By Katie Bowles
It may seem impossible to prepare for SATs, compose thoughtful essays, obtain laudatory letters of recommendation and maintain a high GPA, all while attempting to enjoy the final years of high school. Catchphrases like “holistic review” get thrown around a lot, but what truly matters to admissions offices? We’ve broken it down, piece by piece, to help your child focus on what’s most important for his or her application.
According to The Princeton Review, GPA is the “total of all your course grades throughout your high school career divided by the total number of credits.” Most schools report this on a 4.0 scale, with a GPA of 4.0 corresponding to all As, 3.0 equaling Bs and so on. It’s easy for high schoolers to become too focused on this number. While GPA is important, the admissions offices we spoke to noted that the number doesn’t mean as much if the course load isn’t strong.
Greg Grauman, assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions at American University, notes: “One’s actual GPA is much less important without context. An applicant who has a lower GPA may actually be more competitive than an applicant with a higher GPA. For instance, the lower GPA may be a result of a less-than-stellar freshman year followed by a phenomenal sophomore and junior year, or the lower GPA may have been earned in a much more rigorous curriculum.” Basically, a 4.0 is less impressive if it’s earned through remedial-level classes—colleges and universities look for prospective students to challenge themselves.
Along with the classes affecting the GPA, colleges and universities also consider the level of competitiveness of the actual high school attended. According to Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at The College of William & Mary: “We are looking at the actual grades within the context of what those grades mean at a particular school. In other words, you can’t simply compare one raw GPA at one school to another raw GPA from across the state. Additionally, we pay attention to trends in a student’s grades, including what types of grades the student receives in the more challenging college-preparatory courses.”
And of course, the types of classes taken in high school also have an impact on how institutions view the application. While As in electives are great, particularly when applying to specialized programs of study, most schools still expect prospective students to have succeeded in core subjects as well. James Madison University, for example, lists academic transcript/course load ahead of GPA in order of importance when considering applications. JMU’s Dean of Admissions Michael D. Walsh says that “to evaluate your achievement in high school, we evaluate your grades in core subject areas: mathematics, English, foreign language, social studies and lab sciences. A competitive candidate is an A/B student in core courses.”
Academic Transcript and Course Load
As noted by JMU, high school course load is just as important as GPA to admissions offices. Core requirements exist across the board, but simply stopping at the requirements often isn’t enough to make an applicant shine. At Longwood University, the biggest focus is on the core subjects, but according to Olander Fleming, assistant director of admissions, the school also “prefers an applicant go above and beyond those minimum requirements and challenge themselves while doing so. IB/AP/dual enrollment/Honors classes are preferred, so long as the student doesn’t overwhelm himself or herself. For the student who struggles with the full course load, we would prefer they take the higher-level classes in an area they are strong in. For example, an English major could focus on IB/AP courses in English and stick with Honors for the other subjects if they aren’t strong in them.”
This sentiment is echoed by William & Mary’s admissions office: “When we review a student’s transcript, it is a much more complex process than simply looking at one number. Instead, we are interested in what courses the student has taken as a starting point. Has he or she mapped out a challenging curriculum that has enabled the student to take high level courses in multiple academic disciplines? That is an important foundation for a liberal arts education,” Wolfe says
American University also looks for students who have challenged themselves throughout high school. Grauman mentions that “what courses one takes, and the challenge to which they expose themselves, is just as important as the final outcome.” However, he cautions that GPA should still be taken into account: “Academically, the ideal would be the highest GPA and most rigorous curriculum.”
Very intertwined, GPA and academic transcripts generally make up the most important factors for admissions offices. As Jennifer Ziegenfus, senior assistant director for university admissions for Towson University, puts it, “As an academic institution, we preference a student’s academic record over all other factors. Success in high school is most valuable in the application process.”
The dreaded SAT. These three small letters can strike fear into even the most calm and studious of high schoolers. Luckily, test-prep solutions abound, and many schools are relaxing standardized testing requirements on college applications. In fact, American University doesn’t require any test results, though they are still optional. Grauman notes that rather focusing on arbitrary test scores, “much greater emphasis in our review is placed on performance in high school course work and rigor (Honors, AP and other enriched academic course work).”
JMU and Virginia Tech both still require scores from either the ACT or the redesigned SAT but no longer require the extra writing/essay portion given on either, a large weight lifted off already stressed-out test-takers. Tech’s Jennifer T. Harris, director of communications, enrollment and degree management and undergraduate admissions, recommends that students planning to take the SAT take advantage of the free test-prep program available online through Khan Academy.
The Northern Virginia area also offers a large variety of SAT classes and tutoring centers, including multiple locations of C2 Education, Huntington Learning Center and Sylvan Learning. These for-profit institutions offer tutelage in all core subjects as well as SAT and PSAT prep, providing one-on-one and small-group instruction most nights of the week as well as some weekend days.
Extracurriculars are important when applying to colleges, but they should also provide a source of fun and socialization. These clubs, organizations, sports and other activities serve as a way for high schoolers to showcase leadership skills, talents, a sense of responsibility and other unique aspects of their personalities to admissions offices. The University of Virginia’s Dean of Admission, Gregory Roberts, says that in reviewing applicants’ extracurriculars, “We want to learn more about what a student is interested in or is passionate about.”
