College Prep 101

    How to stand out in the admissions process

    Should I bother applying? What do they look for? Do I have a shot at getting in?

    These are all common questions when a student is considering college.

    So, what, exactly do admissions committees look for in an applicant?

    While it’s true that admission decisions are based on a very careful, overall assessment of each student’s academic preparation and performance—in addition to the information provided in the application—the greatest amount of weight is typically given to an applicant’s class selection and grades. Those who are still in high school should not take the easy way out and “coast” their junior or senior years. Students should take honors courses to challenge themselves.  

    According to the University of Minnesota’s website, “The classes you take in high school are a foundation for what you will experience in college. That’s why it’s really important to take a challenging ‘college preparatory’ curriculum while you’re in high school. Work closely with your school counselor to choose the appropriate college preparatory courses offered at your school.”

    Successful candidates for admission often pursue an academically rigorous schedule including Advanced Placement, Honors, and International Baccalaureate courses.

    At Gustavus Adolphus College, a private, liberal arts college in St. Peter, “Over 300 members of the Class of 2015 entered Gustavus  with advanced credit from AP, IB, PSEO, or College in the Schools programs.”

    What about certain advantages? Are students from public and private schools evaluated differently? Does a student from a well-known private school automatically have a leg up in the admissions process?

    “We review the school profiles that are shared with us and those made available online. These profiles tell us something about the college-going culture of a given school and the curriculum and grading scales,” explains Kristin Roach, director of admissions and financial aid at the University of St. Thomas. “Because of the variation in high school grading systems and the much discussed grade inflation in the schools, we find that the ACT or SAT results help us to evaluate students between and among schools.  For example, it is not unusual to see students with a 3.9 or 3.8 cumulative grade point average from a given high school with ACT Composite Scores in the teens. This implies something about that high school. Conversely we see very competitive high schools that present students with more modest cumulative GPAs and much higher ACTs. We certainly respect good students that complete college preparatory curriculums from both types of schools. At the end of the day, we’re trying to determine if a student can succeed academically at St. Thomas – regardless of what type of high school they attended.”

    Be Involved

    Transcripts are important because they reflect the student’s entire academic career, but many schools want to see a well-rounded applicant who will come to the school and get involved. A strong commitment to community service and leadership—volunteering—can make a positive impact, when it’s done for all the right reasons.

    Applicants who find activities they are truly passionate about—whether it’s a sport, yearbook, drama club, or writing for the newspaper—can write from the heart when it’s time to wow the admissions counselors through the essay. Activities done simply to impress a college have a way of appearing artificial. High-schoolers can benefit from keeping a journal of their travels or other pre-college activities as a reference for when it’s time to write the essay — where they went, what they did, and how they grew and changed as a result. Experts agree that applicants who are consistent in their commitment to a handful of activities or are specialists within a particular field have an advantage over those who are involved in many activities but show no leadership or dedication.

    The Essay

    Students should research the colleges to which they are applying, learn the names of specific courses and professors—make it personal. Admissions officers seek candidates who are suitable matches, and are likely to rate applicants more favorably when they know details (and prove that they’ve done their

    Make sure you don’t have any spelling or grammatical errors before submitting.


    How much weight is given to recommendations? Is it worth it for someone to spend a few hours making a letter unique? Do recommendations ever tip the balance for or against admission?

    Generally speaking, students who are considering Luther have strong recommendations submitted on their behalves,” says Kirk Neubauer, Luther College senior associate director of admissions. “Occasionally, we receive recommendations that are “generic” in nature, meaning that people have written a “one-size-fits all” reference. We prefer references that are “applicant specific,” meaning that the information shared about the applicant is unique to that individual. When a student doesn’t automatically meet our admission criteria, recommendations can, and oftentimes do, play a pivotal role in our decision.”

    In other words, just like in an essay, schools want to find out something about you from a recommendation that is more than just facts or “I think this student should go to your school.” Recommendations should be well-developed, clear, and concise.

    The Interview

    Usually, a college interview is more of a conversation than an interview. The admissions representative is ready to learn more about the applicant and help in the college admissions recruitment process, not terrify the student. The interviewer is looking to gather an overall impression of a student and his or her interest in the school. Students should come to the interview with two or three questions as well.

    After the interview, an applicant should always thank the person by remembering his or her name, then write the interviewer a thank-you letter. It’s not only polite, the letter is often stored in the applicant’s file.

    Good luck, college applicants! The world is yours, now go get it!

    College Planning Tips for High School Students

    1. Visit, visit, visit. Create a “Colleges to explore” list and then visit different campuses! This really is the best way to determine whether a school is a good fit for you.

    2. Ignore sticker shock. Don’t look only at tuition cost when creating your “Colleges to explore” list. Financial aid can greatly reduce the cost of attendance. Have an open mind.

    3. Take the ACT/SAT early to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Early testing can not only serve as a practice run, but can help you meet application deadlines.

    4. Complete your admission applications early in the fall of your senior year! Don’t procrastinate. Applying early ensures that you’ll meet application deadlines.

    5. Choose coursework that will prepare you to succeed in college. Admissions committees value challenging courses.  Don’t slack off your senior year.