Survey: What Do Colleges Really Want?

Getting into college can be a mysterious process. While it’s easy to grasp the importance of hard facts like grades, rigor and test scores, the softer metrics of extracurricular activities, teacher/counselor recommendations and the essays are more difficult to fathom. This is true both for the students who apply and the college admissions officers who decide.

Because of this double-barreled conundrum, The Manners Group, a Westport, CT college counseling practice, decided to reach out to admissions officers at about 100 colleges and universities across the country. Our goal was to get a better sense of how they view the role of admissions factors beyond the numbers.

We received a total of 54 complete responses, largely concentrated within highly selective, Eastern seaboard schools, but also including representation from the South, Midwest and West. We followed up with a series of 30-minute telephone interviews with a total of six, geographically diverse, admissions officers.

Before getting into specific results and our analysis, it’s important to note that admissions criteria vary from school to school, making it unwise to draw sweeping conclusions. In particular, the larger schools tend to be more numbers-oriented while the smaller ones may want to meet each applicant in person before making a decision.

For the purposes of this report, we are assuming the highest standard of acceptance on the theory that it’s usually advisable to exceed expectations. It is also important to remember that choosing appropriate schools to begin with is as important as what goes into the application itself.

That said, if there is one overarching theme that emerged from our survey it is this: Many students would be better positioned for admission if they put equal effort into all parts of the application. While no one section of the application is necessarily “make or break,” it is how clearly and consistently all parts of the application fit together that can make a difference.

In general, how often do most students tell a cohesive story about themselves across every part of the application?

Admissions officers often say that they read applications “holistically,” so it is imperative that students write them accordingly. This reality is evident in the response to our survey’s first question: “In general, how often do most students tell a cohesive story about themselves across every part of the application?” The responses were: Sometimes (58.5%); Usually (34%); and Almost Never (7.5%). That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the quality of most applications.

The question then becomes: What does it mean to tell a cohesive story across the application? Based on our followup interviews with admissions officers, it can simply mean making sure that no conflicts create static between each section of the application. At a higher level, it can mean being mindful of potential connecting points between academics, activities, recommendations and essays. This does not mean relentlessly hammering away at a single idea throughout. That could appear forced. It does mean making sure that even ostensibly diverse attributes interact in ways that pull the applicant into multi-faceted focus. When that happens, the student becomes more interesting and memorable.

Next Thursday: The Art of the College Essay

About this Survey

A total of 54 admissions counselors completed our online survey, six of whom participated in follow-up telephone interviews of approximately 30 minutes each. Our special thanks to Lizzie Leonard of Northeastern University; Aaron Levine of Haverford College; Grace Marchena of Lafayette College; Loretta Kosterman of University of Oregon; Dalton Goodier of Texas Christian University; and Marco Blasco of Gettysburg College.

All online survey responses were aggregated and kept strictly anonymous. Participating schools included: Denison, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, CalTech, Claremont McKenna, Colgate, Emory, George Mason, Gettysburg, George Washington, Harvard, Haverford, Holy Cross, Kenyon, Lafayette, Lehigh, Macalester, Northeastern, Oberlin, Purdue, RIT, Santa Clara, Sarah Lawrence, Smith, Syracuse, Texas Christian University, U Alaska, U Chicago, U Cincinnati, U Delaware, U Miami, U Richmond, UNC/Chapel Hill, U New Hampshire, Union, and Virginia Tech.


SUNY Purchase Buys Into Senior Housing

The New York Times: “SUNY Purchase is one of a growing number of colleges sponsoring retirement communities on campus or thinking about it … the communities promise a new revenue stream for institutions that are coping with reduced state operating support and declining college enrollment in many parts of the country. They are bringing a new generation (or old generation) to campus to fill classes, eat in dining halls, attend student performances and become mentors … Retirees who are happy to be living on campus, including alumni and faculty members, could become a fertile source of fund-raising.”

“Many students have mixed feelings about sharing their college years with people who remind them of the parents and grandparents whose orbit they have just escaped. Anton Creutzfeldt, a junior at Purchase College, worried that older people would object to noise and late-night partying … Mr. Creutzfeldt said he had been in classes that were audited by old people, and their presence changed the atmosphere.” He comments: “An older person will go on a tangent about something because it’s interesting to them, or they have personal experience with it, while everyone else is just trying to get through the lecture.”

“Other students said they might like having surrogate grandparents on campus. Annie Yang, a senior majoring in economics at the University of Chicago, said she had basically been raised by her grandmother while her parents were working. She said she could see herself living with old people on campus, especially if she got a break on housing fees in return … At Purchase, residents and students will take short courses together, because research has shown that most retirees had little interest in full-length courses. And a student performance space is being built within the retirement complex.”


