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Articles / Applying to College / Getting In: What Do Colleges Really Want?

July 1, 2014

Getting In: What Do Colleges Really Want?

Based on my experience as an independent college admissions counselor, I would put the issue of discovering the secret to what colleges really want in their applicants right up there with finding the fountain of youth. In other words, it's an ongoing elusive quest where the rules are constantly changing and each college has its own set of so-called “institutional priorities." The phrase institutional prioritiestranslates simply into “The kinds of students we're looking for this year."

As you decide on the colleges to which you will apply, how can you know the kinds of students those schools will be looking for? Well, if you ever figure that out successfully, drop me a line, because you and I will then become rich. It's a highly illusive art. Yes, there are general trends and tendencies, but the exact answer is unavailable. To cite a lyric from Paul Simon's song, Slip Slidin' Away, “The information's unavailable to the mortal man."

So, we do our research, develop our theories, and take our best shot. It's rather like playing the lottery. In fact, with the most competitive colleges out there — the so-called elite schools — it seems exactly like a lottery. There are so many dazzlingly qualified applicants that selecting the best ones could likely be done by pulling their names out of a rotating drum.


One famous dean of admission at an elite university once said that their admissions staff could throw all the applications down a staircase and then randomly pick up the number needed to form the incoming class. Upon doing so, they would find that this randomly selected class would be just as good as any in the past. So much for scientific approaches, eh?

Anyway, I was inspired to discuss this topic after reading an interesting article written by Nathaniel Haynesworth: Colleges Admission Boards Want Students with Character: Five Valuable Soft Skills Preferred by College Admission Boards. He poses this significant question:

How can “soft skills" help high school students gain admission into selected colleges and universities?

So, what are “soft skills"? Haynesworth notes that “'Soft skills' is a simple term for a complex system of traits and habits commonly sought by college admission boards. Examples include confidence, flexibility, honesty, and integrity, the ability to see things from different perspectives, optimism and common sense."

It appears as though Nathaniel is telling us that these are the traits that you should be highlighting in your college applications. How can you do that?

First, let's see what Haynesworth has to say about that. To discover the answer, we have to skip to the very end of his article where he says:

Bottom line: The best way for high school students to develop these skills as they prepare for college is to search for leadership opportunities in high school. This could mean, among other things, acting as captain of an athletic team, becoming involved in student government or leading an extracurricular group.

Okay, let's discuss several aspects of leadership that Haynesworth cites. I'll offer some of my own insights and do what I like to call “counterpointing." Here are are some excepts from Haynesworth's takes on leadership traits. I'll add my two cents where appropriate.

– Collaboration: Haynesworth notes, in part:

It is imperative for college-bound students to function efficiently and appropriately in groups, collaborate on projects and accept constructive criticism when working with others. People who succeed only when working alone will struggle in college and beyond, as the majority of careers require collaboration … in athletics and extracurricular activities.

Dave says: This reminds me of that category from my elementary school report card: Gets along well with others. Team sports can, indeed, show your collaborative leanings, but there are also individual sports, such as tennis, swimming, track and field, fencing, etc. In the area of extracurriculars, being part of the school newspaper can highlight your ability to pull together with your peers to accomplish the task at hand while under deadline pressures.

But, again, as with solo sports, you can shine individually as a writer, either creatively or from an opinion vantage point. I agree that “getting along well with others" does include collaboration. However, colleges do recognize individual accomplishment. Thus, don't feel that you have to be part of a group for everything you do, in order to stand out to admissions committees. Perhaps lone wolves aren't as appealing as team players to some colleges, but if you're a dazzling lone wolf with stellar accomplishments, you'll be recognized for that.

– Communication and interpersonal skills: Haynesworth says:

The current prevalence of electronic devices has connected young individuals to one another, but many argue it has also lessened their ability to communicate face-to-face or via telephone … Obtaining an internship in a professional setting is also a wonderful method to enhance communication and interpersonal skills.

Dave says: I couldn't agree more that computers and smartphones have blunted the development of comfortable human-to-human communication skills. I guess I'm just old fashioned, but to me it's stunning to see how isolated many young people and even older adults have become in relationship to the environment around them. Even the most extroverted types become engrossed in their shell of constantly checking for contacts from their friends, even as they're walking down a crowded street. “Textese," as I call it, has also perverted written communication. Now and then, I see email messages from my counseling clients containing such stimulating comments as, “RU LOL @ my SA draft?"

It's not easy getting someone so socially media-ized to first draft then refine a convincing application essay and all the other written requirements. Interpersonal skills are important, naturally, and they can be telling in admissions interview situations. I'm constantly surprised at how reticent high schoolers can be when it comes time for them to shine and present themselves in the best possible light. When I try to get college-bound students to tell me about their accomplishments, many times it's like pulling teeth. I coined a term for my struggles: achievement dentistry. If I have to work so hard to get applicants to speak convincingly about themselves, just think what a college interview would be like for them. Haynesworth's suggestion about internships is a good one. Situations like this would force and refine much better face-to-face communication skills.

– Problem-solving: Haynesworth posits:

… Students who are accustomed to learned processes, and who cannot occasionally veer off-course, will struggle to handle unanticipated setbacks. Students can improve problem-solving abilities by enrolling in classes that use experiential learning rather than rote memorization. Students should also try new pursuits that place them in unfamiliar and even uncomfortable situations, such as debate club or Science Olympiad.

Dave says: Haynesworth uses the phrase rote memorization. This reminds me of the often-asked classroom question, “Will this be on the test?" Haynesworth also uses the expression, experiential learning. This refers to “live and learn." Life is not a series of review questions that follow text book narratives. We can't go back in the book and look for the answers. Adaptive problem solving may well be one of the most crucial skills young people can develop.

Real-time resourcefulness can literally be a life-saving ability. The good news is that it can be learned and is not exclusively the domain of the naturally talented. I concur wholeheartedly with Haynesworth on this issue. The further good news is that video gaming can add polish to problem solving. How your “video self" reacts to challenges can program your thinking and carry forward into real life, if you're able to distinguish fantasy from reality. 🙂

Check Haynesworth's article for insights on his remaining two soft skills. Then, take a personal inventory. How many of these skills do you possess and how will you present them in your college applications? This is something to take seriously because you want the admissions committees who will review your application to take you seriously.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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