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A college admissions primer.

A College Admissions Primer

High school students around the country confront an important question: Should I go to college? And if their answer is yes, they must soon answer another one: Where? It's not a simple question to answer. Nor is it cause for worry. With some careful thought, good planning, and hard work, you can find an answer.

Circumstances couldn't be better for a person interested in attending college. Since 1977, the number of graduating high school seniors has been diminishing, with the consequence that colleges are competing to fill their classrooms. This competition means better prospects for admission. It doesn't mean, however, that the admissions process has grown simpler.

Deciding where to go to school is only the last step in the process. Before you reach that point, you must ask yourself a whole series of other important questions--about yourself, about what you want to study, and about what kind of school is best for you. We'll take a look at these questions and some others and offer some suggestions on how to address them.

Take a Close Look at Yourself

Begin by taking a close look at yourself. Try to evaluate honestly your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes. It's not an easy thing to do, but it's one of the most important. Colleges need this basic information to evaluate you as a candidate. And you also need it to evaluate the colleges.

In his book, How To Get Into College, Clifford Caine, a guidance counselor at St. Paul's Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes, "Unless you do this self-appraisal, you may not find the right college or right academic program for you. A self-evaluation is also very helpful when you are talking about yourself in college interviews, essays, or conversations with professors. Having a sense of yourself can also be invaluable in deciding upon a college concentration and eventually a vocation.'

Many students wait until their senior year to do this assessment. But the final year of high school is often hectic. This is an exercise which you can begin in your freshman or sophomore year. List your activities and accomplishments while the events are still fresh in your mind. This will give you time to discover those areas in which you can improve while you still can enhance your record.

Candor is important. Be straightforward, and don't be shy. And take the time to put your ideas on paper. Caine suggests that you develop what he calls a personal data sheet listing your strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, and aspirations.

Your ideas about what you would like to study and what kind of work you'd like to do may change. They do for most people. While we're growing up, very few of us have a clear idea of what we'd like to do. Whether or not you change your mind isn't important. What is important is that you begin to think about your future and explore your options.

While you are thinking of what you want to learn in college, you might also imagine the kind of college you want to learn it in. A college data sheet, similar to your personal data sheet, can be a helpful tool. Consider the size of the institution. The enrollment at some colleges and universities is in the tens of thousands, larger than many towns. Do you think that you would be comfortable in a school that large? A large school might offer a greater variety of opportunities and activities than a smaller school. But you might feel lost in the crowd. Or you might find a small school too closed in for you.

Besides the school's size, you might also want to consider its location. Would you prefer to spend 4 years in a big city, on the outskirts of a city, or in a more rural area?

Another characteristic that might interest you is the diversity of a school's enrollment. Many schools have students that come not only from many States, but from many different countries. The variety of cultures and perspectives can enhance a student's education.

You may be interested in the special programs that a school offers. For example, many universities and colleges offer exchange programs with universities overseas. Independent study programs, honors programs, interdisciplinary studies, and other special programs may also appeal to you.

A person goes to college to get an education. But the classroom or the laboratory is not the only place to learn. A college is also a community where you will have the opportunity to explore many avenues which can point the way to a future career. At most colleges and universities, students publish a newspaper. At some institutions, the presses run daily. If you aspire to win a Pulitzer one day, the school paper might give you your first byline. Working on the college yearbook could open your eyes to the world of publishing. A stint at the microphone at the college radio station could introduce you to broadcasting. Or, if you like to act, the college theater could give you the chance to step into the floodlights. You will find many other activities to interest you. The challenges are innumerable, and so are the opportunities for growth.

What Colleges Look For

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important when you begin to think about college. But it's equally important to have an idea of what colleges expect from their prospective students.

Much of the literature on college admissions emphasizes that colleges look primarily at four things: 1) grades, 2) standardized test scores, 3) extracurricular activities, and 4) out-of-school activities.

These criteria are far from equal in importance. Colleges look most closely at your academic record. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the College Board conducted a survey of more than 2,600 institutions of higher education. Sixty-five percent of the respondents said that the student's academic performance in high school was either the most or a very important factor in their admissions decisions.

Colleges require that you earn your grades in a core of required subjects. In general, your high school record should include 4 years of English; 2 or 3 years of math, including algebra and trigonometry; 2 years of laboratory sciences, such as biology, physics, and chemistry; 2 or 3 years of a foreign language; and 2 years of history and social science. The requirements for each institution vary, so, if you're interested in attending a particular college, be certain that you know what its requirements are.

