Breaking down the components of a college application can offer valuable insight for high school students.
The college admissions process, to some, seems mysterious.
Why does one straight-A student get into a school and another straight-A student get rejected by that same school? Why did so-and-so get rejected from an Ivy League school when she had perfect SAT scores? How much can an application essay tip the scales, really?
Both Sally Rubenstone and Joie Jager-Hyman have heard all the questions during their years in college admissions at top colleges. By looking at each application component through the eyes of these admissions experts, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of how to tackle the college application.
High school transcripts (GPA)
Both Rubenstone and Jager-Hyman both agree that your high school GPA is the most important component of the college application. According to Rubenstone, who is now a senior advisor with College Confidential and previous admissions counselor at Smith College, it’s not just the grades alone.
“The grapevine proclaims that it’s better to earn B’s in honors or AP classes than A’s in the regular ones and that’s true,” said Rubenstone, who co-authored three admissions books. “The more selective the institution, the more challenging the high school classes should be and the better the grades.”
Admissions officers evaluate two things when looking at the transcript, according to Jager-Hyman: How challenging was your coursework, and were you able to excel in the courses you chose?
“An A student in non-honors courses could be penalized for not challenging herself enough while a C student with a roster of AP courses will be penalized for not excelling,” said Jager-Hyman, who’s the author of the forthcoming book “B+ Grades, A+ College Applications” and previous assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College. “The trick is to take the most rigorous course load that you can actually do well in.”
Test scores (SAT/ACT)
Not all colleges require SAT/ACT scores. But most colleges still do consider test scores as a key part of your academic record in order to compare students from high schools across the globe with vastly different academic standards and grading policies, according to Jager-Hyman.
“Because these tests do matter at most selective colleges, it’s important for students to be educated about and to take advantage of test-prep options,” Jager-Hyman said.
In most admissions offices, transcripts trump test scores, according to Rubenstone. But with so many applicants with near-identical transcripts, good test scores are a way to stand out.
“When I worked at Smith College, we routinely accepted promising candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds whose grades were stellar but whose test results were below our normal range,” Rubenstone said. “When those scores were only somewhat below, we rarely worried. But when they were way down there, we had to question if the applicant would be overwhelmed at Smith and we needed to dig for other indicators that she could stay afloat.”
Letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation from teachers or guidance counselors could cause a college applicant to stand out but rarely do, Rubenstone believes.
“Admission folks are accustomed to scanning predictable prose, looking for those rare reports that truly nail a student’s intellectual curiosity or exceptional compassion, as well as those that imply trouble ahead,” Rubenstone said. “The best references are anecdotal and include more than just a string of adjectives, however complimentary.”
Jager-Hyman thinks letters of recommendation can help admissions officers read between the numbers and letters on your transcript.
Jager-Hyman doesn’t think college admissions essays alone have ever gotten someone accepted into college, but they could help distinguish between qualified applicants.
“The essay should add something to a college application,” Jager-Hyman said. “Students should not just rehash their resumes.”
Rubenstone also concedes that the admissions essay could maybe tip the scales but not prevent a college from accepting a valedictorian or future Nobel prize winner. Before submitting the essay, Rubenstone encourages students to make sure it reveals something about them that the rest of the application doesn’t.
Both Rubenstone and Jager-Hyman think extracurriculars are an important component to the application. Rubenstone thinks the more unique the activity, the better.
“College officials’ eyes glaze over as they read about yet another Key Club president or Model U.N. treasurer,” Rubenstone said. “Taking part in such activities is certainly considered worthwhile but won’t carry a lot of clout at the most sought-after institutions. Admissions folks tend to sit up and take notice when they spot atypical endeavors on an application, especially those that take place beyond the boundaries of the high school.”
Of course, not all colleges decide on acceptances the same. But if you follow this useful information and advice, it may just help you get into your desired school.
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