What is a college actually looking for?

Back to school season means new classes, new teachers, new year, new you, but for high school seniors, it’s time to get cracking on college applications.

For many, this is a stressful time and now-a-days with higher pressure and bigger competition, applying to college can seem very intimidating. College can often seem like a distant decision especially for underclassmen but truthfully, it’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to do after high school.

My love for education made college an obvious next step for me and I am excited to continue my learning at that level. But what’s always tripped me up is that I have no idea what I want to pursue! Furthermore, I have no idea what type of college experience I want! There are so many options, how can I be sure that I am picking the right one for me?

But the biggest concern of mine lies in the application itself. Once I decide what I want to do, or at least where I want to go, what does a college actually want to see? What should I focus on during high school? The difficulty of my classes? My GPA? Extracurricular activities? Or do they just want to see that I’m a driven student? In this article, you will find first hand experience from students who have survived the college application process and a few pieces of advice from an UNH employee who is tasked with reading applications herself.

Student’s Perspective:

Lily Mangan is a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, New York where she is working towards her BFA as an Acting major. Anyone who knows Mangan will tell you that she has a bright personality and a huge passion for theater.  She decided she wanted to pursue acting at the end of her sophomore year in high school and from there her excitement only grew. In the future, she hopes to be a working actor and continue her education with a MFA at either Juilliard or the Yale School of Drama.

Q. How did you start your college search?

A. “I eased into the college searching process my sophomore year by making a mental list of what I wanted in a school and just researching and looking at schools I thought I would like. It’s not supremely organized but I think it’s a good place to start for anyone.”

Q. What was your application process like?

A. “I applied to 6 schools and the regular application process wasn’t terrible, besides going through around 10 drafts of my general essay.” In addition to the typical application requirements, students going to school for Acting, Musical Theatre, Music and Art will often have additional forms of presenting themselves to the college, including but not limited to auditions or portfolios. Mangan encourages students interested in pursuing majors similar to her to start early, because she knows first hand there is so much to get done.

Q. What is your biggest advice for people who are applying to college?

A. “It is essential that you stay on top of things, make deadlines for yourself to have drafts and forms done or ask a parent or teacher to set some up for you. Few things feels worse than missing the boat on something you could’ve accomplished easily but didn’t because you didn’t manage your time well.” She added that it’s important to remain grateful of the people who helped you get to where you are. “Your parents and teachers can and will help you so much. Don’t take them for granted.”

University’s Perspective:

Tara Scholder is the Senior Associate Director of Admissions at the University of New Hampshire and is tasked with reviewing all applications from the Seacoast area. Before her job at UNH, she worked for 18 years as a third-party research consultant for colleges and universities, discussing how students and their families viewed the school.

Q. When you receive an application, what is the first thing you look at?

A. Scholder joked, “The name!” But answering the deeper question, she told me that the most important part of the application is the high school transcript. “We look at all the other pieces: we look at the SAT or ACT score, we look at the guidance counselor recommendations, we look at the Common Application, we read the essay, but in terms of where ultimately most of the decision lies, it’s really in terms of the courses that were taken and the grades that were received.”

Each school’s prerequisites are different, but Scholder added that UNH wants to see four years of English, three years of Science, three years of Social Science, three years of Math up to Algebra 2, and two years of a Foreign Language. After they see these requirements, they look to see if the student has taken any APs or Honors classes, which aren’t required but are a good demonstration that the student is challenging themselves.

These requirements don’t apply to every college or university because each school has its own standards and each major has different criteria. Be sure to do research to find out exactly what each school you’re applying to is looking for in an applicant.

Q. What is a concern that you see students struggling with?

A. “I think a lot of students do worry about the essay quite a bit… While it’s important to write a good essay on the Common Application, it’s not a critical component of the decision,” she said, speaking for UNH.  “Some other schools will have supplements that might have additional essays, and those essays could be pretty important. They might be asking you why do you want to come to our institution, or why do you want to major in art school, for instance – those essays are probably pretty important.”

“If you write a beautiful essay, it will never override a high school transcript and which poor choices you made,” says Scholder.

Q. What is an untold piece of advice you want to share with students?

A. “My last piece of advice for students would be to have a financial back-up. I know a lot of students think about applying to a range of schools: their stretch schools, the schools that they are pretty sure they can get into, and then schools that they are definitely sure they can get into. I don’t know if enough students include a financial backup,” which is a school where the student will most likely be admitted and can afford.

Scholder adds, “Don’t be fearful in terms of contacting colleges and universities because people like myself, that’s what we’re here for.  We’re here to answer questions. [If] you want to major in Engineering, and you’re not quite sure what you’re supposed to be doing in your senior year, why not call?”

Q: Any last suggestions to this year’s applicants?

A: “Keep your foot on the gas pedal on your senior year. Really continue to take a solid program of study and continue to do well. Do your research. Really dig deep and try to figure out what are your priorities for your 4 years in college.”

Even though applying to college is a big deal, don’t waste so much time on your future that you forget to make lasting friendships, support your classmates in school or on the field, and make high school enjoyable. Discovering your future is scary, thrilling and life-altering, but you don’t need to go into it blindly. I am incredibly proud of the students at Oyster River High School. Best of luck with the college searching and application process!

– Jordan Zercher