You may believe that you can enhance a mediocre record by earning good grades in nonacademic electives, such as typing or wood shop. They may help if you're applying to a vocational or technical school; they won't at other schools, many of which recompute every applicant's record, excluding the nonacademic subjects.

Don't slack off in your senior year. Some students exert a little less effort in their final year because they believe this year doesn't count as much. However, Gary Ripple, Dean of Admissions at the College of William and Mary, says that admissions officers look closely at a senior's first semester grades in the belief that the most recent grades best reflect readiness for college.

The scores earned on standardized tests also weigh heavily in the admissions decisions of many colleges and universities. Two major tests are offered nationwide--the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is offered by the College Entrance Examination Board, and the American College Testing Program (ACT). Though these tests vary in content, they have a similar purpose--to determine how students compare nationally.

Other Activities That Colleges Examine

Academic records and test scores are the principal factors that schools use to determine an applicant's suitability for admission. But schools are interested in you as a person and in the contribution you can make to the school community. These personal qualities sometimes help a marginal candidate through the school door.

If you're a topflight high school athlete, many schools will look favorably upon your application. But remember that proficiency on the court or on the field cannot make up for deficiency in the classroom. You must meet at least the minimum entrance requirements.

Other activities can provide a college with clues as to what kind of student you will be. Your participation in student government might indicate your leadership potential. Work on the school paper or membership in a service club that tutors inner city kids are other examples of activities that interest colleges. It's not the number of activities, but the quality of your participation that is important. You should demonstrate commitment.

Schools are interested in your life outside school, too. Perhaps you've been involved with some community organizations or worked after school, on weekends, or during the summer. Include information that you believe provides some insight into what kind of person you are or the student you can be.

Searching for College Information

The personal assessment that you have developed will help you show the colleges the kind of student you will be. It will also enable you to see what kind of college would be best for you.

More than 3,000 institutions across the Nation offer postsecondary education. While no two of them are alike, they do fall into several broad categories--junior colleges, technical or career institutions, liberal arts colleges, and universities, which offer programs similar to liberal arts colleges but are distinguished from them by the presence of professional schools in law and medicine.

Junior colleges offer 2 years of college study as well as job-oriented instruction designed to prepare students for immediate employment. Over the past two decades, 2-year colleges have been the fastest growing segment of American higher education. These 1,200 schools award associate of arts (AA) and other associate degrees. Many students later enroll in 4-year institutions to continue their studies; those who plan to go on must select their courses carefully.

Technical or career institutions generally emphasize a course of study for a particular occupation, such as computer technician or secretary. These schools offer a 1- or 2-year curriculum designed to provide students with entry level job skills. Others, such as music conservatories and art institutes, are less specialized but still focus on a single field, such as training in music or the arts.

Liberal arts colleges and the undergraduate schools of universities offer 4 years of education in the arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. Typically, after meeting general curriculum requirements, students concentrate in a particular field. After satisfactory completion of the program, students are usually awarded a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of sciences (BS) degree. Many liberal arts graduates continue their education in graduate school or in professional school, such as law or medicine.

Every school has its own admissions criteria. You'll have to do some research to find out what these are for the colleges in which you are interested. In general, a particular college's requirements will fall under one of several broad categories. In their survey of undergraduate admissions, the AACRAO and the College Board used three broad categories: Open door, selective, and competitive.

Open door institutions are accessible to practically all who apply. They include some State colleges and universities that are required to admit any resident of the State with a high school diploma. While these schools may require admissions examinations, the results are used generally for placement of students in appropriate classes.

Selective institutions admit a majority of those applicants who meet some standards of achievement beyond a high school diploma. For example, they may require that a student attain a certain grade average, class rank, or score on one of the standardized tests. The requirements of the individual schools contained within this broad category may vary greatly. But, according to the survey, "they are alike in that applicants who meet their stated requirements can be reasonably certain of admission, regardless of the numbers or qualifications of other applicants to the same colleges.'

Competitive institutions are similar to the selective institutions in that they require their applicants to meet certain criteria beyond a high school diploma. Unlike selective schools, however, satisfaction of these requirements does not guarantee admission. Typically, in competitive schools, many more people apply than are admitted.

