Parent Resource

What College Admissions Officers Are REALLY Looking For in a High Schooler

Radha Parameswaran, Head of School and Science and Mathematics Teacher, Blyth-Templeton Academy

Ask any student what the most stressful part of their final year and a half of high school has been, and the majority will respond – college applications.

At a time in their life where young people are highly impressionable, beginning to solidify the ideals and patterns of thinking that will serve them for the rest of their lives – they are concurrently under intense pressure and stress, often dealing with unhealthy levels of anxiety.

And their anxiety doesn’t even compare to what their parents are feeling.

Keep reading as we explore what a college admissions office is really looking for in an applicant. The truth may save you and your high school student from years of standardized test-obsession, resume-building, and anxiety.

The College Admissions Process Is Changing

Many colleges are beginning to recognize the shortcomings and pitfalls of their application processes. Several college admissions departments are recognizing that traditional rubrics of evaluation, such as SAT/ACT scores and a singular emphasis on grades, are not only stressing applicants, but they also are not a reliable indicator of success in college.

Several well known and prestigious colleges, such as the University of Chicago and Virginia Tech, have begun initiatives, revamping their admissions process to take a more holistic approach to recruiting students and accounting for factors such as low-income households and first-generation students. In taking this holistic approach, colleges hope to find the best fit for both the school and the student.

It’s Not Just About Grades

“We’re not trying to find some formula that takes 11,000 applicants and lines them up from No. 1 to No. 11,000,” said Andrew B. Palumbo, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. “If that were the case, one of our students could create a computer program and put us out of a job. We are trying to find the best fit.”

These words from Andrew Palumbo perfectly encapsulate the growing movement within the college admissions world. Don’t misunderstand us, good grades are important, but if colleges were solely interested in academic achievements it would be simple to design a system that could rank applicants.

Grades are important – they just do not provide the whole picture. Colleges are beginning to recognize and act on the knowledge that accepting a 4.0 student, with a 5 page resume, and a near perfect SAT score does not guarantee that the student will thrive at their school, or that those credentials are good indicators of how an applicant will fit into the student body. In fact, they could be indications that a student is more likely to be overworked, burnt out on learning, and likely to struggle with a crippling pressure to succeed.

Rather, colleges are interested in inviting those students who will add to their student body, contribute to the life of the school, and thrive in that particular setting. Colleges want to see students thrive and grow during their four years, and they know that grades cannot give them a complete picture of who will succeed.

Many Colleges are Going Test-Optional

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 1000 colleges and universitiesdo not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of applicants. Not only have standardized tests been proven to favor children from affluent families who can afford expensive prep classes and tutors, therefore skewing the test results, but major studies have shown that the tests themselves are not good predictors of which students will succeed in college.

This is because tests like the SAT and ACT are better indicators of who can memorize information and regurgitate it according to an arbitrary scale developed by the testing industry, and less a true measure of a student’s readiness to thrive in college. Colleges and universities are finally beginning to come together, with the recognition that “test scores do not equal merit.”

Colleges Want Students Who Contribute to the Common Good

Recently, the Harvard Graduate School of Education began a project titled, Making Caring CommonTurning the Tidethe college admissions campaign associated with the project, makes several recommendations for changes that can be made to the application process, which would take a more robust and holistic approach to accepting students and would also attempt to level the playing field.

The report includes concrete recommendations in three core areas:

  1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
  2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.
  3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

So far, 175 college admissions offices nationwide have joined this movement to build a more caring and just world through how they assess high school applicants.

All of This Means A Movement Toward Diversity and Equity

Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Making Caring Common Project said, “as a rite of passage, college admissions plays a powerful role in shaping student attitudes and behaviors. Admissions deans are stepping up collectively to underscore the importance of meaningful engagement in communities and greater equity for economically diverse students.”

Similarly, Dr. Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College at Hartford, recently revamped the admissions process to better identify promising students, particularly the disadvantaged.

“I’m trying to increase the tools we have, and get beyond a system that is absolutely antiquated,” Dr. Pérez said. Admissions officers at Trinity College are now looking in every application for concrete evidence of 13 characteristics — including curiosity, empathy, openness to change and ability to overcome adversity — that researchers associate with successful students.

So What Counts? What are Admissions Counselors Looking For?

So what are colleges looking for? What should our high school graduates focus on, in order to set themselves up for college success?

Here’s a summary of what we’ve learned about how the college admissions process works.

Colleges are beginning to recognize the importance, not only of a student’s transcript, but also of their community engagement, demonstrated desire to learn, creativity, ability to problem solve, capacity for self-directed learning, and much more.

According to a 2017 survey by ACS International Schools, admissions counselors are focusing on identifying evidence of a positive attitude toward study, a passion for a student’s chosen field of study, and the ability to work independently, among other factors.

Colleges are seeking a holistic narrative – a broader view of the prospective student’s abilities, contributions, passions, and potential.

Here at BTA, we think this shift is a great thing, and one of many indications that our education system is changing to better reflect the realities of 21st century life. Our educational model is built to reflect a changing world and is prepared to offer high schoolers the educational environment they need to thrive and succeed.