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Ms. Leber

July 10, 2023

College Admission Essays

How Colleges Determine Student Fit in the Application Process

On average, admissions officers at elite universities spend less than ten minutes reviewing a candidate's application. A memorable application is paramount to earning acceptance at the country's most prestigious institutions. Top-tier universities, like Harvard and Stanford, receive over 50,000 applications to fill a few thousand freshman spots. In recent years, acceptance rates at these schools have dropped to as low as 4%. With so many applicants, so few places, and the same limited amount of time to review every candidate's application, how can colleges truly apply a holistic approach to admissions?

What Do Colleges Mean by Holistic Approach?

This is a tricky question. In each application cycle, admissions officers evaluate the current student population to determine the type of students they want to enroll in the upcoming year. That means, from year to year, universities are looking for different characteristics to round out their current classes with the incoming class. One school might seek to enroll more women, while another might seek to balance out majors. This is where the holistic approach comes in, and why, sometimes, acceptance to a dream college has nothing to do with grades, experience, or scores but rather pure luck and chance. Suppose the college notices a deficit in a demographic or academic area. In that case, they may consider candidates with lower grades or test scores that meet the college's needs in terms of academic interest or diversity. Another important factor is considering the yield rate of accepted students who are likely to attend versus accept offers from competing schools. In this case, a college rejection may mean a student was overqualified and was expected not to accept the offer. In the end, admissions come down to individual yearly needs and which students most readily meet the goals of an institution for that cycle.

What Do Colleges Look For?

  1. High School Transcript: A student's high school transcript, including their GPA, course rigor, and academic performance, is among the most critical factors in college admissions. This information provides insights into a student's abilities, work ethic, and potential for success in college. Grades are typically more indicative of long-term success than standardized test scores.
  2. Extracurricular Activities: Admissions officers consider extracurricular activities to understand students' interests, passions, and leadership abilities. These activities demonstrate a student's commitment, time management skills, and potential for positively impacting the campus and beyond.
  3. Letters of Recommendation: Letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, or other individuals who know the applicant well can provide valuable insights into a student's character, work ethic, and potential for success in college.
  4. Personal Statement and Elective Essays: College application essays allow students to showcase their personality, values, and goals. These essays can provide admissions officers with a comprehensive understanding of a student's background, aspirations, and adversity, helping them assess the applicant's potential fit within the institution.
  5. Standardized Test Scores: Although many colleges have adopted test-optional policies, standardized test scores like the SAT and ACT can still play a role in the admissions process. These scores can provide an additional data point for evaluating a student's academic abilities and potential for success in college.

The Takeaway

While traditional factors like transcripts, letters, or scores are still part of the application process, admissions committees are implementing this holistic approach flexibly when considering candidates. That being said, with the number of applications received during each cycle, it is impossible to access every student's circumstances, experiences, and interests. They are looking for students with distinct passions, unique perspectives, and an interesting story told through the materials in their application, solidified in a personal statement or other elective essays highlighting leadership opportunities or the ability to overcome challenges. 

The critical task for any student who wishes to receive acceptance from prestigious institutions or even top-tier public institutions is to demonstrate how their academic accomplishment and personal experiences intersect in a meaningful way that makes them the perfect candidate to meet the admissions goals for that year. Learn to Write Now offers an excellent array of College Admissions Essays Workshops (Pre-CAE, CAE I, and CAE II) designed to help students navigate this complex process by laying out the expectations, breaking down the prompts, and teaching the best practices for writing admissions essays that translate into acceptance letters. In these workshops, students have the time, coaching, and encouragement to find their voice, hone their essays, and cultivate the resources they need to apply to ultra-reach and reach colleges confidently.

Trying to figure out where to start? Use this helpful questionnaire to determine your needs, then learn more about our College Application Essays Workshops. Give your high school student an edge by registering for today's next available class! You can also watch a Video on what we offer!

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