One way in which many of the competitive institutions differ from the selective ones is the number of years of study they require in certain high school subjects, particularly mathematics and foreign languages. For example, more than half of the competitive institutions require as many as 3 or 4 years of math in high school; fewer than one-fourth of the selective schools require as many as 3 years. Nearly half of the competitive schools require at least 2 years of foreign language; only a quarter of the selective institutions have that requirement.

The academic records of applicants to some of the top competitive schools, such as Harvard or Stanford, are frequently very similar. In these cases, other factors come into play when admissions decisions are made. Recommendations, extracurricular activities, and even the part of the country where you live can have an impact on chances for admission. Geography can be a factor because schools like to have a broadly based student population. If your parents or other relatives are alumni of the school, your chances may be improved.

Matching Yourself With a College

Now that you have the general information about yourself and some idea of what colleges are looking for in their applicants, it's time to compile a list of possible colleges. Actually, this process can begin much earlier; it needn't be based on a lot of research.

You can probably name four or five colleges off the top of your head. If you sit down with your friends, you can probably double your list. Your parents, no doubt, could add more. Talk to your teachers, too. They can probably suggest some schools that match your skills and your potential. Many of these schools may not be what you are looking for. But what's important is that you begin identifying schools, informally at first, and then move on to a disciplined search.

Consult some of the general college reference guides, such as those listed at the end of this article. Many applicants purchase one of these guides for use at home, but they are also widely available in public libraries, school libraries, and guidance counselors' offices.

Though these guides use different formats, they all offer information on admissions requirements, academic programs, and other general information on the school. Most provide a short narrative on the college and its setting. Some present a freshman class profile which might show how many applied, how many were accepted, and what the median class rank and admissions test scores were. This information can show you how competitive an institution is, and how you might measure up against the competition. (One note--when you see median scores and median class rank, remember that half the applicants scored above and half scored below this number.)

Once you've completed the general research, it's time to write the schools that interest you for more specific information and for materials on financial aid. There's no need to write a long letter. A postcard will do. This will save you trouble and a few pennies. You'll soon find that costs of correspondence grow quickly.

Within a few weeks of mailing these requests, your parents may feel like building an addition to the mailbox to accommodate the mountain of material you'll receive. If you haven't developed a method of organizing your college materials, do it now. Devise your own system in a way that makes sense to you.

Amid all the information, you'll find the colleges' application forms. Keep these applications in a separate folder so that you'll know exactly where they are when you're ready to fill them out. Also keep a list of the deadlines for filing applications for admission and applications for financial aid. The deadline for financial aid requests is usually earlier than that for the admission application. Tape this list someplace where you can see it. It would be a shame to miss a chance at a school because you missed a deadline.

The college catalogs, bulletins, and brochures will be able to answer many of your questions. If you receive many catalogs, you'll have so much information that you may be confused. The college data sheet that you prepared earlier may help you make some comparisons.

The catalog will tell you what kind of admissions programs a school follows with regard to deadlines. Most colleges follow a regular admissions policy, which means that a student submits the application in late fall or early winter and is notified of the college's decision in early or mid-April.

A second category of admissions, which many schools also use, is rolling admissions. Under this system the college makes its decision as soon as an applicant's folder is complete rather than waiting until spring.

Early admission is also an option at many schools. The advantage here is that the suspense can end early. Under this procedure, you apply to a school in the fall of your senior year and are notified of the school's decision in December. But be sure that the school is truly your first choice, because an early admission application includes a declaration that you won't attend another school if you are admitted.

Some of the schools, though not all, will send a course catalog along with their admission materials. If they don't, see if you can find one in your local or school library. Most libraries have catalogs of some schools, particularly those in your home State, and many have microfiche collections for the entire country. Take a look at some of the courses in the departments that interest you to get an idea of the program. Generally, these catalogs will also include information on the faculty, listing each instructor's alma mater and degrees. This can sometimes give you an idea of the kind of instruction you can expect.

Check into the course requirements for your prospective major. You'll be reminded of these during your college career, but it's wise to have an idea of what will be expected of you.

Visiting the Campuses

The materials you receive offer a picture of what a college or university is like, but they cannot provide answers to all of your questions. A visit to the campus can help bring the picture into focus. You get a chance to see the institution with your own eyes and gain some perspective on the student body and faculty.

Try to visit some of your choices; but, if time, distance, and finances make that difficult for you, at least pay a visit to a local school. What you see may raise some questions that you have not considered.

Most of the admissions guides suggest visiting while school is in session to get as accurate a perspective as possible. But, if you can't, maybe you can plan a visit during summer vacation.

