There Are Two Types of College Admissions Offices
High school students anxiously begin their journey to college as they make first contact with college admissions offices. Especially when they have a dream school in mind. But they proceed on visits, in person or virtual, without knowing how a college admissions office works. Every college admissions office has its own processes and thoughts about what is fair to ask prospective students. This is often called ‘holistic admissions.’
Too often I hear parents and students say that their child “must go” to a particular school to have a rewarding life after college. Sometimes this is true. You need to have a nursing degree to become a nurse. Teachers have teaching credentials before they can teach full time. Engineers will have degrees in engineering. But nursing, education and engineering grads, among others, do not need to go to the most selective school to get into the career they want. However, they need to find the college admissions offices that are most likely to help them get there. They might all be holistic. However, some might be more encouraging or helpful than others.
What do I mean by college admissions offices versus college admissions processes?
College admissions offices set a philosophy by which they evaluate and choose candidates. That philosophy drives the processes by which they do that work.
But while many schools use similar admissions processes, there are two types of college admissions offices.
- Those that look for reasons to admit every applicant
- The more selective schools that have to look for reasons to deny applicants
It does not matter if a school is test optional or test mandatory. A test-optional school will put more weight on everything other than your test scores. But test optional and test mandatory schools can look for reasons to admit or deny an applicant. One myth is that test optional schools will be fairer in admissions because they will not use low test scores against you. However, a test optional school will place more emphasis on the rest of your file, including your academics, essays and extracurricular accomplishments.
It does not matter if the school asks for several essays, only one, possibly none. Essays can help you in the admissions process, or hurt you if you rush through them. Good essays will definitely help you with admissions offices that are looking to admit. They will definitely hurt you with an office that has to find a reason to say no. No matter the applicants intended major, a school that practices selective admissions will expect them to put more effort into their writing. Especially if the applicant is trying to sell themselves to their school. As Shark Tank co-host Kevin O’ Leary is fond of saying: “This is the most important moment of your life.” If you have a dream school on the radar, you need to impress them with your writing, especially if they still impress you.
It does not matter how “famous” the school is. There are brand name schools that are exceptionally selective. But there are also brand name schools that are not. This is especially true at larger schools where the college of education might have less selective admissions than the college of engineering.
So, what matters to either of these college admissions offices?
- Grades. High grades are a sign of enthusiasm and motivation for learning
- Grades in your desired career or major. If you show that you are serious about an academic program, high grades in the right subjects will be important.
- Commitment to a manageable set of extracurricular activities
- Essays that show your commitment in an honest, authentic voice—and reflect a good effort.
- That you took the time to discover what the school offers—and expressed interest.
But how can I tell if college admissions offices will look to admit or deny me?
- Start with acceptance rates, then ask questions of the school. Some schools might set tougher admissions standards for more competitive majors.
- See how they value your interest when you take an in-person or virtual visit. The schools that look for reasons to admit will do more to make you feel welcome and take more time to answer your questions.
- If costs are a concern, watch for the answers that you get when you ask about financial aid or scholarships. Schools that look for reasons to admit are more likely to be open about their financial aid practices.
The most selective schools are better only if they offer what you want at a price that you can afford. Selectivity is a measure of demand, not quality. It is unwise to compromise your finances by buying more house, car—or college—that you can afford.