How To: Strong College Admission Application (Part 1)

SC Test Prep

As a former admission counselor and in my current work at SC Test Prep, I have repeatedly noticed the disconnect between admission offices and families regarding what actually happens during the evaluation process. Students and their parents are often confused about what really counts towards an admit decision, how the different parts of an application relate to one another, and what is even considered a strong application. This is not their fault.

First, almost every college or university uses its own particular evaluation process, thus the different parts of an application can be weighted differently at different schools or may not even be used at all. For instance, while many smaller and/or elite institutions utilize holistic review,* larger schools often use a formula-driven system where only test scores and GPA are typically considered and they are simply plugged into an equation. If this results in a certain number or higher, one is admitted. If not, sorry.

Second, and more relevant to this post, while almost every college or university reports their mid-50% ranges for SAT/ACT scores and GPA, giving students at least a rough guide of what is needed for admission, details are usually much more difficult to find regarding adequate extracurricular involvement, a strong essay, or even demonstrated interest. To pull back the curtain a bit, let’s talk about extracurricular, beginning with what is sure not to impress.

To state this as clearly as possible, colleges don’t care if an applicant is a member of Beta Club, National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Anchor Club, Key Club, or other similar organizations at the high school level. It is too easy for most of us to remember our own experiences in high school. The extent of my participation in NHS and Beta was telling my mom the night before I needed a bag of canned goods to take to school to earn service points. Neither is anyone going to particularly notice that once-a-week babysitting gig or the two hours a month spent volunteering at the soup kitchen with a youth group.

Instead, admission counselors are looking for significant, sustained involvement such as leadership roles in the organizations mentioned above, daily or weekly participation in athletics, the arts, or service organizations throughout high school, or non-school related accomplishments that require the student’s own initiative, such as earning the rank of Eagle Scout. These types of extracurricular involvement both provide additional insight into who a student is and demonstrate commitment and passion, qualities that usually correlate to success in college. Put somewhat differently, while it is true that admission offices look for well-rounded students, it is also true that they look for high-achieving specialists, so to speak, and by bringing enough of those students together create a well-rounded class and student body.

Summer can be a great time for a student to work on the resume. Check back next week when I will be talking in more detail about making the most of summer vacation to improve extracurricular involvement.

*Holistic review means that GPA, standardized test scores, strength of schedule, extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest, legacy, and much more can all be considered as part of the admissions process.