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College Prep Tips: What College Admission Officers are Really Looking For in Applicants

College Prep Tips: What College Admission Officers are Really Looking For in Applicants

For juniors preparing for the college admissions process, there’s a lot to consider when evaluating the strength of your applicant profile. There has been a lot of buzz recently about what colleges can do to alleviate college prep stress, and what colleges are really looking for in applicants today, so it’s easy for college-bound families to get confused by conflicting reports and certain admissions misinformation. Our team of expert counselors is here to set the record straight about what colleges actually want to see in applications and how students can prepare.

Academic Performance
At the end of the day, the college admissions process is about selecting students who can handle the rigors of the institution’s courses and graduate on time. This is why grades and the difficulty of students’ course load are the most important things colleges consider when weighing admissions decisions. Colleges want to admit students who have shown they’re able to manage college-level work.

How to prep: Take a look at your current grades and course schedule and see where you can improve. Make an appointment with your counselor and get suggestions on the best courses to take next year. If you’re interested in STEM, take challenging math and science courses and make good grades. If you’re struggling, seek help from your teacher or a tutor. If your grades aren’t the best right now, aim for an upward grade trend. Set aside time to study and commit yourself to improving your academic performance.

A Specialty
We can’t stress this enough – colleges want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists. While there are tens of thousands of well-rounded students that apply to highly selective universities every year, it’s those with a demonstrated specialty that stand out. Whether it’s music, art, STEM, or some other area of interest, applicants who dedicate their time to something they really love, and articulate how they plan to pursue that same passion on campus, are more likely to get noticed by admissions officers. This helps colleges meet their institutional needs and build a more diverse class.

How to prep: Focus your interests! Explore a few different topics through reading, research, and just talking to others with the same interest. Follow relevant people and organizations on social media to become familiar with the community and stay abreast of news and developments. Dive deeper into a few different interests to learn more and decide if you really want to pursue those subjects.

Meaningful Extracurricular Involvement
As many families know, Harvard recently released a report suggesting that colleges can help reduce college admissions stress by putting less emphasis on test scores and more weight on how students contribute to their communities through work, community service, and other activities. In reality, meaningful impact in students’ extracurricular endeavors and their local community is something colleges have been considering for years now. At IvyWise, we always encourage students to focus their energy on a handful of activities they really enjoy and make a meaningful contribution.

How to prep: Take a look at your current extracurricular activities. Are you stretched too thin? Or are you not really involved in anything at all? If you’re involved in a bunch of activities you’re not that passionate about, drop them! Focus on two or three activities that really pique your interest and see what you can do to make an impact. Can’t find an activity or community service opportunity that meets those criteria? Create your own! If you’re not really involved in anything at the moment, this is your chance to explore a few different activities and see which ones you really like. Take some time to explore those options then decide what to keep and what to drop.

Informed Interest
Demonstrated interest has been a factor that has gained prominence in admissions over the last few years. With students applying to more colleges, it can sometimes be hard for colleges to predict how many admitted students will enroll. While some colleges track students’ contact with the admissions office, through visits, interviews, and more, what colleges really look for is informed interest, or, more specifically, how much the applicants know about the school. Have they done enough research? Do they know why this school is good fit? Can they articulate that in their essays? This helps colleges weed out the applicants who might not be as serious about attending the institution, and reward those who have put together a thorough, thoughtful, and informed application.

How to prep: Do your research! Learn everything you can about the colleges you’re interested in to really determine why these colleges are a good fit for your needs and goals. Research programs, professors, courses, and activities that you might want to explore if admitted. Tailor your essays to each college and be as detailed as possible, pulling from your previous research. Supplements can make or break and application, so make sure you are informed.

Other Factors Colleges Consider
There are a number of other factors that colleges take into consideration when evaluating applications for admission.

  • SAT/ACT Test Scores: While standardized test scores alone won’t gain you admission, they can quickly send your application to the ‘no’ pile. Start test prep early by determining which test is the best for you, and taking a diagnostic version of each exam. IvyWise offers a free diagnostic to all students who sign up for an Initial Consultation. Once you know which test to focus on, create a testing strategy. Only take the test when you’re really ready. If you need to retake the exam that’s okay, but don’t take the ACT or SAT more than three times. If after three attempts your scores haven’t improved, consider looking into test-optional colleges.
  • Recommendations: Colleges can tell from your grades how you perform in class, but recommendations from counselors and teachers give more insight into who you are as a student and how you impact the school community. Recommendations won’t make or break your application, but they can go a long way to helping an admissions officer advocate for you if your recommendations are particularly compelling. Participate in class, foster relationships with teachers and mentors, and work to be a positive influence at your school.
  • Essays: School-specific essays are important for informed interest, but colleges also want to learn more about you in general. When writing your personal statement, activity essay, or another more general essay, be sure to reveal something about you that can’t be found anywhere else in the application.

The time for juniors to begin preparing for the college application process is now! Our team of expert counselors can give college bound juniors insight into what they need to be doing now to increase their chances of admission to their top-choice colleges. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling programs.

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