A growing U.S. population of 18- to 24-year-olds with high school diplomas means that more students than ever are applying to college. In fact, the National Association of College Admission Counselors found that the number of first-time freshman applicants to college continues to increase. Between the Fall 2014 and Fall 2015 admission cycles, the number of applications from first-time freshmen increased 6 percent.
This fall, roughly 17.5 million students will enroll in undergraduate programs at American colleges and universities. To evaluate readiness for college-level course work, boards of admission require applicants to provide a wide array of personal and academic information, leaving many applicants feeling overwhelmed.
To help you navigate the college admission process, we interviewed Educational Consultant Heather Ayres, founder of Ayres Education, former Wellesley College Director of Admission and ten-year member of the Brown University Board of Admission. After her tenure as an admission director, Heather served on The College Board.
Ayres discusses college admission trends, including what really counts in applicant selection. Specifically, what information matters most and more importantly, why?
Q: How important is an applicant’s high school transcript when pursuing college straight out of high school?
HA: A high school transcript is the heart of any college application. It reflects grades, course selection, and the rigor of a student’s course load. The transcript provides the information that an admission officer needs to assess a student’s preparation for college-level studies. From the officer’s perspective the essential question is, “Has the student built a foundation during high school to succeed or excel at our college?”
As a record of performance, the transcript is the most concrete piece of evidence an officer has to gauge a student’s academic strength. Patterns of performance on the transcript show how consistently and hard a student has worked to earn grades. The transcript also provides insights into a student’s persistence over time, reaction to setbacks, time management, openness to challenges, and interest in learning new things, all of which are important to college success.
While junior and senior year grades provide the clearest evidence of academic preparation, keep in mind that grades in the freshman and sophomore years are important, too, and typically count in GPA calculations. Beyond GPA averages, however, admission officers are looking for ongoing improvement or academic growth year over year. This may mean improving grades or enrollment in more difficult course work. The important question is, how has the student progressed? Whether trends or positive or negative, the transcript tells a story of who the student is and his or her overall readiness to manage the academic demands of a particular institution.
Q: How much should a student be concerned about standardized test scores?
HA: The majority of colleges and universities continue to use standardized tests as a factor in admission. In part, this is because standardized tests are helpful in comparing students from different high schools across the country.
Whether or not a college requires you to submit standardized test scores, it’s important to realize that tests are never the most important factor in admission. Officers give far more weight to your grades and the overall academic rigor of your program of study. As a practice, test scores are always examined along with grades, as the two often inform or reinforce each other. If there are noticeable discrepancies between a student’s standardized test scores and grades, then officers will take a closer look at the applicant’s academic history.
However, it is difficult to generalize admission practices, which are in some instances determined by state policy and school selectivity. For further insights regarding college planning and the ACT and SAT tests, specifically statistics that may help you decide how to plan and prepare for standardized testing, visit the ACT and College Board’s college and career readiness websites and the SAT guide for interpreting your score.
Q: How important are extracurricular activities on applications?
HA: Students need not present an extensive list of activities; this is a myth. Keep in mind that admission officers are responsible for ensuring that the incoming class, as a whole, is well-rounded. They’re searching for students who present different talents and interests, are engaged in what they do, and appear excited to share their talents with others. Overall, the activities that you list should reflect your desire to grow through something that interests you. Being genuinely invested is the key differentiator when presenting your list of activities.
Q: How involved in community service should a student be?
HA: Participation in community service does hold significance. Educational institutions are looking for students who are involved in their communities and open to broadening their perspectives.
They want to see that a student has not only shown a desire to connect with other community members but also recognized the value in doing so. Although it may make us uncomfortable at times, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes is important. Remember that colleges are communities, which is why openness to learning about other people’s experiences and a desire to broaden your viewpoint are qualities that show a student is prepared for the broader life lessons that colleges offer.
Q: How important is it for a student to maintain a part-time job?
HA: Both community involvement and working for pay matter. It is through experiences like these that students develop a stronger sense of social and individual responsibility. With employer-related sensibilities, students are often better equipped to embrace the full range of opportunities that colleges, communities, and professional networks provide.
Also, maintaining a job leads to more confidence in the student and a greater level of self-understanding. Jobs also help to enhance time management skills, preparing students to be more successful at college.
Q: Can you offer any tips for students regarding essays?
HA: Your essay is an invaluable opportunity to say something memorable about yourself. Tell your story; however, don’t try too hard to impress. Instead, share something positive that offers a unique sense of who you are and how you think. You are more than your transcript! So use the essay to your advantage by offering a different perspective on your application, one that helps your readers get to know you better.
When all things are equal, an essay can really help to distinguish your candidacy and give admission officers a basis for recommending your application over others. For example, the officer may think, “I can see her excelling in environmental science, taking full advantage of our entrepreneurship program, providing valuable leadership skills to the fledgling rugby program, or bringing a thoughtful student voice to campus government.”
Students are often hesitant to write about themselves. Be assured, it is worth the time and effort to write a strong essay. Do take advantage of this opportunity to distinguish your application.
Q: How significant are recommendation letters?
HA: They’re important, as they provide an outside perspective on the student from someone who has worked with them closely over time. And often recommendation letters complement the essay. They specifically offer observations that can speak to a student’s character and accomplishments. A pair of recommendation letters that dovetail with a well-written essay can bring the whole application to life.
Q: Any final thoughts?
HA: While news headlines report that our most competitive colleges are becoming more and more selective, the truth is that the majority of students get into college and frequently into their first choice.  In 2016, 74.7% of students were accepted into their first-choice institution. Therefore, try to enjoy the research, touring, interviewing and application process and minimize the anxiety. What matters most is finding a higher education community that is a good fit for the student.
Finally, it’s extremely important to keep an open mind. While you may have set your sights on one particular type of college, as you explore options, you may end up discovering something completely different. However, without an open mind, you’ll have missed out on a hidden opportunity – a community where you can excel and where you feel welcome and appreciated.
If you have questions regarding the college application process, including saving and investing for college, or any questions pertaining to your financial future and that of the ones you love, start a conversation with us. We’d be happy to help you build a financial plan that helps you achieve your educational and lifetime goals.
To reach Heather Ayres, visit her website at Ayres Education.
Related College Planning Resources
National Association for College Admission Counseling – Annual State of College Admission report.
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