What Are Competitive Colleges Looking For?

College admissions has become increasingly unpredictable with little transparency, but decision makers are actually willing to shed light on a seemingly opaque process. Recently I attended an IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association) conference and was fortunate to hear admission officers from Haverford College and Johns Hopkins University speak about their processes. They walked us through case studies and provided insights on which candidates stood out and why. At a time when some high schools are experiencing grade inflation and many colleges and universities are headed into another test optional season, other factors have taken on more importance to identify distinctions among students. During the session, we were offered a peak into some of the nuances that determine how admission readers build an impression and understand the context of each candidate’s application. While every institution follows its own process, much of what the Haverford and JHU admission officers said offers insights for any student applying to college.

Whether you are in the midst of the process or soon to begin, my key takeaways will hopefully expand your understanding of selective college admissions.

Colleges want to see that you understand and connect with what they value.

Are the candidate’s and college’s values aligned? A student can gain insight on the factors that matters to a college by what is emphasized on its website and even through social media. Haverford highlights its Honor Code and emphasizes the importance of trust. There is an expectation that students will do independent research and shape their own paths. Yet the ethos of working collaboratively is equally valued. If in answering Haverford’s two supplementary questions there is no evidence that the student understands and connects with its values, the applicant has missed an essential opportunity. While Johns Hopkins is best known as a research university, especially in STEM, the school promotes scholarship in teaching and seeks students who understand and value the university as a liberal arts institution with a culture of knowledge and creation. Like many highly selective institutions, JHU seeks to understand what students are curious about and how they demonstrate and pursue that interest, or what they refer to as academic character.

Admissions will look for evidence that a candidate is a good match for both the university and the indicated major.

Have students challenged themselves, especially in the courses that align with their declared academic areas of interest? How do their activities build upon this inquisitiveness and how have they made an impact? Colleges like Haverford and JHU are looking closely at the transcript to determine if a student is taking the most rigorous courses offered at their high school, especially in subjects that most excite them. In a time of test optional admissions, challenging oneself and exceling in the classroom can matter more than test scores. If a candidate indicates an interest in engineering, the transcript should include the highest-level courses available in math and physics. A student interested in economics will also be expected to take calculus along with macro and/or microeconomics, assuming they’re offered. The courses a student takes in school and how that individual pursues these interests beyond the classroom is not about a checklist. Rather, colleges hope to see how students take initiative as a way to understand what excites them and why.

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Colleges want to hear a student’s voice.

The personal statement is an opportunity for students to share something about themselves that is not evident elsewhere in the application. Colleges hope to gain a sense for the candidate’s voice: their internal dialogue, thought process and personal qualities. An applicant who shows self-awareness and reflection is more likely to stand out. Many colleges require their own supplements in addition to the personal statement, but too often students give these school specific essays less attention. Students who rework their personal statement until it’s perfect would be wise to take as much time and care with a college’s supplemental essays. A university’s Why essay is an important place to convey what excites a young person about a college and how they connect with what the school stands for and offers. If the supplements are not personal and specific enough, they risk sounding like anyone could have written them.

Letters of recommendation are valued for what they reveal beyond just the numbers.

Does a student demonstrate curiosity, a love of learning and sense of wonder, whether or not they are certain of their academic path, or are they driven more by grades? Letters of recommendation share the perspective of teachers and the school counselor who can provide a glimpse of the student’s engagement, role in the classroom and at the school. Selective colleges want to know the ways an individual will be missed at their high school, and how they have uplifted and enriched the lives of their classmates and teachers. While leadership is valued, evidence of a collaborative spirit is equally important. Don’t underestimate the role a strong letter of recommendation can have in revealing soft skills, especially a student’s ability to problem-solve, think critically, adapt, show curiosity and bring others together. A good recommendation can offer insights beyond the transcript. It is often an important piece of the application that helps an admissions officer imagine the student on their campus.

Total transparency about who gets into a college is likely to remain elusive. There are too many components beyond the measurable ones like grades, rigor and test scores, and the non-quantifiable are often the deciding factors. We also are rarely privy to a college’s institutional needs that change from year to year, priorities that will influence how a school chooses to shape a class. With a clearer sense for what matters in colleges admission, students targeting highly selective institutions will hopefully look beyond prestige and consider why they are a good match for the college. How do their values match up with the school’s? How do their academic and other pursuits show initiative and intellectual curiosity? In what ways are they making a difference, either at school or in their community, and how will they be missed when they graduate?

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Klemmer Educational Consulting