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Understanding The College Application

Suzanne Shaffer

The application is the tool colleges and universities use to make their admission decision. No two students are alike, and therefore no two completed applications are alike. Your student’s strengths may be in their impressive test scores, superb transcript, community involvement or the ability to write a vivid personal essay. It will be up to your student to personalize their application and use this process to display their unique qualities.

Different schools also evaluate the application differently: some put a strong emphasis on grades and test scores, while others look to the essay and extracurriculars to learn more about each student. As your student assembles a college list, it’s important to note the criteria of each college on their list.

You can find out how schools value the different parts of the application by using Type in the college name and click the “admissions” tab. For example, a search for a private college in Boston, Bentley University, lists academics and test scores as very important, followed by the essay, extracurriculars and volunteer work, and finally listing the interview and work experience as least important. Conversely, Texas State University lists tests and class rank as very important, followed by academics, essay and extracurricular activities. Texas State does not even consider the GPA, interview or volunteer work in their admissions decision.

There are four college applications currently available to students: The Common Application, The Coalition Application, the Universal Application, and college-specific applications. The most commonly used is the Common Application. This application can be completed once and submitted to multiple colleges.

Over 100 colleges and universities plan to use the Coalition Application this year. It was created to provide a more user-friendly experience and allow students to view and compile high school information within the application. The Universal Application is only used by 15 member colleges. Colleges also often offer their own application online at their website. If the college offers more than one option, your student can choose knowing the college usually doesn’t have a preference.

What goes into a college application?

Essay and/or supplemental essays

An outstanding essay and/or supplemental essay could be enough to swing the admissions officer over to your side of the table. It’s also worth pointing out that most admissions officers look forward to reading application essays and are always looking for one that inspires and communicates something special about the student. Where the actual application form collects somewhat impersonal facts and figures, a strong essay is your student’s chance to offer insights into why they want to go to college, who they are, what and who has influenced and inspired them, and anything else that might make their application stand out.

It bears repeating that, as much as we want to help our students (and of course may feel we know them better than they know themselves), the essay must be their work in their voice. Authenticity is what makes an essay succeed, and admissions officers are quite good at sniffing out too much grown-up help. See below for “8 tips for writing the Common Application essay.”

8 tips for writing the Common Application essay

Resume or list of extracurriculars and/or community service

The high school resume should communicate commitment — to academics, to excellence in school activities, and to community service. Each item on the resume should speak to consistency in these commitments. Anyone can join a club, play a sport for one season, or take a single challenging class. Colleges look for the student who goes “all in,” not someone who stands by the sidelines and watches.

This doesn’t mean starting in middle school to craft a persona that might appeal to an admission committee four or five years down the road. It does mean encouraging your student to use their free time in fulfilling and interesting ways.

Colleges know that not all families have the same budget for extracurricular enrichment. They respect students who need or want to work, or who must spend their free time tending to family responsibilities.


Your student’s GPA is one of the most important components of the college application (if not the most important). But the transcript isn’t just about the grades; it’s also about the type of courses your student chooses to take. Selective colleges look for students who challenge themselves, which means your student should have a fair number of AP and/or honors classes listed on the transcript (if these are offered at your school). Schools value the student who strives for excellence and occasionally ventures beyond their academic comfort zone to pursue an area of passion, even if it means a lower grade in a challenging course.

Note that I said a lower grade. It doesn’t make sense to overload on higher-level classes if that will lead to burn-out and sinking grades across the board.

Test scores

Competitive colleges place a high value on standardized test scores, but for most, the scores are only a part of the total application package. Your student can use to check the average score from admitted students for each school they’re considering. Every student should devote some time to study for standardized tests. Since most colleges accept either the ACT or SAT, your student should choose the test that best fits their learning and testing style. They can take a free online practice test from each and then focus on preparing for the test with the better outcome. If you live in a state that administers either the ACT or SAT to all juniors, you might just decide to focus on that particular test. Tim and money are also a consideration for busy students and their families.

Note: More colleges all the time are going “test score optional” — learn more about that below.

Letters of recommendation

Recommendations are an important part of the application. When asking for recommendations, your student should approach those teachers or mentors who know them well. This will generate a more personal (and therefore impactful) letter. When making the request, your student should provide the teacher with their resume and confirm any deadlines. Many teachers will have a form they ask students to fill out to help them write a strong letter. Encourage your student to ask early in the fall term so they’re not last on the teacher’s list!

Although interviews aren’t offered at all schools, they can be considered part of the application. Requesting an interview demonstrates interest in the college — a factor many colleges use when evaluating an applicant. The interview is an opportunity for your student to ask thoughtful questions about the college — this shows they’ve taken the time to learn about the school and think about why it might be a good place for them, and also provides a chance to confirm that feeling.

Learn more about interviews, both on and off campus, and how to prepare here.

What are the latest application trends?

As applications and student populations change, admissions committees alter their processes to adapt. There are four notable trends you and your student should be aware of:

1. Social media factors into admission decisions.

According to the 2017 Kaplan Survey, among the officers who checked applicants’ social media sites, a good quarter of them reported doing so often — a proportion that had doubled over the course of only one year. In recent years a number of colleges have rescinded offers of admission based on negative or questionable social media posts. Advise your student to maintain a clean and positive social media presence.

2. Test optional schools are on the rise.

Seven hundred colleges — including selective institutions like Bowdoin, Smith College and George Washington University — are now test-optional. At these schools, scores aren’t a mandatory part of the application although students may submit scores if they want. Instead, the schools view the admissions process holistically, taking into account all aspects of the application.

College Transitions’ Dataverse saves you time with their sortable spreadsheet covering test optional/flexible, Superscore, Score Choice and ACT/SAT writing policies at 366 of the nation’s top institutions.

3. Demonstrated interest matters…at some schools.

Citing the most recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey in an article on college admission trends, College Transitions reports that “14% of colleges and universities consider demonstrated interest as having ‘considerable importance’ in the admissions process; another 26% of institutions rated it as being of ‘moderate importance.’ For perspective, class rank, extracurricular activities, SAT Subject Tests, and the interview were all rated as being far less important.”

4. Early admission is becoming more prevalent.

According to NACAC, the average yield rate for Early Decision (binding) admits is 87% — considerably higher than the overall average yield rate (35.1%). No surprise, then, that colleges are making it easier for students to apply Early Decision or Early Action to increase application numbers and yield and more students are motivated to apply Early Decision or Early Action because admission rates tend to be higher and they’ll receive their decisions earlier in the admissions cycle.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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