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Oregon Family Magazine

What Colleges Seek in Applicants

01/01/2019 ● By Sandy Kauten
Competitive colleges have six lenses they look through when assessing applicant admission potential, of which the applicant can affect only five. The flip-side of this is, a college applicant has five opportunities to shine a light on how he or she would excel and contribute, if admitted.

Lens 1: Grades, Class Selection, and Academic Effort  

To succeed as a freshman, one must have the ability to do well in the offered coursework; no college will open their gates without confidence that an applicant’s intelligence and effort will be a match for the school’s academic rigor. The track record of previous academic success is GPA, balanced against one’s choice of high school coursework. Honors, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate coursework is rewarded, and a hard-earned “B” can show more grit than an A in a less-accelerated class. Assume colleges know what opportunities your high school offers, because they do.

Colleges don’t seek perfect past performance; they seek those who immerse themselves in challenge and rise to the occasion. In that regard, 3.3 GPA’s may be accepted where 4.0 is rejected. Also, strong junior and senior year performance can override earlier poor marks, especially if one addresses the change in performance through Lens #3.

Lens 2: Other Activities and Achievements

Colleges also want to know what an applicant does outside academics, as choices speak to one’s talents, interests, opportunities, and circumstances. What skills have been developed (and thus will be brought to campus)? With whom has the applicant been involved? Colleges are highly aware that applicants have different opportunities, but given one’s narrative: What does the applicant do? What “lights this kid’s fire”?

Performing, visual and written arts, sports, working for pay or as a volunteer, and developing hobbies and craft-skills are all valuable, maturing experiences which offers a measure of what a candidate brings to campus. If one excels in the arts, consider submitting a supplemental “portfolio application” to showcase talent and confidence. Also, colleges like to field competitive sports teams, so experienced, talented, and motivated athletes have some leverage.

Lens 3:  A Unique Story

Everybody has unique history and personality which speaks to whom they have become.  With this story comes insight into sought-after character traits:

·       Curiosity… Engagement… Ambition… Momentum… Passion

·       Integrity… Responsibility… Perseverance… Self-discipline

·       Dedication/Commitment… Direction… Insightfulness

·       Confidence… Positive Attitude/Spirit… Sense of humor

·       Empathy… Service… Ability to organize and lead

·       Strength of Character… Willingness to take a risk

Students who overcome challenges and obstacles and take advantage of opportunity are highly sought. As well, colleges respond positively to those with strong self-advocacy skills and who can communicate effectively and honestly. In fact, a “unique story and self” often adds compelling weight to an application.

Colleges gain insight as to one’s story and character through a presentation of extra-curricular activities, personal admissions essay(s), an interview (if available), recommendations, and the quality of communications during the application process.

By the way, just as applicants research what a college offers using the internet, assume each college will reciprocate, learning about each applicant through his or her social media presentation. How one presents oneself on social media says a lot.

Lens 4: How Much Effort is Applied

Every college believes it offers a unique and rewarding experience, and an applicant’s job is to be an excellent prospect for that unique reward. Colleges know those who research their college’s mission, history, and undergraduate program, ask appropriate questions, and pursue a relationship with them are more likely to be good prospects. If a prepared applicant can clearly state why a specific college is an excellent option, that college will listen carefully.

Lens 5:  Test Scores (SAT or ACT)

SAT or ACT scores may also be a portion of the assessment. Typically, a student’s test scores align with the qualities mentioned; and involved students with good grades (in tough programs) usually score higher. However, there are exceptions, and colleges that use test scores for admissions will diminish a lower-than-anticipated score if other student qualities are attractive. On occasion, an unanticipated high score may indicate otherwise unrealized potential and enhance an application.

I commonly recommend college-bound juniors take the test in the Spring, allowing time for a re-take in the Fall of their senior year if a reasonably higher score would better meet a specific college’s expectation.

There is also a 6th lens which applicants cannot affect. That is, colleges seek a breadth of backgrounds and experiences in its collective freshman class, and thus make a concerted effort to admit a diversity of ethnicity, religions, experiences, hometown locations, and other characteristics. Further, colleges need a range of freshman interests to fill out the school’s broad offerings. They desire math fanatics, dancers, poets, lacrosse players, photographers, and pianists, and they want potential leaders for the LGBTQ, chess, Libertarian, Manga and robotics clubs. Additionally, colleges may weigh a family’s legacy at their school ability to pay. (Note: Many colleges are needs-blind in admissions, and offer needs-based and merit scholarships; never let a price tag stop you from applying!).

The truth is, one cannot control all the weights on a college application.  But an applicant can highlight personal strengths and align the five lenses above to cast a bright light on their competency and ambition. The effort is worth careful thought and time, as the rewards of a well-matched college education are lifelong.

Finally, everyone has access to a quality education through community college. Locally, Lane Community College offers affordable, fully-accredited core college coursework and other skill training for every high school graduate wishing to continue their education.

Joshua Hirschstein is the Owner and Director of Lane Tutoring Service, Inc. in Eugene since 1990, and has coached high school students on college admissions and test preparation for over 35 years.  He can be reached at 541-484-4133 or by email at [email protected].