While universities evaluate applications for admission according to their own formula, there are two overarching questions that every school asks to determine the strength of an applicant’s candidacy:
“Is this student academically capable?” and “Does this student fit?”
The first question is fairly easy to evaluate. Admission committees will look at three factors to determine whether or not the student will succeed academically at their institution.
The first factor is related to the student’s grades in college prep courses. How well the student performed in these courses is a fairly strong indicator as to how well the student will perform during their freshman year.
The second factor is related to the strength of the curriculum. Students who elect to take the most academically rigorous courses possible, contingent on which classes were offered at the student’s high school, are viewed in a favorable light during the admissions process. This shows that the student was willing to challenge him or herself, going above and beyond basic graduate requirements.
The third factor is related to test scores. Standardized tests, while flawed and perhaps favorable to a certain type of student, are one of the few measures we have available today to compare students from one institution to another, both domestically and internationally. Student performance on the standardized tests like the SAT and ACT is often a strong predictor of freshman grades. Admission Officers are usually looking to see if these scores match up with everything else the student has submitted and these scores are not likely to be the deciding factor, although there are cut-offs. Cut-offs, benchmarks or thresholds are based on what the university has determined the student should be able to meet in order to perform well in all of his or her classes. These numbers are usually not the bottom line and there are always exceptions. The best rule of thumb to determine if you are academically competitive is to make sure that your test scores fall above the middle 50% of applicants. Subject test scores, such as the AP, IB, SAT II, and state graduation exams are related to standardized tests. They hold less clout, but also help to provide an overall view of your academic success.
The second question is much more difficult to define and evaluate. The concept of fit in general refers to whether or not the student and the institution are a good match. The specific factors that influence this concept greatly vary from one institution to the next. However, from my experience, the following characteristics are often cherished and in turn sought after: passion for knowledge, intellectual curiosity, collaboration, diversity, and creativity.
These characteristics are difficult to test for on an exam, so the part of the application where admission committees find this information is through the essay. A well-crafted essay is not only one that answers the question and follows the conventions of English grammar, syntax and construction, but one that also displays the student’s personality, level of critical thinking, thought processes, passions, interests, strengths and perhaps even their weaknesses.
I ask my students a series of questions to consider when brainstorming possible essay topics. The content the student chooses to write about is just as important as how it is written. In my opinion, the best essays are often those that take a risk. Admission officers are inundated with a deluge of essays that often deal with very similar topics, consequently leaving the reader bored. A boring essay is not going to work in the student’s favor, especially when there are thousands of students competing for a limited number of spots.
It’s never easy to take risks; that is the nature of risk taking, is it not? Taking a risk on your application essay can be quite a daunting challenge, especially in the high stakes admissions game. Confidence is required and confidence comes first from having a strong sense of self. How can one develop this sense of self? While there are many approaches, self-reflection is often at the core of any method. I ask my students another series of questions to help them define this sense of self, as developed by Eric J. Furda, Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.
The questions are as follows:
Identity: How do you see yourself and how do others see you?
Intellect: How do you think and approach the acquisition of knowledge?
Ideas: What do you think and why?
Interests: What do you choose to do when you have the time and flexibility?
Inspiration: What really motivates you?
As we now see, the admissions game can be quite a challenging one. With that said, the process of applying to university offers the applicant a tremendous opportunity for self-discovery, which in turns leads to growth. Guiding my students through this process is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
For more information regarding application procedures, evaluating your chances of admission, “fit”, or advice on writing a successful personal statement, be sure to visit FreeCollegeAdvice or contact me at MyFreeCollegeAdvice@gmail.com.