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What are colleges really looking for?

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“What did he do wrong?” asked an unhappy mother who’d begged me for insights after her son was rejected by the top five colleges on his list. This boy had not been one of my clients, so his mother summarized his profile: straight As at a fine high school, impressive SAT scores, glowing letters of recommendations and several summers devoted to foreign travel and academic challenge. She showed me a photo and told me anecdotes. I could tell he was a bright and charming boy, beloved by family and friends.

“What did he do wrong?” she repeated. She was not the first disappointed parent to ask me this question. I know she won’t be the last. But the fact is, it’s the wrong question. And it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the college admissions process.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” I assured her. “It’s just that there are thousands of excellent students, and they’re all competing for a small number of spots. The numbers were against him. They’re against everyone.”

It’s all about the fit

Despite what many assume, admission to one of America’s top 25 schools is not guaranteed to every smart kid who works hard and gets good grades. Nor is it a reward that’s automatically handed out to the deserving, provided they don’t make any faux pas.

Usually it’s not a question of what the applicant did wrong. It’s a question of what the school was looking for and how well the student fit.

Every college is looking for students they think will be right for their school. They’re focused on the institution’s needs, not yours or mine. A student who can set aside the old canards about “the ideal applicant” and concentrate on finding the right fit is the one most likely to succeed. To do this, she must try to understand each school. She must also understand herself and what makes her different from the rest of the applicants.

Strong grades and scores are prerequisites, not guarantees

The needs of every college are different and can vary from year to year. But there are some common denominators. These are the well-known prerequisites, but they are only the starting point. Any good school is looking for students who can handle their academic workload. That’s why grades and test scores—which predict success in college—play an important role in the admissions process.

But there are so many students with impressive GPAs and SAT or ACT scores that the top colleges look well beyond that to narrow down the applicant pool. Today it’s the students who distinguish themselves as being different and interesting who have the advantage.

What makes an applicant stand out?

Many still imagine the successful applicant to selective schools as he or she was envisioned 30 years ago: straight As, 800 SAT scores, and a host of extracurriculars, such as the debating team, yearbook, school newspaper, hockey, track or soccer. To top it off, this imaginary, all-around winner ought to be a valedictorian. In reality, many of the credentials that people assume will make a student a shoe-in for Ivy League and other top schools are seen by admissions officers as a bit of a yawn.

A look at the math helps explain why. There are more than 37,000 high schools in the United States and most of them have at least one valedictorian, headed to a selective college. Close to 20,000 high schools publish newspapers and 17,000 publish yearbooks. Almost all of their editors will be applying to college. While not all apply to the top 25 schools, a great many of do. It’s enough to make any admissions officer’s eyes glaze over.

Valedictorians and other anachronisms

Here’s what William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, said about valedictorians in The New York Times. “I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism. This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”

When it comes to extracurricular activities, any mentioned above are entirely valid, if a student embraces them with real enthusiasm. Somebody who dreams of becoming a journalist certainly should work on the school paper. A student who adores soccer should play on the team. The bottom line is that, rather than looking for applicants with “ideal” resumes, colleges are looking for those deeply involved in activities they love.

Bringing something to the conversation

Most of all, the best colleges want to assemble a diverse and fascinating group of students who will stimulate each other intellectually, in and out of the classroom. One of my favorite responses to the question, “What is your college looking for when it selects students?” came from a young admissions officer at Yale.

“We’re looking for people who can offer different perspectives to their peers,” he told prospective students and their families in Yale’s crowded auditorium. “Yale wants people who will sit around the dining hall table with their fellow students and have something interesting to bring to the conversation.”

Writing in The New York Times, William Fitzsimmons expressed a similar idea when he said he realized that students help to educate each other. Harvard, he said, is looking for “students who will inspire fellow classmates and professors.”

Every high school student—no matter how young—should take these words to heart. The challenge of high school is not simply to build a resume of achievements but to become someone who will challenge and inspire their community. That’s the first and most important step toward a college education and a future you’ll be proud of.

The next step is to figure out how to convey your inspiring qualities to a college. It’s not an easy task, and it’s not something that can be done in a few weeks or even a few months. Every part of your application—from the transcript and letters of recommendation to the extracurricular activities and essay—must communicate a clear, consistent message about who you are and what you can contribute to the college community you dream of joining.

© 2014 Mona Molarsky The College Strategist

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