With many high school students and their parents in the thick of visiting and deciding on colleges, the voicemail and e-mail boxes of admissions officers across the country are filling up with urgent questions.
Understanding the college admissions process is confusing for many students, especially if they are uncertain about the type of school or campus experience they want. A university's rankings and statistics combined with a student's high school GPA and standardized test scores can further complicate matters. According to a recent report by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 21 percent of college freshmen in 2011 applied to eight or more schools, just to hedge their bets.
"I often find myself cornered in the produce aisle at the grocery store or the waiting room in the dentist's office. Everyone always wants to know what we're looking for in prospective students," said Martha Allman, Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University. "I've often referred to the admissions selection process as more art than science. However, there are a few gold standards we regard as strong measuring sticks and ways students can help themselves."
Therefore, Allman has compiled her top 10 list of most frequently asked questions to provide clarity for - and alleviate the concerns of - prospective students and parents.
1) How important are extracurricular activities?
As a general rule, academic record is much more important than extracurricular activities. However, if a student has substantial talent and accomplishments in the fine arts, athletics or other areas which are sought after by a particular college, that can become a significant factor in the admissions decision. In general, colleges seek depth of involvement, not breadth, so focus your time and attention on a few activities in which you excel and enjoy and skip the resume builders.
2) How do you differentiate among high schools?
Through school visits, written profiles and past experience with students from particular high schools, admissions officers gather data to assist them in assessing different schools. We evaluate students in the context of where their education is taking place, the rigor of the curriculum, the competition in the classroom and the opportunities afforded them. In the end, it remains an evaluation of the individual.
There are great students at less demanding schools and there are marginal students at superb schools. The students that we seek are those that have "bloomed where they are planted," taking the most challenging curricula afforded them, going beyond expectations and exhibiting real motivation and intellectual curiosity.
3) Do IB and AP courses matter?
Selective colleges expect students to successfully pursue the most challenging curricula offered to them. In some high schools, that is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, for others it is Advanced Placement (AP), while other schools offer a different curriculum for their most advanced students. Pursuing the most rigorous curriculum signals academic motivation and excelling in that curriculum suggests that the student is well prepared for academically strenuous college classes.
4) What do you look for in admissions essays?
I look for beautiful, clear writing that comes to life on the page and offers insight into the character and personality of the student. The essay and short answer writing prompts give the student the opportunity to put meat on the bone of transcripts and test scores and introduce themselves to the admissions committee. Beware being someone whom you are not in the essay and beware outside influence. Editing by adults or professionals often removes the very elements that admissions officers seek.
5) Who should write my letter(s) of recommendation?
An academic teacher from the junior or senior year of high school who knows the applicant well and can speak to his strengths, weaknesses and the qualities that differentiate him from the other students in the classroom should write the recommendation. If the applicant has special talents she wishes to be considered in the admissions process, a letter from, for example, a music teacher or debate coach is also helpful. People who do not know the applicant are not good references, regardless of how fond they are of the applicant's parents.
6) Are college visits really necessary?
They are very helpful in differentiating one college from another and assessing the appropriate "match." You can never underestimate a gut feeling or the campus personality. It's true that campus visits can be expensive and time consuming, so websites and virtual tours are helpful. But when it comes down to the end, when the choices have been narrowed and the enrollment decision looms large, you might want to meet some professors, get a sense for the campus vibe and determine if you can see yourself there for the next four years.
7) To how many schools should I apply?
Working with your parents, your school counselor, college guides and websites, narrow your choices! Applying to multitudes of colleges is costly, time consuming and it compounds the problems of yields and waiting lists, and ultimately adds to admissions hysteria. Don't apply to a college unless you are genuinely interested in attending. Instead, focus on colleges that are realistic and appealing to you.
8 ) Should I send supplementary materials with my application?
Scrapbooks demonstrating your love for college X? No. DVDs of your student body president campaign speech? No. Tapes of your garage band? Probably not. Slides of art work for which you have received awards? Yes. Newspaper clipping showing you as Boys Nation President? Yes. If you have significant accomplishments which have been recognized outside your own family and circle of friends and you believe those accomplishments should be considered in your admissions decision, submit supplementary material...but be prudent. Admissions officers have a lot to read!
9) How important are standardized tests?
Many colleges, including Wake Forest, DePaul, Bowdoin, American, George Mason and Smith are now test optional, which means each applicant may decide whether or not she would like her SAT or ACT test scores considered in the admissions decision. Regardless of whether or not scores are submitted, the high school record remains the most important factor in the admissions process. Even the highest standardized test scores fail to compensate for mediocre academic achievement.
10) How do colleges really choose their students?
Colleges choose students based on their own institutional needs. Will this student bring something to our campus community that we value or something that we need more of? Will this student contribute to an academic or extracurricular program that is important to the college? Will the student add energy and perhaps a different perspective to our community?
First and foremost, colleges must select students who are academically qualified but from that point, it is about class building and adding a variety of individuals that will further the college's mission and enrich its campus.