How Tulane Makes Move-In Easier

Supply Chain Dive: “When almost 2,000 freshmen showed up at Tulane on Aug. 21, their shipped boxes were already in their rooms. Students pulled up to the dorm at their appointed times, and volunteer ‘krewe’ whisked everything out of the car, transporting belongings in laundry carts to the dorm rooms, while parents moved the cars and students got their ID cards and keys … For the past 18 years, the New Orleans university allowed freshmen to ship boxes to school ahead of arrival, as 90% of its students travel more than 500 miles to get there … Boxes used to be sorted and stored in 53-foot tractor trailers on campus to be claimed on move-in day. But no longer.”

“After successful pilots the last few years, Tulane paid a contractor to sort, store and move shipped boxes into all freshman dorms, freeing up elevator use and lowering parent and student stress levels on what Tulane hopes is an easy and happy first day of About 60 campuses now use USS moving services, with another 40 renting equipment like luggage carts, so the schools don’t have to buy and store them … Tulane is the first school not charging freshmen for the cost to deliver shipped boxes to the room as part of the move-in experience, and other schools are watching with interest.”

“Tulane uses its own off-site warehouse to receive and sort boxes for move-in, plus USS’ rented warehouse. Tulane gave incoming freshmen a special address for a two-week arrival window starting Aug. 1 … During the first few days of the two-week window, 250 packages arrived daily from FedEx to the USS warehouse, and up to 200 packages daily from the other carriers … Students may get an email from USS when their FedEx package is delivered, sometimes with photos of the dorm room number and packages sitting on the bed.”


Mice & Mold: Some Dorms Are Health Risks

The New York Times: “Enduring less-than-ideal living conditions is something of a rite of passage for many college students. While the cost of higher education keeps rising, though, outpacing inflation every year since 1985, maintenance of student dormitories at many institutions has not always kept up. In interviews and exchanges with dozens of students across the country, heating and cooling issues were the most frequent complaints. But some reported much more serious problems, including vermin and mold … Some students are speaking up, taking to social media to expose disrepair that they said their schools were failing to promptly address. They have set up Facebook pages and Instagram profiles to vent about or make light of campus issues large and small.”

“On the Instagram account @georgetown.hotmess, created by Georgetown students in 2016, scrolling through the photos can feel like a visit to a dystopian ruin, not a picturesque Gothic-revival university in Washington. Ceilings are collapsing. Black mold is growing on walls. Rodents, both dead and alive, make several appearances. A young man tries to belly-slide down a flooded hallway … Georgetown spokeswoman, Meghan Dubyak, pointed out that last year was Washington’s wettest on record, and that the university had ‘initiated proactive steps to prevent mold and promptly respond to all reported cases within two business days.’ She added that the Georgetown board of directors had recently allocated $75 million to improve campus infrastructure, with a focus on student residences.”

“Few students move into their dorms expecting ideal conditions. Some said they felt they should simply accept the conditions they found, rather than appear ungrateful for the privilege of attending college. While plenty of students defect for off-campus apartments, the units that students on a budget can afford may not be any better maintained than the dorms. And some universities do not give students the choice, requiring them to live on campus for their first year or longer.”


Which Colleges are Greenest?

E Magazine: “It’s no surprise that College of the Atlantic, established in 1969 as the first American college to focus primarily on the relationship between humans and the environment, has topped the Princeton Review’s Guide to 399 Green Colleges for three years running. With only 350 students and 35 faculty members, small classes and focused learning are the norm at COA, which has been churning out environmental leaders for five decades. It became the first carbon-neutral college in 2007 and plans to be completely rid of fossil fuels on campus by 2030.”

“At the #2 school on the ‘green colleges’ list, SUNY Syracuse’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, students and faculty work together on developing innovative solutions to environmental challenges and can focus on applying what they learn in internships reserved for them with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation … Next on the list, UVM has incorporated sustainability into campus policies and curricula for decades, but has recently shown renewed leadership with its Sustainable Entrepreneurship program and campus-wide commitment to waste reduction and energy conservation. UVM has been sourcing all of its energy from renewables since 2015, with solar panels all over campus to make the most of the fleeting Vermont sun.”

“Some other schools with excellent environmental studies and science programs include Antioch, Reed, Middlebury, Colby, Colorado College, Montana State, Evergreen State, Pomona, and the universities of Idaho, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.”


Which Colleges are LGBT-Friendly?

US News: “Finding the right fit is important for any college student; for the LGBT community, that especially rings true. Historically marginalized and discriminated against, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is now embraced at many colleges across the US … Institutional commitment, experts agree, is key to determining how well LGBT students fare on a college campus. To gauge this commitment, students should look at factors such as housing and restroom policies, curriculum, resources and representation … LGBT advocates say that one important starting point for prospective students is to examine a college’s nondiscrimination policies. To find a college’s nondiscrimination policy, search online using that term and the school name.”

