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What Colleges Are Really Looking for in Prospective Students

As report cards become less reliable indicators of a student’s academic performance, other aspects of the college application are becoming more important.

By Morgan Wood1851 Franchise Contributor
SPONSORED 12:12PM 05/07/24

Grading standards continue to shift following the COVID-19 pandemic, and the grades reflected on school-level reports are an unreliable measure for students looking to understand how their academic achievements compare to grade-level expectations. This, along with the move toward test-optional college applications, is a clear marker of a shift in the college admissions process.

“In hearing from different admissions officers, especially in the past year, it’s clear that what they’re really looking for is what value a child can bring to the campus,” said Emily Mitchell, vice president of education at Sylvan Learning. “There’s a focus on what you can contribute other than the ability to pass classes. So they’re going to look for things that show what drives the student like community service and extracurriculars.”

A Well-Rounded Application Starts Early

Gone are the days of cramming for the SAT or ACT and breezing through the rest of the application process. Many colleges are now test-optional or test-blind, meaning that a student’s score on these standardized assessments is far less important than other factors.

Mitchell said that some of the key building blocks for a strong application are AP test scores, teacher recommendations, a well-thought-out application essay and extracurricular activities — specifically altruistic ones.

Success in these arenas is built over time, so it is best to begin getting involved and building relationships before junior year. However, students and families who have not considered these requirements before college application season shouldn’t feel discouraged. It’s never too late to start. Many students will be able to call on previous experiences with sports teams, religious organizations, school clubs and other community organizations to demonstrate community engagement in previous years.

Where Standardized Tests Enter the Equation

Just because colleges are placing less emphasis on SAT and ACT scores doesn’t mean students shouldn’t at least attempt the tests.

“It’s always good to take the tests at least once,” Mitchell said. “You don’t have to send your scores, but if you do well, the achievement can unlock scholarship money for you. You can also choose to compare your score to the school’s historical average or any published expectations to decide if including scores on a test-optional application might actually help you.”

Mitchell also noted that some colleges will ask for SAT or ACT scores after a student is admitted. Admission will not be revoked, but the scores provide additional context for academic teams that will be working with the new student.

“This lets them know what academic supports the student might need once they start attending,” she said. “Even if the student really underperformed on the test, they have nothing to fear by sharing their scores once they’ve been admitted.”

How Parents Can Help

Because the application landscape is consistently shifting, it is important that families stay updated on the requirements of each college they may be considering.

“It’s a very dynamic moment. Make sure you are paying attention to all of the changes, and don't assume that the college application process is the same as it was decades ago,” Mitchell said. “It’s completely different now, but school guidance counselors can be very helpful, and many colleges are transparent about what they’re looking for in their applicants. There are many resources to point you in the right direction.”

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