A current TV ad for an insurance company ends with this innocuous line: “We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” We have – seen a thing or two over the past 35+ years of advising students about their college plans and applications.
In three parts, this being the first, we’d like once again to share our acquired intelligence about those elements of an applicant’s academic and non-academic life that play a crucial role in an admissions decision. Focus on these, and you’ll have the best chance of following your dreams of experiencing a meaningful college life. So let’s begin from the beginning with what remains the single most important element of your college application.
#1: Your high school transcript
Two things here are inextricably intertwined: not only your GPA, but the rigor of your four-year curriculum (even the courses you have yet to complete as a senior). This truth holds for virtually all colleges across our nation. College is, after all, an academic experience for most. Your past, present, and future are, therefore, tied to your ability to open and develop your mind, growing ever more mature in the process. That leads to a more fulfilling life and better citizenship, among other things. And what about rigor?
The maturity we mentioned in the previous paragraph comes not with getting straight A’s, but rather with that often uncomfortable recognition as a teenager that you have to challenge yourself intellectually in order to expand your mind’s horizons. Life isn’t confined to the streets in your neighborhood, after all. How many tough courses did you enroll in? The endless reading required in an APUSH (AP United States History) course is a hint of college things to come. Admissions officers know that.
Your history in high school, then, should provide a window into your preparation for undergraduate learning. Take the most rigorous courses you comfortably can – with at least five core academic courses every semester – with each passing semester more challenging than the previous one.
#2: ACT/SAT Test Scores
Nothing else quite takes the place of these standardized college admissions tests. Every high school is unique it some way – but these tests are a standard across the country, a chance for admissions people to compare you against every other applicant, no matter from where, no matter what a particular high school program may be like. They set a standard for comparison because they're standardized.
And get this: for about half the colleges in the U.S., ACT or SAT scores are as, or nearly as, important as #1, above – your curriculum! But we know a thing or two. The use of scores varies to a large extent from school to school. Applying to Duke or Stanford or Yale? Just to get into the game you have to have near-perfect scores, other mitigating factors notwithstanding (like being a recruited athlete or having your parents buy the library). On the other hand, we have watched how the number of test-optional colleges has increased. That means other portions of your application have increased in importance. More on that below. (And even for test-optional schools, your scores may be required for scholarships.)
#3: The College Application Essay
When it’s a required part of the application (it usually is), the personal statement is the single toughest application component to complete. Why? Most students – most people, for that matter – don’t have extensive experience writing about their own ideas, personalities, proclivities, failures, etc. The purpose of college application essays and shorter responses is to have you reveal yourself in your own voice. Readers want to sense your maturity, your sense of self-reflection, and your intellectual acumen. They want to know what matters to you, what makes you happy, sad, laugh, cringe, celebrate. These are qualities that cannot and will not be conveyed in any other way but through your imaginative and cogent view of yourself in the mirror.
You are unique, right? You have, it goes without saying, reacted to your experiences and thought about them in your own, special way. Even though you studied the same American history, even though you were one of two dozen or so players on the same team participating in the same sport as your peers, you still bring your own view of life as seen through your personal lens. Write about it in the most engaging, heartfelt way you can. Yes, you have to “distinguish” yourself; sure, you have to “stand out” from the crowd. Everyone wants to do that. Your success in doing so will hinge on your ability to “make the familiar strange” – that is, your ability to write about what’s familiar (topics that applicants often write about) to the admissions reader, but in a way that’s peculiar to you, because it written in your voice against the background of your experiences.
Writing an outstanding personal statement will significantly raise your chances of admission! Here’s a hard fact: A large university may receive 25,000 applications for just 4,500 spots in its freshman class. If fully 12,000 of those applicants have, at least on paper, all the statistical requirements for admission, then one important factor that will differentiate is the student’s essay. Think about it.
In our next installment, the second of three, we’ll tackle a few more application “vital signs,” including extracurricular activities, recommendations, and more.