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Essays, Demonstrated Interest Up, Recommendation Letters Down, as IECA Reports on What Colleges are Looking for in Class of 2014 Grads

Mark Sklarow

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 IECA_College-Top-12-Strengths-Flyercountry, 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.

What’s Up?
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.

What’s Down
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.”


2 Responses to Essays, Demonstrated Interest Up, Recommendation Letters Down, as IECA Reports on What Colleges are Looking for in Class of 2014 Grads

  1. william morse says:

    I particularly like Mark Sklarow’s commentary, as it makes points, regarding the essay, and leadership, that one might miss in looking at the new IECA list ranking what colleges are looking for. Everything is ranked today, in US News, Forbes, Consumer Reports. In particular, various publications rank colleges. Why? Mostly to get attention and to sell copies, Independent Educational Consultants, students and families should be more attentive, assessing colleges and schools, to finding the right match, rather than focusing on some ranking. If I am in an admissions office, reading 20 to 50 applications a day, what stands out differs for every student. If I am working at a top Ivy, 800’s do not stand out, nor does a 4.0 GPA. But the applicant I remember, and in a sense, fall in love with, has something special, some charisma, magic, aura, an undefinable, “je ne sais quoi” appeal that makes him or her stand out. And it might be one line, one thought or phrase in an essay, or in a teacher’s recommendation. Think of it this way: you go into the Louvre or the Met, to see a special collection. There is so much to see, so many paintings, so many exceptional works of art. So what catches my attention? If I am with my wife, what catches hers? I would be hard put to say. But always, there is something I linger over, I cannot get out of my mind. It moves or touches me, it works its magic in ways I might find difficult to articulate. For my wife, it might be a different work of art. Admissions reading is much like that: every reader is different, what catches our attention cannot be ranked, or perhaps even identified. But candidates stand out for reasons that vary from student to student. Authenticity, passion, uniqueness, and yes, potential brilliance or genius, come in an infinite variety of forms. Focus not on ranking, either in choosing where to apply, but more importantly in living your life, writing and assembling your application. Think about yourself, your achievements, strengths,and contributions to your school, your community, and your future college. Live your life intentionally, purposefully. Choose teachers who know you well, believe in you, and will confirm your abilities, potential and authenticity. There is no formula, no secret. Know yourself, be yourself. Put it all into your own words, and weigh them carefully.

  2. Alan Haas says:

    Thanks, Bill. These are wise words from a mutually wizened, but respected colleague

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