It’s easy for students to make the mistake of trying to “collect” extracurriculars, signing up for everything possible just to list it on a resume. However, colleges take note of this and prefer quality over quantity. Longwood’s Fleming notes, “We would rather see a student hold leadership or show dedication to an activity over joining multiple groups junior year to impress us.”
Quality is also appreciated at JMU: “We like to see what you have done in clubs, organizations and athletics beyond just being a member. We also consider community service and part-time jobs. We look at the variety and depth of your involvement.” Walsh cautions putting extracurriculars over studies, though: “You must be academically competitive before your extracurricular activities are reviewed.” In other words, being first chair in the school orchestra is wonderful, but it won’t be noticed if the student is failing core classes. Schools are looking for students who are well-rounded.
At Towson, school context is taken into account along with quality of extracurriculars: “In a large school, a student might not have the ability to hold a leadership position, but may have completed 250 community service hours. Similarly, at a small school, a student may be the president of an organization, but contributed very little to the activity. If the student is going to highlight activities, they should share what they have done and what they have gained from this participation,” Ziegenfus notes.
When it comes to extracurriculars, one thing’s for certain: It’s all about what they mean to the student. William & Mary’s Wolfe says, “Most importantly, a student should pursue those involvements that they find meaningful, enjoyable and provide an opportunity to grow as an individual. Ultimately, we’re trying to get a sense of how this student will get involved on our campus.”
This view is shared by American University: “We encourage applicants to go beyond listing activities on their resume and instead provide context to their extracurricular involvement. They should embrace their extracurricular involvement and make sure it comes alive within their application. The more context a student can provide about themselves, the better the admissions committee can picture the student at AU,” says Grauman.
GPA, course load, resumes—these can all be measured, either by grade or by level of commitment. But what about the extra elements that truly make an application stand out? Many institutes of higher learning now use a holistic review system to consider applications, meaning they’re assessing who the student is as a person and how he or she will fit in with the rest of the student body along with how successful he or she might be academically. These can be scary to students (“They’re judging me as a person?! I’m only 17!”), but they should really be seen as a positive. Holistic reviews encourage students to succeed not just for the sake of succeeding but to be well-rounded, unique and interesting individuals as well.
These holistic reviews are based on letters of recommendation, personal statements, extracurriculars and other elements that aren’t necessarily required for applications. University of Maryland, for example, likes to know about applicants’ “background, who they are, what opportunities they’ve had and how they’ve chosen to take advantage of those opportunities,” according to Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions. The fact that a student was raised in the foster care system might not necessarily make it onto a resume, but situations like these can provide important context for a student’s life and the rest of his or her application.
Background and personal information can often be provided in an essay or personal statement, optional in most college applications but absolutely recommended by experts such as Fleming, Walsh, Ziegenfus and Roberts. The essay portion of an application gives students the chance to speak to the admissions office, the closest thing to actually meeting face-to-face short of an interview. Proofreading is key, though. Longwood’s Fleming recommends not relying on spell-check and getting a person to read over the essay. “I tell students, ‘Spell-check will not correct a mistake saying they were motivated by their basketball ‘couch’ during the season.’ An essay in which a couch motivates, leads practices and encourages perseverance is quite humorous to read, but not what the writer intended to share with us.”
JMU’s Walsh agrees, stressing the importance of not rushing when putting together an essay or requesting a letter of recommendation. “Taking time to complete [the] application file is what makes an applicant stand out—spend time on your essay and choose a reference who truly knows you.” Basically, applying to college is a lot like the schoolwork students will have to complete when in college—professors and admissions offices can tell if something was thrown together at the last minute.
Fleming also notes that, while important, prospective students don’t need to agonize over crafting a one-of-a-kind essay: “A lot of students stress over trying to be unique but fail to realize by answering an essay prompt from their point of view, that in itself is unique as we all think differently.”
When applying to Towson, having a strong essay could potentially be the difference between being accepted and not, says Ziegenfus: “If a student is academically admissible to the university, the remainder of their application must also meet the standard of a TU student. Not every student who applies is above the freshman SAT/ACT and GPA profile. However, they may have an outstanding essay that shows a positive attitude when faced with a difficult situation. Ultimately, academics are prioritized in the decision process, but each of the other factors are taken into consideration to be sure Towson University yields a competitive and engaging freshman class.”
UVA’s Roberts sums it up: “Course rigor, grades, class rank and test scores give us an indication of how the student has performed in high school, while recommendations, essays and extracurricular involvement can tell us more about a student’s personal characteristics and qualities.” An attractive applicant will possess positives on both the measurable and intangible sides.
In the end, the qualities that schools look for in prospective students are shown both academically and in the holistic review. According to Roberts, “We look for students who are good human beings. We like students who are interested in the world around them and who treat others with dignity and respect.” The same goes for William & Mary and most schools, says Wolfe: “Students often stand out in different ways—that’s the joy of having a diverse, multitalented group of students. Every student is an individual with [his or her] own story to tell. Grades and extracurricular activities are part of this narrative, but so are essays, recommendations and, at times, interviews. It is when all of these elements come together that you begin to see how the student will flourish in college.”