If you do visit, contact the admissions office several weeks in advance so it can arrange a tour of the campus for you. Maybe you can sit in on a class or meet some of the professors in the department you are interested in.

Take some time to walk about on your own. Talk to some of the students and get their ideas on the school. Check out the library; browse through the bookstore; take a trip through a dorm to see how the students live, and visit the athletic facilities to see what they are like.


Arrange to speak with a member of the admissions staff when you visit the campus. Some of the competitive schools require an interview as part of the admissions process. Even if the school doesn't require one, it would be a good idea to arrange for one because you can learn a lot about the college that way.

The prospect of an interview might make you nervous. That's only natural. But view it as an opportunity to learn something about the school. You may have questions that the material you have does not address. The interview is the place to raise these questions. Don't sit passively. Respond to the interviewer's questions and be prepared to pose some of your own. Don't ask questions easily answered from the catalog. They are not only a waste of time, but they indicate that you haven't done your homework.


After spending some months determining what it is you want in a college and gathering information about different schools, it's time to apply. How many schools you apply to is up to you. Many of the college admissions guides suggest that you narrow your list of possibilities. Your list should include some schools that you are pretty sure you can get into, others where you think you have a chance, and a few long shots. Talk these choices over with your family and your guidance counselor. Applying to schools can be expensive. Application fees range anywhere from $20 to $50.

Generally, each school has its own application form, although about a hundred private universities use what is known as the Common Application. Some applications ask many questions, while others require little more than your name and a high school transcript. In general, the more selective the institution, the more complex its application form.

The application is usually divided into several parts: The form itself, which requests biographical data and personal information; an essay; letters of reference; and the high school transcript.

When you're ready to tackle the application, be as complete, accurate, and neat as you can. Take the time to prepare a draft first, on a separate sheet of paper or on a photocopy of the form. Make your mistakes and corrections on the draft before using the real application. Follow directions, and give exactly what is asked for, no more, no less.

Some of the questions will be difficult to answer. Any exercise that demands that you take a close look at yourself isn't easy. But the personal data sheet you compiled will help.

Most applications require that you write an essay on one of several topics. Though the questions vary, William and Mary's Dean Ripple says, "They ask the same basic thing: Who are you and what makes you different from the rest of the applicants?'

The importance of the essay as a factor in admission varies from school to school. As with the personal interview, it is considered more carefully at the more competitive schools. Dean Ripple says that the admissions office reviews an essay at three levels: Spelling, grammar, syntax, and usage, which must be perfect; content; and creativity.

Many colleges ask for letters of reference or include reference forms in their applications package. Select your references carefully. The persons whom you ask to write these references should know you well and be able to provide insight into what makes you special. Are the popular teachers in your high school the best choices? They are likely to be on many of your classmates' lists, so your application may end up much like everyone else's. Maybe you work part time. Your boss might be a good reference. Perhaps you have a hobby, such as photography, and know someone who's well acquainted with your work and talents. Ask them for a reference. Do you know someone who graduated from the school? Perhaps this person would be a good reference. Remember that your references are one more opportunity to increase your chances of admission.

Sources of Additional Information

Many additional sources of information are available to people who want to find out about colleges. You can begin at the counselor's office or the local library. Many schools also have computer programs that will help you match your interests with the names of colleges. Sources of financial aid are listed at the end of the next article, "A Primer on Scholarships for the Talented.'

General college reference guides include the following:

Barron's Profiles of American Colleges. Woodbury, NY: Barron's Educational Series, Inc. Biennial.

The College Handbook. Princeton, NJ: College Board Publications. Annual.

The College Cost Book, Princeton, NJ: College Board Publications. Annual.

College Planning/Search Book: Steps for Successful College Planning. Iowa City, IA: American College Testing Program. 1985.

Comparative Guide to American Colleges. James Cass and Max Birnbaum. New York: Harper and Row. Irregular.

Financing a College Education. Kenneth Kohl and Irene Kohl. New York: Harper and Row. Irregular.

Peterson's Annual Guides, Undergraduate Study: Guide to Four-Year Colleges, 1986. Andrea E. Lehen, editor. Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides. Annual.

Peterson's College Money Handbook: The Complete Guide to Expenses, Scholarships, Loans, Grants, and Special Aid Programs at Four-Year Colleges. Karen C. Hegener, editor. Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides, 1984. Annual.
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1987
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