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What do colleges look for? Good grades

Updated:   01/06/2010 11:00:47 AM EST

Tuesday, March 11

A new admissions officer at an elite college was exhausted from reading dozens of repetitive applications.

The newcomer quietly asked an experienced colleague how the latter stay focused while reading endless applications.

The old timer replied, "Who reads 'em?"

In reality, college admissions departments carefully review applications, but this story points out that it's important for an application to be interesting and able to convey a student's uniqueness.

It's worth restating that the single most important factor in college admission is the rigor of the student's high school curriculum and the grades earned. A student should challenge him or herself and demonstrate diligence, intellectual curiosity and a passion for learning.

Each college has a unique formula for evaluating its applicants. The wise candidate will carefully read the admissions website of each college being considered. Most colleges are frank in listing and prioritizing the elements they consider during the admissions process.

Aside from curriculum and grades, most schools require standardized testing such SAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT and AP. Eastern colleges generally accept the SAT while ACT is more popular in the west. When researching colleges be sure to determine which standardized tests are required for each school.


Colleges promulgate the average standardized test scores of matriculated students from previous years.

It's possible to be accepted to a particular college with significantly lower than average test scores for that college, but such exceptions most often involve students who have other special qualities such as exceptional academic records or significant athletic or musical talent. It's fine to overreach a little by applying to schools whose average entrance requirements are greater than your credentials, but do be aware of the length of your arm.

Students should take the Preliminary Standard Aptitude Test (PSAT) in 10th grade once and the SAT in 11th grade twice. Most students should also take the SAT in the fall of senior year and if necessary one final time in early winter.

It's also wise to study for standardized tests. Familiarity with the tests and knowledge of basic strategies for taking them helps, often significantly.

The SAT purports to be an aptitude test, but it's really a knowledge test as much as anything else. Therefore a review of high school math concepts, English vocabulary, writing and grammar skills is highly useful.

There are online prep courses, as well as help books. Princeton Review and Stanley Kaplan both offer online and book versions of their prep programs. There are also seminars and private tutors available. A good place to start for an overview and free help is

Even after practice and repeat testing, some students find that their standardized test scores don't accurately reflect their high school grade record and abilities. Happily, there are a growing number of excellent schools that don't require standardized testing, or make submission optional for admission.

The bottom line on SAT and similar tests is that a student should begin preparing for these tests early in their high school career. By garnering solid math skills, reading widely in a variety of subjects and preparing for such tests, most students will earn commendable scores by senior year.

College admission also involves important subjective factors. In fact the path to college rejection hell is paved with the carcasses of students who had good GPA's and SAT's, but failed to adequately convey a total picture of who they are during the application process.

Competitive colleges see thousands of bright applicants each year and consider them for admission on the basis of many factors including: character/personal qualities, class rank, extracurricular activities, interview, racial/ethnic status, recommendations, talent/ability, alumni relations, geographical residence, volunteer work and work experience.

Colleges use these factors to distinguish one applicant from another and to determine how good a fit each applicant might be for their college.

Colleges try to build an incoming class with smart, diverse, interesting, talented, kind and dedicated students. To this end, a student with clearly demonstrated strong personal qualities or talents might gain admission over a student with a slightly stronger academic record but no such special qualities.

Therefore, it is important to make sure the college knows what's special about the applicant. This must be clearly presented in the interview, college application, recommendations and other contact with the college.

Next month I will discuss the details of several more important admissions factors and how to best communicate with admissions departments.

Michael Wilner is the founder and principal of Wilner Education, an international educational planning practice, based in Putney, specializing in secondary school and college placement. Contact him at

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