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What Are the Top Things Colleges Are Looking for Today? An Industry Insider Answers

Although it may seem like a black box at times, there is a method to the madness that is college admissions. When reviewing applications for a new school year, there are several factors that colleges take into account. Not only are they looking at the qualities and traits of the individual student, but they are also trying to ensure a balanced and diverse class.

We asked Margaret Appenheimer, Director of College Counseling at Hathaway Brown School, to share the top 5 things schools are looking for when considering acceptance offers. By keeping these in mind, families can better help prepare their college-aspiring kids to become A+ applicants:

1. A well-rounded class

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions that students and parents have is that an applicant must be "well-rounded." While colleges are indeed aiming to build an incoming class that is well-rounded (including a diverse range of talents, interests, and life-experiences), one singular student does not need to be everything. Resist the notion that the applicant needs to "tick all the boxes" with a laundry list of activities. When a student has developed several interests over time and can speak genuinely about why these activities have been important to them, what they have learned about themselves, and how they might continue these interests in college, then a college gets a sense of what role this student might play as they are trying to build their well-rounded class. And, activities beyond the classroom run the gamut. From music to athletics to part-time employment, there isn't one "right" thing that students should be doing.

2. Academic growth over time, with increasingly more rigorous classes each year

The transcript and cumulative GPA is the single most important piece of a student's application. And, while colleges do take into account a student's grades each year, they are looking closely at how a student has grown over time, as well as her willingness to challenge themselves by taking on a more challenging course of study each year. Colleges look particularly closely at junior year achievement, as this is the most recent indicator a college has when they are determining a student's college readiness and the likelihood of success when navigating college coursework.

3. Students that are a good "fit" for their institution, and will engage in the opportunities available to them

Colleges want to make sure they are admitting students who are a match for their specific college. While many colleges seem very similar, they do have distinct "personalities." For example, there are some colleges that offer a wide-array of pre-professional programs and are eager to find students who are ready to get right to work studying in their specialized programs. If a student writes in their application that they are undecided about their future course of study and that they want to be in a place that encourages exploration across subjects, they might not appear to be a "fit" for that institution. Similarly, if a student is applying to an institution that is highly intellectual, yet they struggle in their application to write about books they have read for pleasure over the last year, they might appear to not be a "fit." This problem of fit can be prevented if a student does ample research about what kinds of programs, requirements, and experiences define that particular college's student experience. Once a student understands what a college values and what their student experience is like, they can better articulate how she is a good fit for their school community.

4. Some indication that the student will attend if given an offer of admission

Just as students would like to be able to predict if a college will accept them, colleges would like to be able to predict if students will decide to attend if admitted. This desire to have a clear sense of student enrollment is what drives the strong role that Early Decision plays in college admissions. Many schools that offer Early Decision (the student, parent, and college counselor sign an agreement outlining that any offer of admission is binding) are now admitting over 50% of their class through ED. While ED is the clearest predictor of a student's enrollment, colleges rely on other measures as well. They are often looking for different ways a student has "demonstrated interest." Colleges that track this look to things such as visiting the college, interviewing with the admissions officer or a local alum, attending a college fair or local reception, meeting with the admissions officer when/if they visit a student's school, and even opening emails sent by the admissions office. The nation's public universities and most highly selective colleges typically don't track demonstrated interest, but many schools do.

5. Students who are authentic.

Students should be themselves and avoid trying to be, do, or say what they think "looks good" or what a college wants to hear. Colleges want to hear from teenagers and expect to hear the voice of a teenager. Everything about the application should be completed by the student. Admissions officers read thousands of applications, and it is abundantly clear when the student's voice isn't coming through. In addition to placing a premium on students completing all of their own work on the college application, they are also paying attention to who is driving the college search. While parents should always feel comfortable reaching out to financial aid offices with questions, only the student should be in touch with admissions officers. Whether by phone or email, admissions officers are paying attention as to whether or not they are hearing from the student or the parent. Colleges want to know that it is truly the student who is interested in attending, and they want to know that the student is independent enough to navigate their own application process, as it is a great indicator of a student's ability to navigate college independently.

This material has been prepared for (informational)\(educational) purposes only. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC does not guarantee their accuracy or completeness.

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