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.


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.”


The List: How Naviance Changes College Choices

EdSurge: “For decades, the college-admissions process has been shrouded in mystery. But these days, big data, and a popular college planning tool, are taking much of the guesswork out of applying to college. That was a major takeaway from Christine Mulhern’s new research on Naviance, a widely-used online college-readiness platform. Mulhern, a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, provides evidence that Naviance’s college research and admissions tools are changing where students apply to college, with the ‘potential to affect higher education on a national scale,’ she wrote on Twitter after unveiling the research.”

“Naviance scattergrams show prospective college students how their peers at their high school fared with individual colleges and universities—and helps provide a sense of how they can expect to perform in the admissions process. For each institution, previous applicants’ GPAs are plotted on the y-axis and their ACT or SAT scores appear on the x-axis. Each applicant’s college decision (accepted, rejected, waitlisted) is denoted with a unique color and symbol, collectively depicting the caliber of student who is typically accepted to a given school.”

“Whittled down, the research shows that more information leads to more applications, and that students rely on their peers’ judgment in helping them determine the right fit for college. But there are some caveats … fewer students applied to so-called reach colleges, where students are less certain of their admissions prospects. Similarly, more apply to and enroll in ‘safety’ institutions, where students feel more confident they will receive an acceptance. Additionally, when high schools create minimums of five or 10 applicants, only the popular institutions appear on the scattergram. Based on what Mulhern found about students applying to colleges with visible scattergrams, it’s reasonable to deduce that the diversity of colleges students apply to could decrease with Naviance.”


Women’s Colleges Report Applications Spike

Daily Hampshire Gazette: “Over the past several years, there has been a spike in the number of students applying to women’s colleges across the country … over the past five years, the total number of applications to Mount Holyoke College has jumped 23.6 percent, while Smith College has seen similar growth at around 25 percent, according to the colleges. However … highly selective colleges and universities have seen a general rise in applications in recent years … Contributing to Mount Holyoke’s success in this difficult moment are the sizable financial commitments the school has made — to financial aid packages, educational programming, and facilities. In addition to these attractions … there is something particular about the current moment that is contributing to the success of women’s colleges.”

“Many Mount Holyoke students are interested in social movements … and some of the most visible leaders of those movements — from #MeToo to climate activism — are women.” Other factors include “the emphasis colleges like Smith and Mount Holyoke have made in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM; the large networks of influential alumnae that they boast; and supportive environments on campus.”

“Hareem Khan, 19, said she had been impressed and inspired by the alumnae network of women in her home country of Pakistan. But the biggest reason for attending Mount Holyoke, she said, has to do with her identity as a woman of color. Almost a third of Mount Holyoke’s incoming student body are students of color from the United States, and 19 percent are international students. At Smith this past academic year, 32 percent of the student body were students of color and 14 percent were international students.”


No Shortcuts: Getting in Means Getting it Done

On the one hand, the unfolding college admissions scandal involves a tiny percentage of super-wealthy applicants at a tiny percentage of hyper-elite schools. It’s easy to dismiss this disgusting news as an esoteric anomaly that has nothing to do with the vast majority of honest, decent, law-abiding citizens of every stripe who would never even think about doing something so egregiously wrong. On the other hand is the cold truth that, on some level, nearly everyone tries to turn the process to their advantage in one way or another, both those with and without means. Getting admitted to college can be like life itself: not always fair. Yet, somewhere in the middle is something more fundamentally true, which is that success in college admissions, and life, comes to those who do the work.

It’s up to the students to challenge themselves, get good grades and scores, win awards, as well as actualize themselves outside the classroom by volunteering, creating, leading, or whatever it is that defines who they are as people. Beyond the numbers, colleges value a zeal for learning and a zest for life. In all but the smallest fraction of cases, they know a phony when they see one. Corrupt actors aside, the last thing they want is to admit a student who doesn’t understand the very meaning of success and is destined to fail.

Some students are extremely motivated to get into a bunch of highly competitive schools. They usually require guidance but are self-starters by nature and only too eager to research and visit campuses, dive into their essays and every little nook and cranny of their applications. Not surprisingly, they approach their schoolwork and all aspects of their lives with the same level of enthusiasm and drive. They have a fair, though not exact, idea of what it takes to get into the schools of their choice. They understand that while there are never any guarantees, they can increase their chances if they focus their efforts. They harbor no illusions.

Other students are somewhat less motivated, or not motivated at all. It’s not always easy to discern what’s underneath the attitude, although often a certain “fear of the unknown” lurks within. So, part of the challenge is to demystify this strange, new world they are entering by illuminating why it’s something to be excited about. Exactly what that entails may vary from one student to the next, but the goal is the same: to inspire them to do the work and help guide them to a better version of themselves. Some luck may be a factor, but more often than not getting ahead is down to getting things done.

No shortcuts. If there’s a secret to success, there you have it.


