I’m usually skeptical of college rankings, but there’s a new one out that’s worth paying attention to. In May, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) released its ranked list of “What Colleges Look for in High School Students.” [https://www.iecaonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/IECA_What-Colleges-Look-For.pdf.] Based on an annual survey of nearly 2,000 independent educational consultants, the results both reinforce and challenge common assumptions about college admission decisions.
While grades and standardized test scores are among the top-ranked criteria, students might be surprised to know that the #1 item is a rigorous high school curriculum. Colleges, especially highly selective schools, want to see high school students challenging themselves with honors, AP and IB classes, rather than getting straight A’s in less challenging coursework. With the recent news that some of DC’s most prestigious high schools are dropping AP courses, many students are wondering if this advice still holds. In fact, one of the reasons that Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Day School, St. Albans and the others decided to discontinue these classes is that they believe they can offer more in-depth and rigorous courses if they are not bound by the AP curriculum. The bottom line is that colleges will evaluate your curriculum in the context of what your school offers, so you should take advantage of the challenges available to you.
At the same time, I always emphasize that students should maintain a manageable workload. High school and college students are reporting increased levels of anxiety and depression, and these trends are linked to increased pressure for academic achievement. So take classes that are challenging but not overwhelming; you should push yourself, but not to the breaking point.
At most colleges, the importance of GPA and standardized test scores is just behind that of rigor, although each college puts a slightly different emphasis on these academic criteria. For example, there are more than 1000 four-year colleges in the country that are now test-optional or test-flexible. In fact, the prestigious University of Chicago just announced its decision to go test-optional, joining a list that includes other highly selective institutions like Bates, Wesleyan, Wake Forest and Skidmore, as well as George Washington University and American University here in DC. (You can find a current list of test-optional colleges and universities at www.fairtest.org.)
College admission essays, including school-specific essays, ranked at #4 in importance. Essays are key pieces of your application because many students have comparable statistics and even activities. While playing varsity basketball for four years is valuable and demonstrates commitment, on paper it doesn’t look that different from playing four years of varsity volleyball, soccer, or field hockey. The essay is an opportunity to give a bit of insight into what makes you unique. It’s also a place where you can illustrate your personal character, and this year students’ values and character made the list for the first time at #12. There is renewed attention to character right now, especially in light of some pretty awful behavior on college campuses as well as Turning the Tide, a 2016 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which called for the college admissions process to elevate the importance of “ethical engagement” and reduce “excessive achievement pressure.” Although character generally will not outrank academics in importance, I’m interested to watch this trend in the next few years.
Also new to the list this year was the ability to pay, placing #7 in the ranking. While certain elite colleges do not consider the ability to pay, the majority of schools cannot afford to admit students without knowing whether they can come up with the tuition. For DC residents, the DC TAG grant can help make public colleges and universities more affordable by providing up to $10,000 per year toward the additional out-of-state cost. But don’t make the mistake of focusing only on public schools without considering private schools whose costs may turn out to be similar if they offer aid packages based on merit.
As you review these new rankings, keep in mind that each school is different and each will prioritize different qualities in applicants. Neither school counselors not independent counselors have secret information about how to get in, but when I visit campuses and meet with admission staff, I get to know what different schools are looking for and what makes each college unique. Using information about admission factors like legacy and demonstrated interest, as well as other criteria like campus culture, helps me guide students to the campus that offers the right fit for them.
Becky Claster is the College Counselor at Blyth-Templeton Academy and the Founder of Claster Educational Services. She can be reached at email@example.com.