“Open housing allows students to live with a roommate of their choice regardless of gender identity. For transgender and nonbinary students, this makes housing less complicated … Bathrooms are another important aspect of the physical environment for transgender and nonbinary students. Many schools list bathroom policies online. If that policy is unavailable on the college website, students can check with an admissions officer or a school’s LGBT center – if it has one – for clarification.”

“Though same-sex marriage is legal across all states now, policies can still vary on other issues of importance for the LGBT community. Some states offer more protections than others, with laws that prohibit employment and housing discrimination against LGBT individuals, bar conversion therapy, offer state health benefits to eligible transgender citizens and more … But a state’s record on LGBT issues is not necessarily indicative of how a campus in that state welcomes and supports that community. Oberlin College, for example, is well known for being LGBT-friendly, despite Ohio scoring in the lowest category of the 2018 State Equality Index, a state-by-state overview of LGBT protections put out by Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.”


FAFSA Doesn’t Budge Even With Nudge

Inside Higher Ed: “A study by economists at five universities, released this month by the National Bureau for Economic Research, suggests that consistently nudging incoming and current college students to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) had no effect on college enrollment or financial aid recipient rates. Researchers tested a campaign on two distinct groups of students — high school seniors who applied to college using the Common Application and college students of all levels (incoming, applied but did not enroll, currently enrolled and dropouts) who applied within an undisclosed large state system.”

“Previous research has shown the success of nudging on a smaller scale from sources familiar to students, like advisers or local community organizations, Rosinger said. But for this study, the researchers tested whether nudging would be effective through state- and national-level organizations with broader reaches, like the Common Application, which is one possible reason the outreach didn’t garner results … Another possible explanation for the null results, the study argues, is that information about FAFSA submission is distributed more widely by other sources than in the past, and students don’t need the additional information or assistance these nudges attempted to provide.”

“Nudging efforts are particularly aimed to provide support that’s absent when disadvantaged students’ parents or high schools are not as involved in the college application process … but text message reminders are much less effective than sitting down with an adult to complete the FAFSA.”


When Colleges Become Universities

Boston Globe: “Boston College and Dartmouth College are well-known for both their undergraduate and graduate degree programs, but neither has expressed interest in a university makeover. But many smaller colleges don’t have that widespread reputation, and this is a way to stand out, college presidents said. ‘We’re laying the foundation for future growth and sustainability in the face of the challenges,’ said Francesco Cesareo, the president of Assumption College … Assumption will be restructuring and expanding its programs into specific schools, adding administrative positions, such as deans, to the campus, and expanding its athletics offerings, as part of the university conversion.”

“Overseas students, who are appealing to institutions since they pay more to attend, are familiar with the university label, while colleges suggest more vocational-type education in many countries, experts said. That can make it more difficult for American colleges to explain their value and offerings when they are trying to recruit internationally.’

“For Simmons University, the transformation of its campus into four distinct colleges has helped recruit a higher caliber of administrators and leaders to the school … Whether it will attract more students, bring in more money, and ultimately help the university withstand the fiscal and demographic pressures is less certain.”


Syracuse Pushes Back on ‘Party School’ Ranking

NY Post: “Syracuse University is the nation’s top college — when it comes to partying. The Orange earned the high marks based on a survey of 140,000 students by the Princeton Review … The review, available this week, ranked the schools based on drug and alcohol use, study time and Greek life. In all, the schools are judged under 58 separate categories, with Syracuse placing second in the ‘lots of hard liquor’ category and eighth in ‘lots of beer’ — not that it was the only school where students were hitting the bottle instead of the books … The University of Alabama, the University of Delaware, West Virginia University and Tulane University ranked second through fifth, respectively.”

“The party tag didn’t sit too well with Syracuse officials, who said in a statement that the Princeton Review missed the mark. ‘By all measures, our student experience is rooted in the programs and services available to facilitate both personal and professional success — while at Syracuse University and beyond,’ the statement said. The school said the Princeton party list is not ‘a reflection of our distinctive approach to education.'”


Budgeting for College Applications

CNBC: “As college costs rise, some students apply to a laundry list of schools to increase their odds of getting into one they can afford. Yet doing so can leave families with another large tab … The average college application costs around $50, according to At some colleges you can expect to pay much more — Stanford University’s application fee, for example, is $90 … Families should decide on a budget for college applications — say, $250 … That will not only help keep costs under control but also force students to whittle down their list of schools.”

“Some colleges will let you skip the application fee if you demonstrate merit or financial need. CollegeBoard has a list of schools that accept application-fee waivers. The National Association of College Admission Counseling has a form you can use to request the waiver. Many colleges will waive their application fee if you apply online.”

“A third of students apply to six or more colleges, and 15% apply to 10 or more.”