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From the Other Side: How Do Colleges Decide Who Gets In?

Just as you will make decisions about which colleges fit you the best, colleges and universities decide which applicants they believe are best suited for their institution. Please read below to learn how an admission coordinator answers some commonly asked questions from parents and students.

What does a university look for?
Universities hope for a large and exceptionally well-qualified applicant pool which enables admissions departments to enroll a freshman class that is academically talented and remarkably diverse. However, there are no set "formulas" that we follow when we review applications. Rather, we actively seek students who have a variety of interests, talents, and goals. We also seek a class that is geographically, socially, and economically diverse.

What does "highly selective" mean?
When it is said that a university is highly selective, we mean that our admissions process is not restricted simply to determining who can "do the work" at our institution. Assembling a freshman class is not purely an objective process. The fact is, each year far more of our applicants than we can possibly admit are "qualified" and would almost certainly succeed here. For every student who is offered admission, there will be others with similar qualifications who cannot be admitted due to space limitations.

So how does an admissions coordinator decide which students to admit?
Recognizing that each applicant offers a unique combination of achievement and potential, we carefully consider the entire application. Grades and test scores provide a tangible record of academic accomplishments. Essays and recommendations broaden our understanding of the student. The student's participation in school, community, and work experiences assists us in evaluating important personal qualities such as motivation, compassion, and leadership. Finally, we're interested in how students have made effective use of the opportunities available to them, however great or limited they may have been.

What's most important in the admission decision?
If we had to select one factor, it would probably be the student's overall academic record as viewed in the context of the program's strength. But again, subjective qualities-motivation, leadership, community or extracurricular accomplishments-are also very important.

Does the difficulty of a particular curriculum make a difference?
Yes. We encourage students to take the most challenging curriculum available, and when we evaluate an applicant's record, we consider the program's rigor. Another question we're often asked is: "Is it better to get a B in an honors or AP course or an A in a regular course?" The answer, of course, is that it's better to get an A in the honors or AP course! (The fact is that our admitted applicants do get the best grades in the toughest courses.)

Should students participate in many activities to improve their chances?
In general, we prefer to see substantial involvement in a few activities rather than superficial involvement in a laundry list of clubs. We particularly like to see evidence of leadership roles.

How important are letters of recommendation?
The most helpful recommendations are from individuals who can write specifically about information not readily apparent on a transcript or when they provide insight into the student's character that may help us distinguish a student from other applicants.

Editorial submitted by Debra Rudick, Undergraduate Accounts Director, New York University:


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