What do colleges actually want?

Eric Harter

B.S. Public Administration, M.A. Education, San Diego State, National University

For college coaches, March is always the best and worst month of the year. It’s when we get the results from a hard year’s worth of work, all for that moment when our student says “I got in!” Alternatively, every college counselor also receives the “I didn’t get in” or “I was waitlisted.” The toughest part of this job are these rejections, especially because the deserving students worked tremendously hard for so long, that when they receive “no’s” at the very end of the process, it makes it feel like all of the hard work was a waste.

College admissions are a roller coaster ride and with each passing application season, there are always lessons to be learned.

Lesson number one: getting into the most selective colleges feels more like a lottery than a meritocracy. There are countless students with perfect grades, perfect test scores (including subject tests), and a track record of amazing accomplishments in high school and still, they are denied or waitlisted.

So, what do colleges actually want?

Colleges want passionate students who will change the world for the better and who live on a mission to help as many people as possible. I recently had a conversation with a friend who went to Princeton. He said that during his time as a student, every peer he met would blow him away. After every conversation he said he would understand, “I now see why they are here.” In his experience every student was exceptional, not only academically, but personally too. These outstanding students didn’t just have the highest grades and test scores (we know those were extraordinary), but they stood out from their high school peers achievement wise to such a degree that Princeton needed to have them there.

Regardless if you are a freshman or a rising senior, you MUST create a plan and execute on how you will distinguish yourself from your high school peers. How are you making the world, or your direct community, a better place right now and intend to do so in the future? They want students who are focused and driven, and this often takes vision and outside the box thinking.

Students: what are you doing right now to stand out? When I say stand out, I mean from EVERY high school peer of yours. Of course you’ll think about having tremendous academics and test scores, but I want you to start considering your “hook” – the unique YOU narrative that colleges will find attractive. Oftentimes students and families believe they will accomplish this through filling students’ time with varsity sports, positions in student government, clubs, and hundreds of hours of community service in order to showcase to colleges how their “well-roundedness”. This is a dying trend however, colleges now look for well-rounded classes, not students. The most selective colleges and universities want students with a deep focus who’s respective curriculums, tests, and hook are all in alignment.

Here’s an example:

The student below wants to be a physician in the future and dreams of attending an Ivy League school, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, or a top medical UC school.

  • Over a 4.0 GPA and 6 AP classes.
  • An ACT composite score of 34 (and a 36 on the science section).
  • A’s in AP Biology and AP Chemistry.
  • A 760 on the Biology subject test and 780 on the Chemistry subject test.
  • They volunteered regularly at a local hospital or doctor’s office throughout their four years of high school, and built meaningful connections within their future industry.
  • In the summer prior to senior year, the student created a project in which they interviewed fifteen different physicians and asked them all the same ten questions that they wanted to know about the profession. They wrote summaries on each interview and a final conclusion with their findings with the “why” behind why they want to be a physician.

This is just a hypothetical example of how a student can align the application to their “hook.” It isn’t easy and often requires the student to figure out what they want to do as their career in the future(not an easy task and many students just don’t know exactly what they want to do in their future). This is why starting to try different industries as early as possible even in high school is vital. Nevertheless, keep in mind, that this level of rigor is for students solely applying to the most selective universities and programs, not all colleges expect this type of self-awareness and passion.

Yet start your planning now because you don’t have any time to waste!!!

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