What Colleges Really Want

Getting ready to apply? Don't stress. Here's what's important in today's competitive landscape. And what's not.

Illustrations by Tim Williams

Applying to college is, shall we say, stressful. The deadlines. The paperwork. The imperative of selling yourself. The peer pressure.

Emily,* a recent graduate of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, remembers feeling like the other high achievers in her friends group looked down at her for applying to non-Ivy League schools.

Seth,* an alumnus of George Mason High School in Falls Church, says he caught “backlash” from classmates who claimed he was “taking another student’s spot” when he applied to a competitive in-state school as his “safety” school.

Jeannine Lalonde, an associate dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia, spends a fair amount of time dispelling myths about how decisions are really made. “I hear so many rumors,” she says. “Some of them are funny and some are cringeworthy. There is no quota or restriction for any town, and the fact that your older sibling got in and turned down UVA will not be held against you. No. That’s cruel.”

Paul Stansbery, director of student services at McLean High School, says he has seen seniors applying to as many as 20 schools, which is both time-consuming and expensive. (He says no counselor would ever recommend that.)

Whoa. Take a deep breath. True, the process can be rigorous, confusing and nerve-wracking. However, diving in with realistic expectations and a solid game plan can smooth the waters. Here’s a primer.

Academics and Extracurriculars

The admissions process isn’t quite a crapshoot, but it’s far from an exact science. “Families think that if you take a certain number of AP classes or do a certain number of volunteer hours and activities, there’s a formula that will get you into, say, UVA,” says Jeff Stahl, a counselor at Yorktown High School in Arlington. “We’ve found it can be a lot more subjective. [Colleges] are not looking for that kid who can do a little bit of everything, or that well-balanced student. They’re looking for a candidate who is curious, talented and passionate. They want to know, What will this student bring to our community?”

Academically, some students bite off more than they can chew in an effort to impress. Mike Oligmueller, former director of college counseling at The Potomac School in McLean, says he routinely saw students overcommitting (for example, adding that extra AP class that they really couldn’t manage), which then caused a snowball effect and made their senior year miserable. “It impacts their other courses and creates not enough family or friend time,” he says. Which usually results in an unhappy and stressed-out kid.

Plus, it’s often wasted energy. Many colleges—including Virginia Tech, UVA and George Washington University—now take a “holistic” approach, meaning they consider all dimensions of an applicant. That includes any jobs held, major activities or skills, and character traits, as conveyed through essays and recommendations. It’s not just about grades and test scores. “For us, it’s more about the story that unfolds on the transcript, versus a GPA or a number of top classes,” says UVA’s Lalonde.

The same maxim applies to extracurricular activities, including service hours, says John Clisham, a counselor at Wakefield High School in Arlington. More isn’t necessarily better. “[Colleges] are looking for kids who contribute to their school in a unique way,” he says. “Not by being in a hundred clubs, but maybe being the leader of one.”

Drumline or Model U.N.? Sports or student council? Students should do what they love, urges Brad Harlan, an assistant dean of admissions at William & Mary. The notion that “colleges view certain activities in a hierarchy” is unfounded, he says. “It’s not true that student government is better than theater.”

Leadership also speaks volumes, says Ray Anderson, a former principal at H-B Woodlawn, now a college consultant with AGM-College Advisors. Colleges want to see that “instead of being a passive enjoyer, you got other people involved,” he says. You don’t have to take an expensive trip to do service work in a third-world country. “You’re much better off using your Spanish to go down to the Arlington Free Clinic and translate there.”

Standardized Tests

Yes, test scores can factor into who makes the first cut at some schools, particularly the larger ones. But standardized tests usually aren’t the most important factor in admission decisions. “The energy that lots of students and families tend to pour into the SAT and ACT might be somewhat misplaced,” says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “[Colleges] understand that what you do on a Saturday in May isn’t as important as what you do in four years of high school.”

For students questioning whether they are in the ballpark, many colleges do publish average test scores, but with caveats. For example, the University of Mary Washington’s website indicates that 50 percent of last year’s entering freshmen had SAT scores between 1020 and 1200 or ACT composite scores between 22 and 27. But the school also shares that 25 percent of incoming freshmen had scores that fell below that range.

At Virginia Tech, incoming freshmen had SAT scores (reading and math) ranging from 810 to 1600, and ACT scores ranging from 17 to 36. However, a footnote on the school’s website immediately stipulates: “These are not minimum requirements for admission to Virginia Tech.”

A growing number of schools—Mary Washington, Wake Forest University, Franklin & Marshall College and George Mason University among them—are adopting “test optional” or “text flexible” policies, asking for standardized test scores only in certain circumstances, such as when an applicant’s GPA falls below a certain threshold. (At Mary Washington, students who maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher may opt to exclude test scores from their applications.)

UVA’s website publishes similar statistics, but explicitly states: “We do not have GPA or testing cut-offs or targets.”

*Pseudonyms used for privacy

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