Helping Your Student Accept Rejection

The Washington Post: “It’s a scene that will play out in countless homes across the country from now through the spring, as high school seniors learn that, despite their best efforts, they did not get into their dream college. Often, it’s equally dumbfounding to their parents … Indeed, the process has become much more fraught than it was when parents of current high school students went through it … Case in point: In 2016, UCLA hit a record number of applications: 102,177 for a freshman class of about 6,500 students, meaning an acceptance rate around 6 percent.”

“Well before applicants hear from colleges, parents can take proactive steps to head off their children’s discouragement should they get rejected. For starters, many experts suggest de-emphasizing the ‘first-choice’ idea and focusing instead on building an application containing multiple schools, all of which a student would be happy to attend. This advice applies even to students with a strong shot at gaining admittance to highly selective colleges … It’s important for families to recognize that there are many factors in the college-admissions process over which they have no say. For instance, you can’t control how many qualified applicants will apply to any particular school, or know what a school is looking for in a given applicant pool.”

“There’s no controlling how a student will respond to a college rejection notice. But parents can, and should, control theirs, advise experts … Most kids recover from the disappointment of rejection fairly quickly … Fortunately, experts say, 17- and 18-year-olds tend to bounce back from rejection quickly.”


Student View: How To Get Into UT Austin

The Daily Texan: “Current and former students who offer insight into UT admissions and campus life have become popular, unofficial faces of the University to prospective students on YouTube … Before her freshman year, marketing sophomore Julia Wezio made a YouTube video titled “How I got Into UT Austin Tips + Advice,” and today, Wezio’s video has over 33,000 views — more than any single video UT’s YouTube channel has made in about two years. Marketing junior Lynette Adkins also reached thousands of views on videos covering topics such as the cost of attending UT and study abroad.”

“Miguel Wasielewski, executive director of UT Admissions, said in an email the advice of current students is best when coupled with information provided by college representatives. Wezio, who watched YouTube videos from other UT students before applying, said she also thinks her success was partially driven by the authenticity of her content.”

Wezio comments: “It’s not so much that UT is trying to hide something from you, but it’s more so that they have to use that official language. They have to keep a certain image. When you’re talking to a student who can share their unfiltered voice and be honest with you, I think they’re going to be more honest, obviously about the negative things, but a lot more honest with the positive things too.”


Successful Applications Are Matter of Fact

Daily Pennsylvanian: “Like most universities, Penn does not have a standard system for fact-checking applications. Admissions officers perform initial reviews in as little as four minutes, and a call to a high school guidance counselor or an email to an applicant is as thorough as checks get … Given the massive volume of applications the University receives — 44,957 applicants for the Class of 2023 — current and former admissions officers agree that fact-checking applications is not feasible and instances of outright fabrication seem to be rare … Despite the lack of a formal fact-checking system, former admissions officers say they have still caught applicants lying.”

Elizabeth Heaton, a former regional director of admissions for Penn,”recalled an instance when a regular decision applicant plagiarized their essay based on an essay written by another student who had already been admitted early decision. The former Penn regional admissions director said when she noticed the stark similarities between the two essays, she decided to make a call to the student’s high school.” She comments: “We denied the student who had plagiarized and the other kid was able to keep his acceptance.”

Kathryn Bezella, Vice Dean and director of marketing and communications for Penn Admissions, “confirmed that following up with a guidance counselor or applicant is rare.” However: “Bezella said because of the high number of applications she reads and familiarity with her region, she can typically identify false transcripts and essays.” She comments: “After you’ve read several thousand essays by 17-year-olds, you do have some sense of ‘this is not how a 17-year-old writes’.”


Night of the Living Deadlines

The Wall Street Journal: “The deadline to apply for admission to Oberlin College was Jan. 15. Until it wasn’t. The Ohio liberal-arts college sent an email blast last Tuesday alerting high-school seniors that the deadline had been extended to Feb. 1. Other elite colleges, including the University of Chicago, George Washington University, Washington University in St. Louis and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have also extended their application deadlines this winter.”

“Delayed deadlines are a sign of the growing pressure many schools face to fill their incoming classes. They are receiving more applications than ever in part because stressed high-school seniors see record-low admit rates from some top schools, fret about their own chances and expand their list of targets. The Common Application makes it easy to apply to more schools without much additional work.”

“That all makes it challenging for colleges to predict who wants to actually enroll. Thirty-five percent of seniors applied to at least seven schools in 2016, up from 18% a decade earlier. In that same time span, the yield, or share of admitted students who enrolled at a given four-year college, fell to 34% from 45%.”


Prompt Attention: Common App Questions for 2019 “The Common Application has announced that the 2019-2020 essay prompts will remain the same as the 2018-2019 essay prompts. Based on extensive counselor feedback, the existing essay prompts provide great flexibility for applicants to tell their unique stories in their own voice. Retaining the essay prompts provides the added benefit of consistency for students, counselors, parents, and members during the admissions process … Plus, with essay prompts remaining the same, students rolling over their existing Common App accounts have more time to plan and prepare their applications prior to the final year of high school.”

“During the 2018-2019 application year, the most popular topic of choice was: ‘Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.’ (24.1%). The next most popular topics were: ‘Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.’ (23.7%), followed by ‘The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?’ (21.1%).”

The questions are:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.