When applying to college, many students think they know which strategies will help them attract the attention of admissions officers. But there’s often a gap between perception and reality about what actually matters — and what matters most — when it comes to grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and other factors.
In fact, the reality can differ from school to school.
Many colleges report that they are now taking a multifaceted approach to reviewing applicants, factoring in grades and scores on the SAT or ACT, but also aiming “to evaluate them beyond what is seen on a transcript,” says Joe Shields, an admissions counselor at Goucher College in Maryland. “A holistic admissions review process allows a student to demonstrate their best qualities and discuss how they would be a good fit for that college.”
Another promising and often misunderstood fact: It’s not as difficult as many students think to get admitted to a college, beyond the most selective schools. On average, nearly two-thirds of first-time, freshman applicants were offered admission to a four-year school in the U.S., according to a 2018 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Some 80% of places accepted 50% or more.
“There are many good colleges you may not have heard of,” says Hannah Serota, founder and CEO of Creative College Connections, a consulting practice that’s dedicated to helping applicants find the right fit.
Here’s a look at several other persistent myths about college admissions:
— Getting all A’s is the most important thing.
— Your test scores can make or break your chances of getting in.
— The more clubs and activities you have on your resume, the better.
— You should only ask for a recommendation from a teacher who gave you an A.
— It’s a mistake to get creative with your essay.
— To make yourself memorable, you need to visit the campus.
Getting all A’s is the most important thing. Of course, your grades matter. But what that means depends on a given college’s level of selectivity as well as the classes you took, based on the offerings at your high school.
After all, some places offer more honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses than others, and an A in one of these more challenging courses can signify mastery of more rigorous content than an A in a grade-level class at a school that offers both.
College admissions officers are often well aware of how different high school curricula are because they work with many of the same schools every year and receive detailed profiles of the course offerings, along with context about the student body.
“A 3.5 GPA means different things at different schools, and we understand that,” says Janine Bissic, director of admission at Whittier College in California.
At Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, “we would expect the most rigorous schedule that’s appropriate for the student and the highest grades — we would be looking for both,” says Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid. Being able to handle a challenging course load while maintaining strong marks is a signal that you have the academic grit and discipline to succeed at college.
Balance is also key. Taking a handful of AP or advanced classes can help you look good, but more isn’t always better; the idea is to take the most rigorous course load that makes sense given your abilities. While a B in an AP English lit class may be more impressive than an A in a grade-level English class, a C or D in an advanced class isn’t necessarily going to wow anyone.
“We want to see students stretching themselves but not too far — if your grades don’t show that you’re performing at a satisfactory level, it makes us question why you’re taking such hard classes or why you’re not doing well,” says Kevin MacLennan, assistant vice chancellor of enrollment management at the University of Colorado–Boulder. “It makes us wonder if you’re ready for college rigor.”
If your grades dropped during a semester when you had health problems or personal hardships, such as a death in the family, it’s wise to explain the reason somewhere in your application.
But don’t be discouraged if your grades aren’t where you’d like them to be early in high school. Many admissions officers look for upward trends in grades, improvements over time that enable a student to finish strong.
“At the end of the day, we want to feel confident that if we admit a student, they can handle the rigor of the courses here,” says Yvonne Romero da Silva, vice president for enrollment at Rice University in Texas.
Your test scores can make or break your chances of getting in. On the contrary, they’re just one element of the application package. “There are many students we’ve denied with perfect test scores because they didn’t have anything else to set them apart,” Christiansen says.
Different institutions place varying levels of importance on standardized tests, and many colleges have gone test-optional in recent years. This is partly because admissions officers recognize that many applicants may have intellectual abilities and academic strengths that aren’t reflected in exam scores.
Taking the test more than once generally improves scores, especially if the testing dates are spaced out appropriately (as in: by months, not weeks) because “the test scores are really a representation of the student’s ability at that point in time,” Romero da Silva says.
Taking the test two or three times can be beneficial, especially if you were nervous or you encountered unfamiliar questions the first time, says Annie Reznik, executive director of the Coalition for College, a group of more than 140 colleges and universities that’s dedicated to increasing students’ access to higher education.
“Exposure to the test does improve the student’s score — but beyond two or three times, you’re moving into the land of diminishing returns,” she adds.
Among colleges that do require the SAT or ACT, many will superscore, which means they use your best section-level scores even if they’re from different test dates. In other words, if your SAT reading score was 70 points higher the second time you took the test but your math score was 50 points higher on the first, you can use the better of both attempts.
The more clubs and activities you have on your resume, the better. The quality of your involvement counts more than the quantity of your activities.
