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New Survey Finds What Colleges are Really Looking for in Applicants

Estrela Consulting February 11, 2020

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) released this month its 2020 ranking of What Colleges Look for in High School Students, based on a nationwide survey of IECA members. While grades and standardized test scores are near the top of these annual rankings, a number of significant changes and surprises are challenging the assumptions about college admissions. Number 1 on the list (a few years running): A challenging curriculum. Rising on the list: extracurriculars (#4) AND demonstrated leadership (#6) in those activities that are most meaningful to the student. 
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The new rankings from IECA are a reminder to students that not all aspects of the application are treated equally. Many students and parents are surprised to hear that the leading criteria universities want to see isn’t grades (#2) or standardized test scores (#3), but rather evidence that a student took as rigorous a high school curriculum as they could.

“We often remind our students that they should be taking the most challenging classes, as appropriate, that are offered in their schools,” says Estrela Founder Kristina Dooley, a Certified Educational Planner. “While grades and scores are important, demonstrating that you are willing to be challenged and not just take less rigorous classes to get an easy A shows colleges you are motivated and have a true interest in learning.”

Item #5 in the ranking—the essay—is also one of the most misunderstood, according to IECA. The essay must show insight into a student’s unique character or life-shaping experiences. An essay that worked in an English class, unless specifically written for a college application, is unlikely to be one that is appropriate to use. “The essay is one of the few opportunities the student has to become multi-dimensional in this process,” says Dooley. “Colleges are looking not just for good students but also for great additions to the school community. The essay is a chance for the student to show their personality.”

Applying to college has become more complex than ever before and the rampant myths that exist about what really matters in the application review process leads to a significant amount of anxiety amongst students. Many students believe having a full-docket of extracurriculars, community service and leadership roles can overshadow a less-than stellar academic record. While involvement is important, it doesn’t serve as a stand-in for demonstrated success in the classroom.

“Students should remember that starting a new club or joining a new team shouldn’t be done to simply pad an application,” says Dooley. “Colleges are interested in those who are able to successfully balance both academic and extracurricular activities and be able to add something to the incoming freshman class. Being class president or captain of the volleyball team doesn’t mask mediocre grades and low test scores.”

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Tagged: college admission, college applications, college planning, essays, IECA, college search

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