What are Colleges Looking for in an Applicant?

by | Sep 17, 2016

What are Colleges Looking for in an Applicant?

For any of us working with college-bound students and parents, it is inevitable to be confronted with the following question: “If colleges are looking into extra curricular activities, is it true that they need to be well-balanced, to show that the applicant is a well-rounded teenager?” Another version: “If my daughter is a talented violin player, she needs a sport to balance it out, right?“ Similarly, “My son is passionate about wrestling, and should we also register him for theater or choir….”

The answer is no. Colleges are not looking for a Jack of all Traits, not at all. They are not looking for the student who can do it all, and has interests that cover the whole range of arts, sports, community service, and everything under the sun. College admissions officers know that it is not realistic for a person to be truly passionate about half a dozen activities at a time, and much less, excel in all of them.

Let’s analyze the common app and what it intends to accomplish. The college application is designed to provide a well-rounded analysis of the student, which does not mean that the student needs to be well rounded.

The application strives to provide the academic performance, the rigor of courses taken (very important!), how well the student performs academically on a continuum (GPA) and on a given test (SAT and/or ACT). However, all these numbers and scores do not fully describe the applicant as a person. And this is precisely the information that admission counselors need to determine whether the applicant is a good fit for their institution.

Admission counselors will try to extricate the essence of the applicant primarily in two items of the college application: the essay, and the extracurricular activities. These two aspects of the college application will most likely provide the information that brings the candidate to life: who is this person, and what makes him/her tick? What does he/she choose to do with their free time? Are there any recurrent themes in their hobbies? Is this person a leader, or a follower? A people person, or a shy, quiet teen? Can I discover personality traits through the activities this person performs, and what he/she chooses to write about?

The first question that arises when I discuss this with my families is: How much does “personality” and “interests” weigh compared to grades and SAT scores? Hmmm….this is a tricky question, because it does somewhat depend on the school. However as a general rule, admission counselors are looking academics, a good fit, and a good mix.

What is a good fit? A good fit is a student who will thrive on their campus, who will be embracing what the school has to offer. A student who will enrich their community by being who they are, who will grow and learn and be happy in their school and yes, who one day will go out to the world and be a great ambassador to their college.

What is a good mix? A student who will bring his/her uniqueness to the student body and help create a rich community of learners. A student who will blend into the whole and also provide an flavor that is unique to that person. Colleges pride themselves of their diversity!

My advice: don’t strive to be “well-rounded”. Competitive colleges are not looking for a Jack-of-all-trades. Be yourself, and demonstrate a commitment to what you believe in and what you love to do. A winner application exhibits passion, grit, and potential.

Bettina Weil

Weil College Advising

Weil College Advising

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