Unlocking the mysteries of college admissions
All college admissions are not created equal. Every school has its own quirky way of establishing the "perfect formula" to figure out who gets accepted. Having worked in college admissions for four years, let me give you an inside look at what colleges are really looking for in an applicant:
Above all, colleges will focus on your academic record. They want students to choose the most challenging curriculum available to them. In most schools, this translates into honors, AP or IB curriculum. The college admissions staff will measure your curriculum against what your school offers. In addition, specialty schools weigh certain classes more heavily. For instance, an engineering school places more emphasis on your physics and calculus classes.
GPAs mean less than in previous decades, since grading scales often differ at each school. As a result, most colleges will ask for your class rank to determine how you fare against your peers. Regardless of what some high schools say, they do keep rankings. Many high schools prefer to give ranges, though, since that casts you in the best light. Ask your guidance counselor to explain your school's ranking system so you know what they'll be sending out.
Even though some colleges are beginning to forgo the SAT or ACT as admissions criteria, most still use this resource religiously. A lot of colleges are approaching the new version of the SAT with a "wait and see" attitude.
Every college publishes the 50 percent range of the SAT scores of their accepted applicants. This number is a good indicator of the typical student the school accepts. But keep in mind that this range may be skewed either way depending on the number of in-state students they accept, the number of applicants that are children of alumni and the number of special-talent applicants, such as athletes or artistically-gifted students.
In most cases, colleges will accept your highest combined score; therefore, you should take the test more than once. Students who receive extended time for tests in their high school classes may be eligible to receive extended time on standardized tests as well. In the past, an asterisk was placed next to a score if a student was given extended time, but this is no longer the case. Also, highly selective schools sometimes require SAT subject tests, but these are primarily used for placement upon arrival or as another criterion in scholarship competitions.
In general, smaller schools examine your activities more thoroughly than larger schools because they want to see how you will contribute to their communities. Passion is the buzzword in the admissions world. One's passion typically translates into depth in one or more activities.
Ironically enough, those students whose resumes look the fullest in high school usually are burnt out by the time they get to college, and they end up not participating in any activities once they arrive. Thus, schools like to see leadership, dedication and commitment. You will serve yourself better to invest more time in a handful of sustained activities rather than to participate on a surface level in many activities.
While working in admissions, I would keep track of all the class presidents, captains of athletic teams, All-State athletes, editors, Eagle Scouts and Gold Award winners; all of these activities demonstrate determination and persistence. Your activities serve as a reflection of what you value. Make sure they are an accurate reflection.
Also, colleges love to see how you choose to spend your summer vacations. Take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that surround you. Most states offer free educational programs like Boys and Girls State, which teaches you about the government. There are also many fee-based summer experiences, such as courses offered at colleges, and "boundary-breaking" experiences with programs like Outward Bound.
For those who love to write, see if you can serve as an intern at your local newspaper for the summer. For those interested in medicine, volunteer at your local hospital.
Colleges love to see students volunteering. Keep track of all of your service hours, as colleges will more than likely ask you to tabulate these.
Essays demonstrate your effectiveness in communicating. Delve into an unexplored area of your personality—but be yourself. If you are a funny individual, then let your sense of humor shine through your writing. I can assure you, if you are not funny but try to be, that will shine through as well.
The most compelling essays revolve around mundane activities that you are able to breathe life into or a compelling situation that shows a portion of your personality. One of my all-time favorite essays was about a student's trip to Sears. Steer clear of the "winning the big game" essay unless you have a very creative angle.
Be warned: admissions professionals read mountains of essays. If you do not prove your worth in the first paragraph, the reader will skim the rest of the essay.
If academic recommendations are required, schools prefer recommendations from a math or science teacher and an English or history teacher. Make sure you ask your teacher politely, and allow him or her plenty of time to write your recommendation. In addition, you never know what a teacher may write, so choose someone who knows you well—ideally both inside and outside the classroom.
Many Christian colleges ask for a recommendation from a pastor, youth pastor or other church leader. If additional recommendations are requested, alumni recommendations are a good idea because they often hold more weight.
After your sources submit your recommendations, be sure to write each person a thank you note, as writing a recommendation typically takes most people one to two hours.
If a college gives interviews, only sign up for one if (a) you are required to do so or (b) your personality will shine through in a positive way. Prepare knowledgeable questions to ask, look the interviewer in the eye and ask for his or her business card. Most schools track interest; thus, consistent contact will improve your chances. However, stalking is not recommended.
Remember that there is no such thing as the "perfect" school; rather, the goal is to find the perfect fit for you.
Colin Creel is a dean of junior boys at Wesleyan School in Norcross, Ga. He is the former assistant director of admissions at Wake Forest University and the author of Perspectives (Relevant Books). Learn more at www.colincreel.com.