What College Admissions Officers Say They Want in a Candidate

By Judy Mandell

Watching your kid sweat over college applications? Wondering which college is the best fit for your child and how to help them make that happen? We asked dozens of admissions officers to reveal the truth about admissions today. Here is what some of them told us.

Martha Blevins Allman, Wake Forest University dean of admissions: Concentrate not on being the best candidate, but on being the best person. Pay attention to what is going on in the world around you. If you do those things, not only will the world be a better place because you’re in it, your greatest admissions worry will be choosing which college to pick from. I look for beautiful, clear writing that comes to life on the essay page and offers insight into the character and personality of the student. Beware of being someone you are not in the essay. Beware of outside influence. Editing by adults or professionals often removes the very elements that admissions officers seek. [Want your kid to get into a good college and have a good life? Here’s how.]

Tim Wolfe, College of William & Mary associate provost for enrollment and dean of admissions: Essays can help an admission committee better understand the individual and how he or she will add to the campus community. They are also an opportunity for us to evaluate a student’s ability to communicate through the written format. Whether you major in physics, history or business, you’ll need to write and be able to share thoughts and ideas with your professors and fellow students. The college application is an opportunity for the student to share his or her story and allows students the opportunity to add their voices to this process. We can get a glimpse into their personalities, and perhaps, learn something new about them, their backgrounds and experiences that doesn’t necessarily show up elsewhere in the application. [To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving]

Ken Anselment, Lawrence University dean of admissions and financial aid: Writing an application essay might feel like you’re singing for the judges on “The Voice,” hoping that what you write will get them to pound their giant button, turn their chairs and say, “I want you.” It’s true that your voice is what we are looking for. When you write your college essay, use your authentic voice. If you’re a serious person, write your essay with a serious voice. If you’re a funny person, be funny. If you’re not a funny person, your college essay might not be the best place to try on that funny writer voice for the first time. [Accepted into college, but can’t afford it]

Stefanie Niles, Dickinson College vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications: Nothing is more important than a high school transcript showing strong academic performance in a solid curriculum. We want to admit students who will persist to college graduation, so knowing that you can do the work starts with a thorough review of high-school performance. The essay also matters; we want to see that you can write, what you write and what we can learn about you. We want to enroll students who will contribute to the life of the campus, so we are eager to see how you have contributed to your high-school community or the community in which you live.

Toni Riley, Illinois Institute of Technology director of undergraduate admission: If you had a bad semester or a bad year, and your cumulative GPA doesn’t reflect your ability or your overall high school career, still apply, but talk about the decline in your grades in your application. It is a pet peeve when we see an anomaly in grades and the student never addresses this. Tell us what happened and how you turned it around. This is a great way for us to see how you respond to setbacks. If you had a recent decline in grades we may ask to see another semester of work before making a final admission decision, but you have nothing to fear if you turned it around.

Anthony Ferguson Jr., Drake University admissions counselor: College will be a fun time, but it also may seem like a daunting journey, so relish the time you have with your friends and lose yourself in the small moments that make you laugh till your stomach hurts — college will be there when it’s all over. Applicants who are able to convey that they have spent their high school years exploring different classes, activities and opportunities immediately grab my attention. The most attractive applications ultimately grant me insight into the applicant’s passion, motivation and reasoning behind wanting to be at Drake.

Anthony E. Jones, DePauw University vice president for enrollment management: Institutions exist to supply the world with new knowledge and an acculturated, well-informed society. This takes an optimal graduation rate, and the main ingredient contributing to that is persistence on the part of the student. Whether reflected in the essay or the thoughtful confluence of the academic course load and extracurricular activities, a successful applicant should highlight an ability to overcome obstacles and garner results. It’s about proving you can produce outcomes, both on the part of the student and the university.

Kaitlyn Botelho, Lasell College associate director of admission: I would rather a student tell me about the handful of clubs and activities they have been involved with and excelled in, rather than an exhaustive list of clubs they that they feigned interest in, kind-of-sort-of-one-day. This leaves students with little time to flourish in any one organization, or worse, they suffer academically due to over-involvement. A student that has been a leader in one or two organizations will typically make for a better citizen on campus than a student who is already burned out before they even get to college.

Robert D. McCaig, Monmouth University vice president for enrollment management: The most important things students should do when applying to college is pace themselves and prioritize. Starting early certainly helps students with the pacing, and knowing when to put time into SAT prep versus studying for an exam versus visiting another college, for instance, is an important part of prioritizing. There is this great myth out there that where you go to college will dictate your success in life. For the vast majority of students, that simply isn’t true. What you do in college matters far more than where you go.[Do you really have to go on college visits?]

Chris Hooker-Haring, Muhlenberg College vice president for enrollment management: Think about your extracurricular contribution — community service, athletics, the arts and elected leadership. What are you good at and what do you care about deeply outside the classroom? The college application process is a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. You will find out things about yourself, what motivates you and what excites you. This is a passage to an exciting new chapter in your life. We want to get to know you and your story, and we want to help you in this process. This is a people-helping-people business. If you see it that way, it can help you relax and enjoy the process.

Ross R. Grippi II, Ohio Wesleyan University director of admission: Finding the right fit for you (not mom and dad) isn’t a cliche, so be yourself throughout the process. We’ll read right through you if you’re not. You can’t fake it during the admission process. If you do, you’ll end up at a college or university that’s a poor fit.[I learned my son is gay when I read his college essay]

Michelle Curtis-Bailey, SUNY Stony Brook senior admissions adviser: Students should self-advocate by being in contact with a specific representative within the office of admissions. This is one skill that will continue to serve students, not just in college planning but also through navigating their educational journey.

Meaghan Arena, SUNY Geneseo vice president for enrollment management: Keep in touch with us. Students who keep in touch with us themselves build better relationships with our admissions counselors. Getting to know students on a personal level is one of our most rewarding experiences and really helps us to advocate for you when it’s time to make offers of admission.

Janine Bissic, Whittier College director of admission: Don’t try to play the game, as there are no tricks to getting admitted. Listen to the advice of admission counselors from each institution to provide insight on their admission process, but don’t believe your girlfriend’s uncle’s cousin who told you that only students who apply in the morning, who play badminton get admitted.

Jaime Garcia, former admissions counselor for Northwestern University and presently director of college access at Chicago Scholars: If you are 100 percent sure where you want to go, seek early admission. Generally, college admissions officers know that those who apply for early decision are those who have a higher satisfaction rate when they are on campus. Because early decision is a great indicator for this satisfaction, schools frequently have goals and benchmarks for admitting a particular percentage of students through early decision. They won’t tell you this, but early-admission acceptance rates are often higher than regular acceptance rates. It is also less competitive because the applicant pool is smaller than regular decision.

Andy Strickler, Connecticut College dean of admission and financial aid: Applying for admission and being denied is not the end of the world. This is a great opportunity to experience and learn that one can emerge from it a stronger individual. Ignore all the outside noise and don’t think about specific schools, think about yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions about what kind of environment you need to be successful in college. Then think about specific schools that match your ideal set of characteristics. Finally, invest the time and energy to visit campuses and test the assumptions you have made about these attributes.

Justin Rogers, Canisius College director of undergraduate admissions: The only thing colleges and universities have in common is that we are all different. The same can be said for the students who apply. Make sure the colleges know that. Tell your story. Some of my most memorable offers of admission have gone to students who like to color outside the lines.

Judy Mandell is a freelance writer.


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