It turns out that the answer to the question of how selective colleges choose students is, “it depends.”
Inside Higher Ed recently reported on a study which looked at the question of how students are chosen at the 75 most selective colleges in the country. The standard wisdom has been that these selective colleges first look at the students grades, classes taken to get those grades and test scores to make sure that the applicants are academically capable of doing the work. After that process, they look to the essays, activities, recommendations and everything else to decide who to admit. And in fact, 76% of selective colleges do just that.
But a substantial minority of colleges actually start with the essays and activities to make sure that the student would be a good fit for their college. These colleges know that the vast majority of students applying are academically capable of handling the work so they only look at the academic background after first making sure the student is someone that they would want. .
Understanding this approach may help some people start to understand how students with great grades and test scores are often rejected at the most selective colleges. I often see this when first talking to parents about the types of colleges their students are interested in.
“Bobby want to go to Harvard or Princeton and as a backup, MIT.”
Sorry, MIT isn’t a backup for anyone, I don’t care what their grades and test scores are.
Good grades and test scores are necessary. Even with those colleges that are looking at fit to start with, if you ultimately don’t have the grades and test scores, you won’t get in. But make no mistake about it. Grades and test scores alone won’t get you into a highly selective college. You need more.
The strongest candidates will have some sort of passion that is evident in their application. You need strong essays. And if the school asks why you are interested in their college, you had better have a specific reason. I see students fall down on this last point all of the time.
Here is what happens. A student is applying to a number of highly selective small liberal arts colleges. When asked why they are interested in College A, they will talk about the small class sizes, the great interaction between professors and students and the ability to learn how to think. Well, yes, all of those things are true, but you haven’t told me why you are interested in College A. You have given me a generic answer why you like small liberal arts colleges in general. If you are applying to one of the colleges that focus on fit with this answer, you will be knocked out of consideration before they even get to your grades.
Right now you are probably thinking, I wonder which colleges focus more on fit and which look more at grades. If I know that I can tailor my application to fit the different schools. However, we don’t know which colleges are in which camp. And colleges may move from one camp to the other depending on the needs of the college that year. So how do you prepare your application to account for this?
Do what you should have been doing all along. Spend the time to get good grades in challenging classes and if possible, get good test scores. When you start working on the application, however, the focus is no longer on grades and test scores. The purpose of the application is to give you a chance to show why you are special. Why College A should accept you and not the 30,000 other kids applying.
So what do you need to do to set yourself apart on the application? Stay turned for more information.