“Being passionate about key interests is more important than joining a lot of clubs,” Christiansen says. “We’re looking for depth and progression of leadership, not just participation.”
David Senter of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, thinks his experience swimming competitively and working his way up to varsity team captain helped demonstrate his dedication and added something important to his strong academic record, along with his participation on the academic quiz bowl team.
“You have to show you care,” says Senter, now a senior at Rice. “I was never the fastest and I never went to the state championships, but I showed up every day and bonded with the team.”
When reviewing extracurricular activities on an application, admissions officers really want to know things like: What did you do in high school that made whatever you participated in better and helped you grow? or What are you doing with your time that would contribute to our campus in a meaningful way if you came here?
“Colleges are looking for a well-rounded student body, not necessarily a well-rounded student,” Serota says.
These days, college admissions officers are also sensitive to the fact that some students don’t have time for extracurricular activities. “If you’re taking care of younger siblings after school, be honest about that and focus on the qualities that emerge from that experience,” Reznik says. What colleges really want to know is how you spend your nonscheduled time and what you get out of those experiences.
You should only ask for a recommendation from a teacher who gave you an A. Wrong again. Instead, it’s better to consider whether a teacher can help admissions officers get to know a different side of you and understand who you are.
A letter of recommendation could be from the teacher who taught your most difficult class or a class you thought you wouldn’t like but did.
“Ideally, you would choose a teacher who knows you very well, likes your work ethic, can speak to your character or has seen you persist in something that’s been challenging,” Bissic says.
Shields agrees: “If you struggled with a subject and had a good rapport with the teacher, you can get a helpful recommendation if the teacher can talk about how you came for extra help or you were able to advocate for yourself.”
It’s a mistake to get creative with your essay. On the contrary, being clever and original can help you stand out from the crowd — but only if you can pull it off.
If you’re not funny, don’t try to be. If you’re not impassioned about a controversial subject, don’t pretend to be.
“You need to make the case for why you care about something and what you’re doing about it,” Serota advises. But do think carefully about what you choose to share, such as a mental health issue or a gambling or drug problem. “Be careful about revealing things that would make the reader feel a sense of caution about you,” Serota says.
A college essay‘s most important quality is that it feels authentic, officials say. Make sure that it addresses the prompt, but also think of your essay as an opportunity to reveal your true voice and to highlight who you really are. Admissions folks are experts at distinguishing between viewpoints that feel genuine and those that don’t.
“Think about not wearing a mask,” Reznik advises. “It’s not easy for students to let themselves be vulnerable, but that makes for the best college essay.”
Moe de La Viez of Frederick, Maryland, thought her voice and interests would come through most clearly in a visual essay, which she submitted to Goucher when she applied in 2015.
“I felt like I could personalize my application more if I did it myself on video,” explains de La Viez, who got interested in video production in high school and ultimately crafted an interdisciplinary major at Goucher involving communications, creative writing and studio art under the umbrella of video production.
When it comes to large universities in particular, it may be hard to believe that there are human beings who are actually reading and giving careful consideration to your app, but it’s true.
“There’s no computerization of the admissions process,” says MacLennan, whose university reviews more than 36,000 freshman applications per year. “We read every piece of a student’s application and essay, and every admissions decision is made by admissions officers and professional educators who care about this process.” The essay is your opportunity to connect with them and make an impression.
To make yourself memorable, you need to visit the campus. You don’t have to show up in person unless you live near a school, in which case not stopping by might signal a lack of engagement. However, what many competitive colleges look for more generally are applicants who show ” demonstrated interest.”
This can be achieved in various ways: by calling or emailing with questions, requesting a Skype interview, contacting alumni or interacting with a representative on social media or at a local college fair. Indeed, 37% of colleges indicate that demonstrated interest is a moderately or considerably important factor in decisions, according to NACAC.
Admissions officers can track how many contacts you’ve had with their institution — and they can even see if you’ve opened or engaged with emails.
If you can’t visit the campus, show up when an admissions representative comes to town, advises Jamiere Abney, senior assistant dean of admission and coordinator of outreach for opportunity and inclusion at Colgate University in New York. “We remember the interested students we meet at these visits and at college fairs, and we can be a potential advocate for you,” he says.
Attending a summer program for high schoolers at a college that appeals to you can also help signal interest, and that you might be a good fit, says Marc Harding, vice provost for enrollment at the University of Pittsburgh. “Fit continues to be the most important factor to us — we want students to succeed here.”
Participating in such a program also shows that you’re passionate and curious enough about a subject to take it to the next level, which says a lot about your college readiness.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2020” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.
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