27 Sep Taking the Guesswork Out Of College Admissions
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The college admissions process can be overwhelming, and because it’s constantly evolving (and each school uses different criteria for evaluating admissions!), it would be difficult for anyone to master the process.
To take some of the guesswork out of admissions, we decided to get the latest on the process from those in the know. Kerry Rosen, Director of Admissions for Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, and Susan Hertz, Associate Director, Marketing of American University, shared advice and information for high schoolers preparing to apply to college.
What is the most common mistake you see applicants make to hurt their chances of getting accepted into a college or university?
ROSEN: They submit late or incomplete applications, or don’t check to see what is required, such as how many letters, an essay vs. a graded writing sample, etc.
HERTZ: Or they don’t check to make sure that all the required parts of the application have actually arrived.
What is the approximate weight given to grades, test scores, extracurricular and community activities, essays and recommendations? What other factors do you like to consider?
ROSEN: We place a lot of emphasis on the academic record because we offer a very challenging program and we want to be sure that the applicants have what it takes to be successful here. We look at test scores, the strength of the classes taken, grades, and also require a graded writing sample so that we can see the how well the applicant is able to communicate in written form. In addition to academics, we are interested in what the applicant does outside the classroom – school and community involvement, employment experience, honors and awards. Letters from teachers, counselors and people in the community tell us a lot about the student’s character, motivation and level of compassion.
HERTZ: This information is found in most guidebooks. At AU, we look at grades in conjunction with the difficulty of the courses selected and test scores; essays and recommendations; and then activities.
Can you give us an example of a few applicants whose grades or test scores were below the average for your admitted students but who were admitted for other reasons?
ROSEN: We sometimes take a chance on a student with a less than stellar academic record if they have demonstrated an extraordinary level of character or persistence in the face of economic, social or cultural obstacles. Some examples might be a recent immigrant or a student dealing with a very difficult family situation.
HERTZ: We look for students who show evidence of leadership. Essays also often explain the circumstances that have caused low grades or test scores.
What can/should high school sophomores be focusing on regarding college?
ROSEN: Tenth graders should be focusing on learning more about themselves, academically and personally – about their interests, about their strengths and weaknesses. They should begin to compile a list of the kinds of things they would like to find in a college. From that list they can come up with a list of colleges that meet the criteria they have set. It seems to me that that way they’d be able to find a better fit between themselves and the school.
HERTZ: They should take a challenging course of study and find an activity that he or she can be passionately engaged in.
Regarding extracurricular activities in high school, is it better to try a little bit of everything or to excel in one thing? Does it matter what the activity is or is it mainly that they devote meaningful time to it?
ROSEN: We prefer to see a couple of activities that the student has really gotten involved with. This is much more impressive than a long list of clubs that someone has joined mostly to be able to list them on college applications and resumes. It is especially impressive when a student has either had a leadership role in a school or community organization or they have demonstrated initiative by actually starting a new club or activity.
HERTZ: Excel in one thing. The activity doesn’t matter.
To what extent is it better to take honors or AP courses even if the grades are lower? For example, what looks better: an A in regular English or a B in AP or honors English?
ROSEN: Taking challenging courses is a real benefit. They are great preparation for college work and taking them is worth possibly getting a lower grade.
HERTZ: For a competitive university such as AU, better to take AP or honors, definitely.
How important is balance–i.e. sports, academics, volunteer work–in your admissions criteria?
ROSEN: We like to see applicants who are involved in things other than academics. But it is not a good thing to be so involved that the academic record suffers for it. We sometimes see this happening when a student’s job becomes too demanding and does not leave enough time for studying. Students need to be very careful to achieve the right balance.
HERTZ: Balance is nice but not a deal breaker, so to speak. We believe that a wide range of “types” creates a dynamic academic experience. Most of our athletes are also scholars; some academically outstanding students do no sports and minimal volunteering.
What are your policies on Early Admissions and Early Action? What trends are you seeing with these? Do students have a better chance of being admitted under these plans?
ROSEN: We have a non-binding Early Action deadline of December 15. We do not believe that binding plans are in the best interest of the student. Having an applicant make an irrevocable decision that early in the senior year does not strike me as fair and equitable. Students at age 17 or 18 are still learning too much about themselves and what and where they want to study to make a good choice that early.
HERTZ: We do Early Decision only. Typically students have about the same chance of being admitted although this can vary tremendously. Some years they have had a better chance.
How has the admissions process changed over the last few years?
ROSEN: It has gotten to be a more stressful experience for all concerned. Colleges treat admissions more as a marketing venture. Students and their families are increasing focused on gaining admission to a prestigious and well-known school, sometimes for the wrong reasons. They need to look more closely at finding the best fit for their particular needs. And sometimes this means going to a little-known institution that may serve them better.
HERTZ: More applications by more students who are more conscious of financial aid/scholarship considerations.