What Matters to Admission Officers?

What you can do to differentiate yourself from those other students.

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: September 28, 2017

Your academic record, especially the rigor of the courses you took, and your SAT/ACT scores are still the door-openers for college admissions, and if you’re looking for acceptance at a college that admits most applicants, those measures may be enough. But if you want to be considered for admission to more selective schools, those measures aren’t nearly enough, and here’s why: You have real competition – lots of other students who want to attend those same selective schools – and their academic record and SAT/ACT scores are likely to be comparable to yours, if not better. Otherwise, those students wouldn’t be your competition, would they?

So what can you do to differentiate yourself from those other students? What can you say about yourself that’s going to make admission officers believe that you’re exactly the type of student they want to admit? And where, precisely, can you say it?




We’re going to start and end with the “where” and discuss the “what” between the two: The two (three, if a college provides an opportunity for you to share your résumé when you apply) places where you can deliver effective differentiating information are located in the activities section of the application (and those same or expanded activities as presented on your résumé) and in your essays. Now for the “what,” as in, what matters to admission officers besides academics and SAT/ACT scores? The answer is “who you are” — what your character is — as demonstrated by your record of doing.

In January 2016, the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common (MCC) Project issued a call to action in an e-document titled, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions.” With over 200 endorsers and supporters, 175 of whom are college administrators, MCC says 

Our mission

Making Caring Common (MCC) helps educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice. 

Our work

MCC uses research and the expertise and insights of both practitioners and parents to develop effective strategies for promoting in children kindness and a commitment to the greater good, to influence the national conversation about raising and educating caring, ethical children, and to develop partnerships that enhance our work and elevate our common message.

MCC goes on to say that the Turning the Tide report “marks the first time in history that a broad coalition of college admission offices have joined forces to collectively encourage high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement” and “is the first step in a two-year campaign that seeks to substantially reshape the existing college admissions process.” Specifically, the report focuses on admitting students who demonstrate and promote more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good. It encourages admission officers to assess students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others.

This “character counts” concept has moved beyond mere theory: Who you are – as demonstrated by what you do – matters a great deal and may be that differentiating factor in college admissions. Here's some of what our founder, Judi Robinovitz, learned about admission decisions for selective colleges at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s national conference earlier this month in Boston:

  • Colleges increasingly signal the importance of character in admission; they are already using non-cognitive factors to help make admission decisions. 
  • Colleges value these factors: family obligations, what students learn from engagement in their communities and helping others, how students might impact college campuses in meaningful ways, and authenticity and honesty in their college applications 
  • Amherst measures depth of commitment in activities, looks for bridge-building capability, and looks for context of achievement 
  • Carnegie Mellon established protocols to use when each student's application file is read, including a 1-to-4 scale for leadership, service, grit, etc. 
  • MIT looks explicitly at attributes such as persistence, organizational skills, and resilience in order to predict academic success and match for MIT's culture. 
  • Rochester includes a supplemental essay that focuses on community impact and personal values (persistence, compassion, etc). 
  • Swarthmore added flags for specific characteristics, such as empathy and finding solutions in collaborative ways. 
  • Wesleyan uses a 9-point scale to measure several personal qualities, such as leadership, persistence, and grit. 

The thread that runs through all of the above is clear: Character increasingly counts in admission decisions at selective schools, and if you can use an application’s activities section, your résumé, and your essays to demonstrate that you “walk the walk” of valuing family obligations, learning from your engagement in your community and helping others, compassion, empathy, bridge-building/collaborative efforts to solve problems, persistence, grit, organizational and leadership skills, and resilience, you have a good chance of standing out from the crowd of competitors.

This is not news to us, because they’re character traits that we’ve stressed for over 30 years, helping thousands of students emphasize them in their applications. By so doing, 95% of our college-counseling clients have gained admission to their top choice colleges. And we’re ready – right now – to help you succeed, too. Call us today at 561-241-1610, and we’ll help you get the process started.



Topics: College Admission College Application


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