a member of IECA (Associate), SACAC and Int ACAC, she is vetted for education, background, training and ethics.



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