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.

The Wait

For high school students, winter of senior year can be brutal. “The months applying weren’t as tough as waiting to hear back,” says Gabriela Gonzalez, a Wakefield High graduate who heads to VCU this fall.

Gonzalez remembers keeping her chin up when some of her peers received acceptance letters before she had heard anything. Two of her best friends got into a school she didn’t. “It was hard to stay happy sometimes for some of my friends,” she says. “I had to remind myself that colleges are businesses and they can’t admit everyone.”

Indeed they can’t. The average acceptance rate for a four-year college is now about 65 percent, says NACAC’s Hawkins. For Ivy League schools, those rates are much lower, in the single digits. (To see where members of Arlington’s Class of 2017 applied and were accepted, click here.)

Some schools hoping to win the hearts of top-notch applicants will drop big hints before the formal acceptance letters go out. William & Mary sends a “we’re impressed” postcard to applicants with “extraordinary credentials,” along with a personal note from the regional dean, before those students are officially invited to enroll. But only a quarter of incoming freshmen receive that postcard. An empty mailbox doesn’t necessarily mean no.

To temper the stress of waiting, students and their parents may want to decide ahead of time how much of the play-by-play they want to share with friends, family and neighbors, either in conversation or on social media. “The college application process has become so public, and there’s pressure to tell everyone [everything]. It’s super awkward,” says Karstenf, the Mason grad who now goes to UNC. “You can choose to tell people or not.” She remembers feeling grateful when people asked her about anything but college.

The Decision

The wait is finally over and multiple acceptance letters are sitting in the student’s email inbox. Now what?

“Go with your gut” is what most advisers recommend. For students who are conflicted, UVA’s Lalonde suggests flipping a coin and making note of their natural reactions to an outcome in either direction.

What happens when parents disagree with their child’s choice? “Watching both of my girls turn down schools that were more highly ranked was heartbreaking and very difficult for me,” admits Arlington mom Ellice Halpern. “You go to the best school you get into. As a mother, I think that I know what school is best, but I had to understand that it’s not my life. [My first daughter] ended up loving the school [she chose], and I did, too.”

Defining “best” really is subjective, and the answer will vary, based on a student’s personal priorities. “[Students] can be better off going to a school that’s a little less competitive so they’re at the top of the class rather than in the middle or toward the bottom,” says McLean High’s Stansbery. “[In these settings] they tend to get a lot more opportunities on campus [such as research programs or internships],” he adds, “which actually puts them in a better light when they do whatever they’re going to do next, whether it’s a job or graduate school.”

A few parting words of wisdom from local students who survived the gantlet and went on to college?

“What’s going to set you apart isn’t that you have a 4.0 GPA and do 15 activities,” says Carter, the W-L grad who is now at UVA. It’s expressing your individuality in your activity and class choices, and showing in your essays what makes you “different from everyone else.”

Gonzalez, who is entering her freshman year at VCU, also speaks from personal experience: “Don’t forget your worth as a student and as a person.”

She admits to “beating herself up” about being waitlisted and rejected by certain schools. In retrospect, she says, she wishes she’d been kinder to herself and sought more help along the way—especially from her high school guidance counselors.

Amy Brecount White is a freelance writer, college essay coach, novelist, former AP English teacher and mother of one current college student and two college graduates. As the owner of Expert Essay Coaching, she gives a free talk on writing college essays every spring at the Arlington Central Library.

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