What Really Matters for College Admissions
In an era of college admissions, where each cycle seems to grow increasingly competitive, it can be challenging to determine what matters most on your application. This admissions cycle is particularly unprecedented. The COVID-19 pandemic has left the rising senior class with fewer opportunities for standardized testing. There are also many cases where there are no final exams to close out the spring semester of their junior year.
Myths surrounding the college admissions process have always run rampant. Panic thrives in conditions of uncertainty. I have witnessed many different admissions cycles. However, I anticipate that the 2020-2021 application period will be particularly ambiguous in its demands and standards. Need not worry. Here are a few metrics by which you can track your progress and evaluate your candidacy in the months leading up to the submission of your applications.
Tell your story
The most important aspect of your application is your STORY. I’ve seen far too many students and families get caught up in the minutiae of testing scores and GPA. Twenty points on the SAT or one grade in physics is not going to make or break your application.
Instead, what is important is how the classes that you’ve selected, the extracurricular activities that you’ve participated in, and the standardized tests that you’ve taken fit into your experience as a student. How have the specifics of your application developed you as a student? Have they challenged you to grow? How have they shaped what you hope to explore? So, take advantage of this time out of their traditional scholastic context to reflect upon these questions.
Craft your personal statement
The second most important part of your application is your personal statement and teacher recommendations. These are elements that help to authenticate your story. Therefore, drafting and re-drafting your essay and cultivating good relationships with your teachers are what you should spend the majority of your time on.
When it comes to the personal statement, it doesn’t matter what you write about! It matters how you write about it! Some of the most successful essays that I have read have tackled a meaningful motif, experience, or memory. I’ve seen students write about topics as mundane as skipping stones, bubblegum, or the origins of their name. The key to writing a successful personal statement is taking a small topic. Then, you should expand that thought in a way that captures your unique, creative approach. Similarly to the personal essay, the recommendations work to contextualize your story. Put a lot of thought into the recommenders that you assign. Reach out to your teachers in the spring of your junior year and ask to set up a meeting. Provide them with any context that they may be unaware of. Help them help you!
GPA, standardized exams, and extracurriculars
Additionally, in terms of GPA, standardized tests, and extracurriculars, I often say that trend is more important than a numerical cutoff. Has your GPA indicated improvement? Did you take advanced courses and exemplified that you have met the challenge? If you’ve taken standardized tests multiple times, have you had an upward trajectory? If you’ve taken advanced classes or subject tests, are they in-line with your passions and identity? For extracurriculars, throw yourself into fewer activities, but participate in those activities meaningfully, pursuing leadership opportunities. In the end, research your target schools to learn where the fiftieth percentile of their accepted student range lands. Aim for these numbers. Remember, ultimately, evidence of your growth as a student, of your willingness to explore and meet new challenges is far more valuable to your application than any baseline empirics.
Do your research
All of this brings me to my last point. Research is an invaluable part of the college admissions process. Take the time to learn more about yourself and your potential interests. Find a topic that excites or inspires you to think creatively when deciding on the topic of your personal statement. Research your own story and research the people at the schools on your potential list. Reach out to professors or students at these schools to hone an authentic list. If you don’t know much about the school that you are applying to, you can’t make a compelling argument for why you would be an ideal student there.
Even in these uncertain times, there are concrete steps that you can take. That way you can to take ownership of your college process, to ensure that the admissions cycle is an opportunity for your own growth and development, as well as a catalyst for your future.