College Applications: The Two Most Important Factors

Within the mania over test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, college applicants forget an important point: there are LOTS of students with similar resumes. Grade and test-score inflation has watered-down the objective indicators of performance. Even the most selective colleges boast that they could fill their classes two or three times with amazing students. How can you stand out from the crowd?

The two most important aspects of the college application aren’t really pieces of the application at all. Students must explain their strengths and personas clearly, and they must exhibit strong reasons for applying to the college.

The biggest differentiator between those who win and those who lose in the college game is clarity. Reading admissions files can be mind-numbing. Most admissions representatives are primarily responsible for around 1,500 applicants. In addition, they are secondarily responsible for perhaps another 1,500 candidates, and then they are asked to consider countless more in the final selection process. That’s a lot of reading and evaluating, performed within just a few months.

When an applicant does not make a clear, coherent presentation, it feels like watching a movie that is badly out of focus. Everything is blurry. In an environment where admissions representatives are insanely busy and fatigued, the natural response is to move past indistinct applicants. There are plenty more strong candidates to consider.

Do not think that a well-written essay will provide clarity. They are not reading essays as discrete pieces. Rather, admissions representatives read entire applications quickly, in 15 or 20 minutes. It’s not about the pieces; it’s about the entire package. Everything from the academic indicators to the extracurricular activities to the teacher recommendations to the student’s essays must fit together seamlessly to penetrate into a reader’s mind.

College applications are marketing presentations, not collections of transcripts or creative writing assignments. Students are sellers; the colleges are the buyers. Admissions representatives are looking for people, not sorting resumes. You need to convince them to select you. To do that, clarity is key.

Yet selling yourself to a college involves more than talking about yourself. Success in college admissions also requires that you demonstrate an intelligent, sophisticated understanding of the college. They are not merely evaluating your strengths. They also want to know why you are picking them.

An important concept in college admissions is “demonstrated interest.” Just as taking a test drive does not mean that you will actually purchase the car, touring a school does not mean that you have a deep interest. Neither does submitting an application. In our modern world where digital applications allow students to apply easily to dozens of colleges, admissions representatives need to ascertain whether, if offered admission, you will actually attend their school. As a result of the cavalier attitude that today’s students exhibit by applying to so many universities, the schools want to know why you are applying to their institution.

Unfortunately, most students don’t really know why they’re applying to a particular college, or perhaps their reasons are not very well considered. Although reputation, name-value, and rankings may have some value, they are poor reasons for picking a college. Before making a college list, students should research potential colleges intelligently. Look beyond the name. Look at the curricular structure, the on-campus activities, the off-campus assets and influences, and especially the social structure of the university community. Environment, not classes, is the greatest support for success in college and beyond.

Parents can assist in this process, but not by dictating or recommending. When trying to determine fit between college and student, parents should focus on the part of the equation they know personally – their own child – not on their distant understanding of colleges. The best thing that parents can do to support their students work is to offer their observations about what has worked for the student in the past and what might work for the student in the future.

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