What is it colleges really want in an applicant? Do you desire to get into one of the top 20 colleges? How exactly do you qualify?
College Basics offers some realistic information about what colleges look at:
Class Standing: Although grades are an iffy thing because high schools vary in teacher and course quality and how hard students have to work to earn As, still colleges do assign admission personnel to check out specific high schools of candidates they consider. Also, many colleges are actually familiar with some schools because they have accepted applicants from those high schools and know how well they have done there. You don’t have to be one of the top ten GPA students in high school, but grades count.
SATs (or ACTs): Although colleges know that there is college admission test prepping and that students with the savvy, time, and money can retake the tests until they get the score they want, still SATs/ACTs are important. Indeed, SATs or ACTS are the only standard way to measure applicants from all over the country. If you can’t afford to take preparation courses, you can buy prep and practice books at your local book store, and you can get free practice tests in your guidance counselor’s office.
AP exam and SAT Subject Tests: There is more than the SAT. Colleges really want to know that you can do college level work. What tells them that best in a more standardized way than grades and in a more fair way than SATs or ACTs? Ah, AP testing! An AP test can only be taken once, and it shows how well you can handle advanced material. The SAT Subject Test can be re-taken, but these tests are geared toward what you have learned in a subject areas, so when you retake one and do better, it is probably more a reflection of how you are learning more as you go than it is that your getting familiar with how to answer questions to show your general reasoning.
The Application Essay: This is another way to show not only your personality but also your fluency with words. Word fluency demonstrates you are bright and well-read. Of course, there are essay services that will write your whole essay for you, but the essays they produce are so polished and so impersonal, a good college admission reader can tell it’s not real and doesn’t show a real person. If you write well and from the heart as yourself, that personal application essay can do a lot to attract attention to you as an outstanding and deserving applicant.
Recommendations: These are important because they are from people in respected positions who have observed you; they are that third eye which you can’t control. Of course, recommendations have become inflated. Teachers, especially, will make students sound better than they are because it makes them look good and it makes their school look good. Colleges know this, so what makes you stand out as an applicant is if the recommender can be specific. It’s up to you to remind them of the specifics because you are one of anywhere from 60 to 125 of their students. For good information about how to get the best recommendations see our College Basics articles on recommendations.
School/Community Involvement: Schools will look at your involvement in other activities as a scale-tipper. It will be your résumé that will showcase your out-of-class accomplishments. (For tips on the résumé as well as résumé samples, go to College Basics.) You may be one of the best students in your high school with great test scores; still if you’ve only been a student; how hard is that? But, if you are a good student and have committed time and energy outside of your school work and developed your social interaction, you will seem hard-working and well-rounded, someone who can adapt to both a new campus life and the work load at the college-level.
This is the skinny on six areas that impact how colleges evaluate you. You have to think about all of them for the acceptance letter you want, and we hope you have a better idea of what’s expected.