What universities are looking for starts with what kind of university you are applying to. In the most basic sense, universities can be divided into two categories when it comes to applications: holistic or objective universities.
In the first case, holistic universities take a “whole person” approach, looking at grades and (usually) test scores, but also looking at other factors, like essays. Whether this measures the whole person or not is open to question.
Objective universities use test scores and grades . . . and that’s pretty much it. With the exception of some specific programs, your academic record is the sole measurement, so no sweating essays and recommendations. On the other hand, with objective schools, you also have little or no chance to persuade somebody to give you a chance if your academic record is a little sketchy. And how well grades and scores reflect your potential is a matter of some debate; I have written about this and about how college applications are evaluated in earlier posts, and I suggest you read this post from last year before reading what I have to say below: How College Applications are Evaluated. I will pause while you click and read . . .
So let’s turn now to factors that most applicants think are more important than they really are. I must caution you before we proceed to keep in mind that, in this post, I am dealing with aggregated numbers, i.e, with averages. Despite the trends and averages, there are specific colleges which do emphasize elements that other colleges ignore completely–a college that states diversity as a mission will emphasize this in applications, for example, so being the first in your family to attend, or being a first generation American, may give you some sort of boost. Other colleges that have small student bodies, a personal approach and active and committed alumni may put an emphasis on a personal interview–in one specific and extreme case, Deep Springs College requires an extended visit to campus, participation in the work and classes there, and a panel interview that can be, well, a bit confrontational, and this panel, which is dominated by students currently in the Deep Springs program, ultimately determines who is admitted after making it to this second round. But hey, if you do make it into Deep Springs, you are getting a free education at a super elite (and highly iconoclastic) school that sends most of its grads on to the Ivy League or other super-elites for further ausbildung. And schools which put interviews and personal characteristics at the top of their criteria are rare.
In fact, for most universities, in terms of the activities and qualifications that play a role in the application process, interviews and class rank are not of significant importance or are not considered.
Surprised? You have a lot of company. I have some clients who follow their class rank like a gambler staring at the roulette wheel, even after I show them that it won’t really matter, and I have others who really sweat the interview and I have to repeat, over and over, relax, dress decently, smile and all will be well until I have them hypnotized.
While there are probabilities in admissions, your college applications are not a crapshoot, and unless you suddenly turn into Linda Blair in The Exorcist, (Don’t click this link if you don’t like scary pictures) or otherwise go out of your way to offend the interviewer, the interview won’t matter other than as part of your overall expression of demonstrated interest. And demonstrated interest is important, but an interview is only one of the ways to demonstrate interest to the college. Talking to any reps the university sends out on the road, to your school or your region, talking with people in the admissions department and in the various programs, visiting the campus, et al, also fit into the category of demonstrated interest.
The reasons for the decline of the interview are multiple, but most importantly come down to money–with the enormous volume of applicants many universities process, it is, for most schools, too difficult to establish and maintain an adequate pool of good interviewers. Over the years, alumni have become the go-to source for interviewers, but they are often not really vetted because it is hard enough just to find somebody with the time and desire to do the job. Interviewers are not paid or get only a nominal remuneration, for the most part. As applications have soared into the many tens of thousands for elite schools, even after an initial pool of qualified candidates is established, the multiple hundreds to thousands of remaining applicants represent a huge interviewing challenge. So when it comes to interviewing, my advice is to schedule an interview and follow my mantra, above. Oh, and be on time.
The decline of class rank as a factor is more complicated. One reason is the decline in the number of high schools who report class rank. Put simply, high school administrators grew tired of the bloodletting that occurred over class rank as students vied to be valedictorian and salutatorian, and it’s pretty hard to compute rank in a fair way when comparing students who have, say, the same G.P.A. and same number of A.P. classes but have emphasized different areas. How would one fairly compare an exceptional arts and humanities student to an exceptional STEM student? Universities, on the other hand, have de-emphasized class rank for a number of reasons connected to variations in the quality and size of high schools. The third-ranked student at a small school that is mediocre is not likely to be all that competitive with the third-ranked student at a large and very highly ranked high school. Or at least it is not possible for the universities to assess a pair or students like these in an objective and accurate way.
Here is a summary of the trends in interviewing:
In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance. By 2011, that had dropped to 19 percent. In 1993, 12 percent of colleges reported that the interview was of considerable importance. In 2011, only 6 percent did.
A more important issue for admission is also a perennial hot button topic: race (or ethnicity, if you will) which, after this week’s Supreme Court decision, will still be used in admissions–at least in the next couple of years. The very last legal word has not been said on this matter yet . . .
But here is the nut of this issue: ethnicity is not really a major factor in most cases, and for those where it is a factor, this is only true after you qualify and at a particular point in the process with particular schools: before any additional factors are evaluated, the initial pool of candidates is established using GPA and test scores; then essays, activities and other factors, along with race, are used to determine who will be offered admissions, based on a scale that reflects what the university wants and needs. A truly unqualified candidate is not in this initial pool. I have written about this in more detail in the post linked above and also in this post: Seven Rules for College Admissions.
Here is the data that the NACAC study came up with for race and other “personal characteristics” in college applications:
Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011
|How Colleges Use Factor||First-Generation Status||Race or Ethnicity||Gender|
For 70-95% or more of the colleges, depending on which factor you look at, it’s not such a big deal, eh?
For the most part, your application essays are far more important than personal attributes like gender or race, and the essays themselves often tie into or show something of your activities and interests, so you can cover a lot of ground with a good essay. Good essays are particularly important when you are likely to be in the middle of the pack qualifying for the pool and need something to stand out. So after grades, test scores and ongoing activities, you should be looking at developing a good set of essays. That, I think, is the takeaway here.
To recap and to wrap this post up, the two most important factors in college admissions are, in this order, grades in college preparatory classes and test scores on the SAT and ACT (AP classes obviously rule the college prep class category, unless you are in an IB program–more about this in a later post). Following grades and tests in importance are essays, activities, teacher and counselor recommendations (I favor getting both, as long as they are specific and solid), and demonstrated interest also matters to many schools; below these factors in importance, for most schools, are subject test scores, portfolios (though portfolios are a must for some programs and do make a difference if you have something remarkable to offer) and, depending on the school, near the bottom of the priority list in admissions are interviews and personal characteristics, with the exceptions I noted earlier. Do read the links I posted above if you haven’t already and stay tuned: I’ll be turning my attention to specific application essay topics in the next two weeks as the universities start to post their essay prompts for 2013-2014.
A word of warning, however: As I start to write about some of the specific posts at elite schools, some of my posts will be available only as excerpted samples on this site; you will need to pay a small subscription fee to gain full access to all posts, via my private site. It’s only fifteen bucks for the full application year, through April, 2014. I call that a bargain. But just to check, feel free to peruse my archives and to click on tags and categories for other posts.