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What are colleges looking for?

By Staff | Aug 16, 2018

Students and parents alike often ask this question of me. I like to frame a college search differently – that is, to ask what does a student want from a college?

But alas, it always turns back to what colleges want to see in their applicants. Over the years, I have met with many admissions counselors at both public and private colleges and universities.

What I hear overwhelmingly is that they want well-rounded students who demonstrate a passion for learning. That may sound a bit vague, so to fully understand what they want, it is important to understand how they view and analyze each and every application.

For this article, I interviewed college admissions counselors from University of Portland, a small private school, and University of Washington, Seattle, a large public school.

College Auntie: You receive applications from all over the world. Is there anything in particular that makes a student stand out to you when you are reading an application?

UW: Academic factors are always the foundation of a decision. I encourage students to take five or six academic core courses, particularly during junior and senior year. Going beyond minimum requirements and taking AP courses is great.

UP: Demonstrated interest is important, and because we function on rolling admission, timing is key.

CA: Can you give a quick explanation of the application process from your side of the process? How is it reviewed and how many people read the application?

UP: We review in committees, with a dean, counselor and faculty member. We evaluate transcripts, test scores and all content in the application and letters of recommendation.

UW: We get about 45,000 applications, and each one is holistically reviewed. We have a group of staff and graduate students who help us evaluate those in about three-and-a-half months. When an application is submitted, it is reviewed by our processing staff to ensure that all minimum requirements are met, and then it is forwarded to the readers.

CA: Students from Maui are not always able to visit colleges to demonstrate their interest due to costs associated with travel; does that put them at a disadvantage?

UW: Not at all. Demonstrated interest is not a factor in UW freshman process.

UP: No, we visit Maui schools so students can demonstrate interest by coming to our high school visits and college fairs.

CA: Can you explain what is meant by the term “holistic review” and how is that applied at your school?

UP: We consider all angles – high school, curriculum, test scores, grades, college-level coursework and letters of recommendation.

UW: We break our review factors into two categories: academic accomplishments (GPA, test scores, grade trends and rigor) and personal achievements (leadership, community service, overcoming adversity, unique cultural perspective).

CA: A college education is not inexpensive. Can you speak to the ways that your school provides financial aid, and is a student at a disadvantage when applying if they are going to need financial aid?

UW: Financial need is not a factor in the admissions review. UW has specific merit scholarships for nonresident freshmen called the Purple and Gold Scholarship.

UP: We offer merit-based aid based on grades and test scores, and make sure to complete the FAFSA early for additional consideration based on need.

CA: Are you open to students contacting you directly if they have questions about your school or the application process, or do you prefer them to find answers on your website?

UP: Both. Make sure to check the website for basic information, but ask us questions if you need clarification.

UW: Students can absolutely contact us directly!

CA: If you have one piece of advice for applicants, what would it be?

UW: One factor that may surprise students that can be influential is the strength of the senior year curriculum. A strong GPA may not be enough to make a student competitive if they take a weak senior year. I recommend at least four strong academic core courses in the senior year, and take AP classes that you think you can do well in.


So, there you have it, straight from the colleges themselves! Two different approaches to the application process but offering advice that can be used at all. Good luck with your application season!

(Maryanne Hogan is an Independent College Admissions Consultant working with students on Maui. Visit her website, thecollegeauntie.com, for more information or to make an appointment.)