It can be overwhelming for students when they come across varying pieces of advice and opinions regarding university/college applications. For them to gauge what holds more weightage in their admission decisions, they require guidance from someone who is experienced in the world of university applications, and the admission process.
As a career counsellor mostly dealing with US university applications, I have come across numerous high school students who often find themselves at a crossroads regarding college applications. Should I immerse myself in books to attain the perfect GPA or spend my energies on extra-curricular activities in school?
Well, the truth is, there is no straightforward, one-word answer to this question. This blog will explore the in-depth aspects of how US universities specifically but also non-US universities in general gauge a college application.
With the ever-evolving global trends, a significant development in how a prestigious college views an admission application has also occurred. The approach has become much more holistic, which means a student is evaluated beyond academics.
Colleges and universities are now trying to build productive communities outside classrooms. Students who actively participate in community affairs and can (potentially) contribute meaningfully to society seem to attract admission officers the most.
However, that does not mean grades are unnecessary. They are part of building what we call "the perfect student profile."
Here's what that means...
What constitutes a profile?
Your profile gives a university a sneak peek into your student life. This includes your curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular achievements. For US universities, you specifically have to provide a 'Profile'. In other places, such as the UK, you'll have to do a 'Personal Statement', but this still involves the same details needed for a profile.
A portfolio that illustrates your interests, skills, knowledge, and experience is what constitutes a profile; therefore, it should reflect what kind of an individual you are outside the classroom.
However, a common student misconception is that students think they can impress top colleges with just a long list of activities on their profile.
The truth is, when it comes to evaluation, the nature of activities you take up matters the most, more than the number. To attain maximum benefit, you need to excel in the activities you take up.
Rather than doing everything and anything, it is best to achieve depth in the field that interests you the most.
Ideally, 8-10 activities can make up a strong profile (do not forget the quality over quantity rule). These include and are not limited to leadership, management, community service, languages, media, performing arts, and sports-related activities.
What do admission officers look for in an applicant?
Well, as someone who has been counselling students for 2 years now, I can attest that the admission process is purely subjective. Each admission officer looks at different aspects. Nevertheless, one thing is certain; you must stand out among other applicants.
A college application comprises academic grades, a student's class rank, a personal essay, and a profile. These aspects reflect a student's overall personality; through these aspects, admission officers can gain insight into the student's abilities and interests.
The three-must haves to get into the university of your choice:
1. Defined Interests
Colleges want to build well-rounded communities of specialists.
Students who have superficially participated in numerous but unrelated activities will not stand out as those who have stuck to and excelled in a few that they're passionate about. Defined interests are the key to standing out.
2. Academic Achievement
There is no second opinion that your grades count as one of the most important factors in your application. Academic achievement must reflect an upward grade trend and a rigorous yet appropriate course load.
3. Context Outside Grades, Courses, Activities
Who you are as a person outside your classroom and social clubs is also relevant to the admission officers. This is best reflected through your essay and your teacher/counsellors' recommendation letters.
To keep it simple, admission officers are mostly on the hunt for individuals who outshine others academically and socially. Students who have been consistent with their academics and extra-curricular attain more immediate attention when it comes to admission decisions.
But is it the same everywhere?
Well, no. Surveys and polls show disparity among the views of admission officers of top colleges regarding what is more important. Some believe a strong overall profile is pivotal in the admission decision. At the same time, some consider grades to be the ultimate decisive factor.
Are you the ultimate classroom genius but not big on extracurriculars?
Picture this, no matter how much importance a college might give to grades, it is natural to have reservations about a star academic performer who doesn't demonstrate involvement in community affairs. You might need to work on this aspect.
One of my high school students with straight A*s and As and a SAT score of 1450 got rejected from Cornell and Dartmouth because of a lack of community service of minimum 60 hrs and any other strong extra-curricular activity reflecting passion or interests.
Not strong on the academic side?
While you may need to pay more attention to your grades (because it is important), extensive community involvement and defined interests can favor an applicant who does not stand out academically.
Another high school student of mine got acceptance from NYUAD, Brown, and Purdue with a strong profile, including rigorous community and extensive volunteering service and a specialized interest in Artificial Intelligence but not so impressive grades.
So, is it grades, or is it profile? Summing it up
As a concluding stance, both are important and play complementing roles in the admission decision.
What I have gathered through my extensive experience in the field of career counselling is that prestigious and reputed colleges look for individuals who have taken up challenges in terms of rigorous course load and groomed themselves socially and intellectually.
I am a Clinical Psychologist and a freelance writer currently working as a Student Counsellor. I have been writing on a range of topics that include mental health, tech, health and wellness, academia, and much more. My hobbies include reading, writing, and exploring different topics of interest.