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Q&A With a Former Admission Director: What Are Colleges Really Looking For?

Amy Rice June 05, 2018

Amy Rice

Do you feel that applying to college is just a giant maze of paperwork, fees and deadlines? Do you ever wish you could understand what really goes on in the admissions world without all the extra pomp and circumstance? Do you want to know all the mysteries and secrets behind the college admissions process?

Me too.

But as someone who has been on the other side of the desk, reviewing thousands of applications and meeting hundreds of parents and students every year, there are a few secrets I have learned. Here are 5 of the most common questions I hear:

Help! My grades were really horrible my first two years of high school, but they are much better now. Will I still be accepted?

Yes. There’s a reason that colleges ask for your entire transcript, not just one year of grades. What we’re looking for is progression. We all know transitioning from junior high to high school is an adjustment. But, did you correct your mistakes and move forward? An increase in your GPA over time tells me that you’re starting to take your future seriously. Is there anything you can do about your cumulative GPA? Not really - it will show up on your transcript. Remember that you also have a college essay to submit, which gives you an opportunity to add or justify anything on your application that you feel doesn’t fully represent who you are today. Don’t be afraid to share the lessons you learned, and how overcoming those obstacles will lead you to be a successful college student.

How much do extracurriculars matter?

Do they matter? Yes. But it also depends on where you are applying to college. Many schools operate on a holistic review process, meaning that your grades and test scores are not the only things considered. For these schools, your extracurricular activities, community service hours, and resume of leadership opportunities in high school do matter. Schools that fall into this category are typically private colleges, elite publics, and ivy leagues. Small liberal arts colleges also like to see that an applicant has been engaged in the activities around them, since out-of-class participation is a distinguishing factor for many of those schools.

If you are applying Regular Decision to a state school, don’t stress about the fact that you only have 3 forms of leadership instead of 4 as, more than likely, your admission decision is based primarily on your academics. However, regardless of school size or type, extracurriculars do matter if you are applying to a special program within the school, such as the Honors College. They are also important when it comes to scholarship searching, as many scholarship pools require applicants to have a certain number of community service hours or to have been actively involved.

It is important to note, however, that if extracurricular involvement isn’t your thing, don’t force it onto your resume just to obtain a coveted spot at a university. Admissions offices are looking for students with a specific profile, often in hopes that they will bring their active extracurricular lifestyle to contribute and enhance their own campus student life. In all parts of the application, if it isn’t you in real life, don’t create it on paper. Finding the right college fit is extremely important, as students who attend the right school are also more likely to succeed.

What’s the best way to get the maximum amount of scholarships and financial aid?

Apply EARLY and OFTEN. Just like the admissions game, financial aid is all about timing. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile (specific institutions only) open every year on October 1st, and schools establish priority deadlines as early as November for receiving aid. Even if you don’t think you will qualify for free aid based on need, schools like to see the FAFSA submitted before creating any sort of financial aid package with grants or scholarships.

Scholarships follow the same rule. Typically the larger scholarship awards have earlier deadlines, so there are always more opportunities available the earlier you start looking. You do not have to wait until you know where you are going to start applying. As soon as you finish your college and financial aid applications, begin working on scholarship applications.

Lastly, maintain communication with the financial aid office. Sometimes schools have additional sources to point you to in order to search for additional ways to pay. Tools such as the Net Price Calculator give you an idea of how much you will owe, but start the conversation early with the offices that matter so you know your expectations.

Do I HAVE to pay my deposit by December 1? February 1?

In the majority of circumstances, you have to pay your deposit by MAY 1st. This is known as the National Candidates Reply Date, and is universal for all U.S. colleges. However, there are advantages to paying your deposit before the official deadline. Some schools stagger orientation session sign-ups for those who've paid deposits earlier in the year, as earlier orientation sessions often have better class scheduling options. Sometimes housing applications are only available to students who have paid an enrollment deposit. These are certainly legitimate reasons to submit a deposit before the deadline, but two caveats should always apply: Never pay a deposit before you hear a decision from all schools - both admissions and financial aid - and only pay one enrollment deposit. Many deposits are non-refundable.

How early should I start communicating with the admissions office?

EARLY. Once you hit high school, it’s never too soon to talk to a college or university. Admissions offices are ripe with information that can assist you throughout the application process, whether it is campus events, deadline reminders, or even early access to when fall applications open. College admissions staff are your advocates throughout the process, and if your application is on the border between acceptance or waitlist, your established relationship just might be enough to move you over compared to an applicant with the exact same profile who has had zero communication with the school.

When you take the PSAT, send your test scores to the schools you're considering. Go for a campus event in your sophomore year, and talk to someone from your major. Stay for an overnight event, or attend a special program. Just like financial aid, the earlier you start the conversation, the less surprised you will be when deadlines and to-dos start to arise during your senior year.

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Tagged: Insider, college admission, college applications, college planning, FAFSA, financial aid, Scholarships, college search, National Candidates Reply Date, extracurricular activities, CSS Profile, demonstrated interest

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