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Reading the Lines & What’s Between: What Admissions Officers Look For
By: Angela Jones-Glukhov
At the most selective U.S. universities, it all happens, on average, in 7 minutes. The review of application forms, school reports, test scores, essays, and other materials that took years to develop and months to craft, is conducted swiftly yet thoroughly.
In that time, admissions officers are looking for answers to two core questions.
One, “Can this student succeed in my classrooms?” and two, the more nebulous, “Will this student succeed?”
Can this student succeed? Time on Task - ~ 1 min
The evidence in an application that demonstrates if a student has the academic ability to succeed is relatively straightforward to understand. The most obvious are, in order of importance:
#1 Course rigor--did the student take the most challenging courses available to them at their high school
Grades--did the student do well in those courses
Rank--did the student do well in relation to their peers at their high school (this is not always a particular placing in the class like # 3 in a class of 200; it can be reported in deciles or as scores in context of all test takers from the past year)
SAT/ACT scores--are they within range of our average admitted student? If not, why not?
Other factors: High school quality, parental educational attainment, older sibling college entrance, geography
These things must be viewed together and in relation to each other because any one element by itself does not have much value as a predictor of success. Additionally, if you had a school report and application in front of you, you would agree, it is an easy set of documents to glance over and assess in a short period of time.
The biggest mistake families make is thinking that U.S. admissions is based on academic merit. It is not. It is simply the expectation.
Academic merit is the invitation to the competition--the qualifying round of the Olympics. The actual competition, the medal round, comes in how well an applicant is able to answer the next question.
Will this student succeed? Time on Task: ~6+
Admissions officers in the U.S. have known for decades that a student’s ability to persist through to graduation has less to do with their academic ability than it does to do with certain other skills and elements of character. But how do admissions officers assess a student’s viability here?
It is about the quality of a student’s involvement and not the quantity.
For example, a two-week community service trip means little unless the student continues to return year over year and maintains a sustainable connection with the project, or it inspires them to another long-term service commitment.
A student’s activities may or may not be related to their area of academic interest. It is not what they do so much as how they do it. If the student is achieving inside the classroom and outside of it, they know how to manage time. Questions admissions officers consider as they review the activities page of the application forms include:
Is there a focus to a student’s efforts or do they appear to have been running through an imaginary checklist of things that “look good” on a college application? Has the student shown a commitment to something over the years? Have they taken something they love and shared with others in an ever-growing sphere of influence? Have they demonstrated leadership? Do they have a special talent or skill (athletics-art-music)?
Letters of Recommendation
These are the stories teachers, the school counselor, and others tell about a student as a scholar, community member, volunteer, intern, etc… If written well they can provide valuable insight into a student’s character and contributions in the classroom and other communities. We encourage students to ask teachers and other mentors who know them well to write for them. It also helps to give those writers some information to work with, like the student’s resume, personal statement, and a letter sharing the student’s favorite parts of the class and what they’ve enjoyed learning so far/favorite projects, etc…
The single most important skill to surviving college in the United States is the skill of writing and that is why essays, in the plural, are integral to the application process. Students can be rejected at any point along the way, but they cannot get to YES! until their essays have been read. Yes, they are read, completely, and at least by two different people.
Essays serve to demonstrate the student has the ability to write in English at the college level and to demonstrate myriad elements of character. Depending on the prompt, the reader can learn a whole host of other things about a student, from why they want to attend that college, to a deep dive into lessons learned from failure, to how well a student can logically and creatively manage to answer “what can you divide by 0?”
The Personal Statement
This essay is a single essay that goes to nearly all of the colleges on a students list, with a few exceptions (the University of California schools, MIT, and Georgetown have their own applications for example). It has a word limit of 650 words and students have a variety of prompts to choose from, including one that is a topic of their own choice. This is where the student finally gets to speak for themselves in the application. Most Hale students will spend a few months crafting this particular essay going through an average of 11 drafts. The most difficult part of the process is choosing a story that only that particular student can tell, because it is in the personal statement that a student has an important opportunity to stand out among thousands of other applicants.
The Supplementary Essay(s)
In addition to the personal statement, many universities have their own, additional essays they ask applicants to write. Sometimes it is a simple, “why?” essay--why do you want to study at X university? Other colleges can have 3-8 writing prompts for students to answer. On average, a Hale student applying to 12 U.S. colleges will write about 30 essays by the end of the application season.
Other Factors That Matter
Legacy--children and/or grandchildren of alumni do get special attention in the admission process, but not for the reasons you might think. It is because there is family pressure to accept the offer of admission and also a built-in support system in the family to help see the student through to graduation. It is risk management--not nepotism or donation-seeking.
First Generation--students who are the first in their family to go to college also get special attention because the university can not only change the trajectory of that student’s life but also of each generation thereafter. It is a special mission and there are special services on campus for these students as well.
Student athletes--there are many reasons student athletes get special consideration in the admission process. The complicated recruitment process aside, and regardless of if they are NCAA Division I, II, III, or simply there for the love of the game, scholar athletes statistically graduate on time, with higher grades, and at a higher rate than non scholar athletes. Period.
And many more niche things specific to each campus!
The most frustrating thing about the U.S. admissions process is also the most refreshing--while it has many parts that seem overwhelmingly complicated, they are so in order for each individual student to be seen holistically, individually, inside the competition for that specific year--even if for only 7 precious, luminous minutes.
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