What do colleges want?

I’ve talked to two local high school PTOs this month about the “Am I Worthy?” mindset, treating admissions like a relationship, and the often-asked question “what do colleges want?” I needed to write out the full text of the speech for one group, so I thought I’d share it here.

I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of college-bound students, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of college application essays, and I enjoyed working on college admissions so much that I left teaching to write about college admissions full time. My website, apply with sanity .com, is free and updates weekly. I also take a small number of private consulting clients each year. I’m not here tonight to sell my consulting services, but I do hope you’ll find the website useful and visit it often.

One of the main things I write about is what I call the “Am I Worthy?” mindset. It starts with the basic idea that when you apply to a college you’re either accepted or denied. When you get accepted, it feels good! You feel worthy. And when you don’t get accepted, it feels bad. I graduated high school in 1992, and I still remember which schools didn’t accept me. It doesn’t feel good. It might make you feel unworthy. That makes sense.

But what’s happened over time is that the feeling of worthiness has become the main point for a lot of us. We choose which schools to apply to based on the college rankings or if the schools are well-known. We ask “what are the best schools?” but we forget to ask “what are the best schools for me?” This is, in the long run, not a wise way to pick something as important and expensive as college.

The worthiness problem works the other way, too. There’s a term: under-matching. Under-matching happens when students don’t even apply to universities that would be a good fit for them. Maybe we say “I’m just going to go to the less expensive community college” without knowing how much financial aid we may get at colleges across the country. Maybe we say “I don’t know enough about college, so I won’t apply.” And we miss out on a great opportunity, because we didn’t know how to ask “what’s the best school for me?” We don’t understand how worthy we are to go to a good school.

On both ends, I’ve seen many students make themselves very unhappy because of the “Am I Worthy?” mindset.

The way that I recommend getting away from “Am I Worthy?” is to treat the college search like a relationship. Finding the right college takes the same skills that make a healthy relationship, whether a romantic relationship, a work relationship, or a strong friendship. You have to understand what you really want and what you really need. You have to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. You have to listen and ask for help. You have to know what you can compromise on, and what you are not willing to compromise on. You have to work at it, but it can bring you big rewards.

There’s a big question that I get asked a lot, and the question usually comes from the “Am I Worthy?” mindset. What do colleges want? What are they looking for? The idea is that if I know what colleges want, then I can do what they want. Even if I’m just pretending to be what I think they want. Even if I never think about what I want. What do colleges want is a frequent question.

Many of us have heard that what colleges are looking for is a “well rounded person,” someone who has lots of interests in lots of areas and tries lots of things. Many of us have also heard that colleges are looking for a person who follows their passion, that one thing that really grabs their interest. We don’t always stop to remember that these two ideas contradict each other. They can’t both be true. So tonight I want to talk a little about what colleges want. I hope it can help make us more calm as we try to find the right fit for us in the college relationship.

The first thing that colleges are looking for is a student who will graduate college. It’s that simple. Virtually every college and university in the country spends more money for each student per year than they get from tuition and fees. So it’s very wasteful to spend all that money if you’re not going to graduate and get the full benefit of the education. Also, colleges are judged by how many of their students graduate. A high graduation rate makes you a “better” college, which helps you attract stronger students, which makes it easier to have an even higher graduation rate. They need to know that you’re going to help them look good. Like I said, they spend more money for each student than they get in tuition. A lot of the money they get to make up the difference is from alumni donations. Any of you who have graduated college know that your school will never stop asking you for money. That’s where they get a lot of their funds. But people who don’t graduate rarely make big donations to the school later.

So the main thing they want is for you to show that you’ll graduate. That’s why they want to see your grades and test scores. Because they know that the best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student. If you’re working to be a good high school student, then you’ve got that part covered.

Some universities will make it very clear what they’re looking for. Large universities—usually state universities with rolling admissions—will often provide a simple chart explaining what grades and test scores they want. Others may also list the high school courses they require you to have taken. For these schools, understanding what they want can be simple.

At smaller schools and at more selective schools, it’s not so clear-cut what they’re looking for. There’s no simple formula. It’s very important to understand, though, that these schools don’t just rank all their applicants in order and then accept the top ones. It’s more complicated than that. The term they use is “building a class,” or “crafting a community.” They need lots of things.

They need students who are almost guaranteed to be strong students and natural leaders, and they also need students who they can take a risk on who may become a strong student leader.

They need students who will major in the sciences, and they need students who will major in the humanities.

They need students who are not rich, so they can fulfill their mission of improving lives. They also need students who are rich, so they can fulfill their mission of not going bankrupt.

They need swimmers, basketball players, tennis players, and lacrosse players.

They need musicians and actors and painters.

They need people for their religious services.

They need people for their Young Democrats Club, and they need people for their Young Republicans Club.

They need boisterous and social people, and they need quiet people in the library.

They need a wide variety, and exactly what they need changes each year. One year the orchestra leader may really need a good oboe player. But if they get three of those, then next year they won’t be looking so hard for a really good oboe player. You can’t just pretend to play the oboe because you think they want oboe players—this may not be the year for that.

So what do they want? They want you to be you, the best you, and to let them know who that is. You can’t do that if you’re too busy trying to be what you think they want you to be. There are schools out there looking for you, so you have to tell them who you are, not what you think they want to hear. Just like in a good relationship.

So don’t ask “Am I worthy?” Treat it like a relationship. Be honest about your qualities--the good the bad and the ugly. Try to compensate for the ugly. Know what you’re looking for and what you have to offer in return. Be compassionate towards others and yourself. Cast a wide net, be willing to fail, and be willing to accept success.

Thank you so much.

Thanks for reading! Are you a PTO or other parent group in Texas who would like someone to talk to them about the college admissions experience? Let me know!

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring