Essays, Demonstrated Interest Up, Recommendation Letters Down, as IECA Reports on What Colleges are Looking for in Class of 2014 Grads
by Mark Sklarow, CEO, Independent Educational Consultants Association
Last week we announced, through a special webinar, the results of our latest research into the skills, characteristics, and criteria colleges look for in evaluating applicants. This ranking showed greater changes than any time in the past 15 years. At the same time, we released a new infographic geared toward students and blasted out a press release. Our findings have been posted in college counseling offices around the country, they’ve been retweeted by colleges from South Carolina to California, and have been posted to the Facebook page or websites of IECA members. We continue to get questions, and in this blog we’ll summarize the results and answer some of the most frequent questions.
Compared to just a year ago, several qualities jumped up on the list. Essays were weighed more heavily (#4) than ever before. This is particularly true among small and private colleges. The key for essays is that they should meet three criteria: (1) be well written; (2) be thoughtful and meaningful; and (3) be personal. The essay should offer insight into who you are. No one else should be able to write the same essay as you. At the same time, everyone agreed that an essay that is too polished, is of a quality that is inconsistent with a high school record, or one that is inauthentic, would harm, not help, the application.
Also up was demonstrated leadership. There seems to be little doubt that colleges are increasingly interested in understanding what you will BRING to campus, as well as what you’ll GAIN from attending. Those who are deeply committed to a service activity, work or sports, or club, should demonstrate this in the application. All respondents stressed that the most important thing is the depth of commitment: having deep roots in one or two things. Yet again, the IECA members who responded to the survey (more than 300) stressed the need to be involved authentically; a week at a nursing home fools no one, while four years spent on environmental issues with increasing levels of responsibility means much more. A concern raised during the webinar: does this emphasis on leadership harm introverts? It can, but introverts can demonstrate deep commitment and taking on responsibility can mean determined, committed chairing of a project, not being the traditional leader or president.
Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend was one of the major topics discussed in the webinar. Today, many colleges are using sophisticated software to monitor student interest, with a goal of extending offers to those most interested, and increasing their yield. Showing up for campus tours is just the beginning. Today, some colleges monitor whether students open emails they send, record who ‘likes’ the admission office on Facebook, or follows their tweets. At NACAC last month, colleges explored new ways to uncover stealth students—those who visit their website but don’t leave their name. If colleges are using these criteria more and more, we owe it to our advisees to make them aware.
Of course there were several items that fell in importance: letters of recommendation fell from #5 to #10. A few items fell right off the top 12 list: the interview, being a legacy, and submission of a creative application (like a video) all fell dramatically.
The Items at the Top
At the very top of the list: A challenging high school curriculum (#1). While AP or IB classes help, it was pointed out that ‘challenging’ is personal: a relatively harmless math class for one student is a major challenge to another. The key that colleges want to see is a student who does not shy away from an academic challenge. And, while grades were important (#2), most IECA members concluded that it was better to take challenging courses, even if that meant some grades would be a little lower. The third item at the top of the list was standardized test scores, but many IECA members see this criteria as weakening, particularly in smaller schools and as more colleges switch to a test optional standard.
Bottom line from many members was to remember that ‘getting accepted’ is fleeting. Attending a school that is the right place is more lasting and more valuable. Said one member, “College is a match to be made, not a game to be won.”