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What the Best Colleges and Universities Want in Their Applicants

By Trung Le
College Admission Consultant

Why are some colleges and universities so competitive for admission? The best colleges and universities cannot accept every single student that applies simply due to a finite amount of spaces and resources. Therefore, they want the most qualified candidates and they reject the rest.

What exactly do these colleges and universities look for? Parents and students often think that a high (or even a perfect 4.0 GPA) is good enough. This is simply not the case. These colleges are not only looking for students with book-smarts, they are also looking for students with a strong extra-curricular background and leadership background. These are determining factors that will tell the college admission committee as to whether the candidate, if they are admitted, will benefit the campus community. They want students who will be active on their campus and someone who others can benefit from. They also want students who are more likely going to give back to society once they graduate from college.

High school students should spend at least two to three years building up their profile to be a more competitive applicant. Every student should build up his or her academic background, extra-curricular background, and leadership background.

Academic background

Having an impressive academic record does not simply mean maintaining a high GPA throughout high school. The admission committee wants to see the candidate enrolled in challenging courses, such as high level math, honor courses, or AP (Advanced Placement) courses. It is, therefore, not advisable for students to take easy courses simply to maintain a high GPA to impress colleges. Students can also attend major universities such as Stanford University, UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis, Columbia University, and Harvard University during the summer prior to their senior year. What most parents and students do not realize is that these prestigious universities are open to the public during the summer term. It is open to all high school students in their junior and senior years, contingent upon good academic standing and a recommendation from the high school counselor. Summer programs are also open to visiting college students (students from other colleges). This is a great way to show the admission committee that you took a college level course at a prestigious institution and that you can do well in the college setting.

Extra-curricular background

The admission committee also wants to know if the applicant is actively involved outside of academic life, especially community service. An active student is a well-rounded student. Extra-curricular activities include volunteer work, such as volunteering at a local hospital, homeless shelter, or animal shelter. Other activities includes being involved in sports or personal hobbies such music, art, dancing, and clubs such as academic clubs or social clubs. Volunteering at your local church also counts. Students should spend as many years as possible to develop this area of their application. The longer the involvement and the higher the number of hours devoted to these activities will show the admissions committee a higher level of commitment. Students should not wait until the months of September, October, and November of their senior year to build up their extra-curricular background. Volunteering for 3 hours a week at a homeless shelter for 3 months is not as impressive as volunteering for 3 hours a week for 3 years. Students must show that they are committed.

Leadership background

The admissions committee also wants candidates who can take initiative and possesses leadership skills. They do not want candidates who have the herd mentality – students who just follow what other people are doing.

The best colleges and universities want to graduate students who will give back to society by becoming the next politicians, entrepreneurs, inventors, intellectuals, philanthropists, and others who will contribute to society in a significant way. Students can build up their leadership skills by being the President of a club on campus, creating a web site that can benefit the local community, or being the Editor-in-Chief of a student or community newsletter or journal. These various activities involve taking the initiative and playing the management role by overseeing other people. High school students who lack a leadership background will likely be rejected by the best colleges and universities even if they have a strong academic background and extra-curricular background.

It is important that high students start early rather than waiting until their senior year. The duration of involvement shows the admissions committee the candidate's level of commitment. Sophomore and junior years are the ideal years to work on these, but high school students can begin as early as their freshman year. Senior year is not the year to slack off either. Seniors must continue with a rigorous academic course schedule and their extra-curricular and leadership involvements, at least until all of their applications have been submitted. Would Barack Obama become the President of the United States if he delayed his presidential campaign until 3 months prior to the November general election? Of course not, and therefore, students should not wait 3 months prior to the November 30th application deadline to build up their extra-curricular and leadership backgrounds either.

About the Author

Trung Le is a college admission consultant in the Bay Area, helping high school and college students build up their academic, extra-curricular, and leadership background to gain admission into competitive colleges and universities. He also assists students with the general college application process, including personal statements. Mr. Le is also a faculty member at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA and Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA. He has taught over 1,000 students and has read over 20,000 pages worth of college-level assignments. Mr. Le is also a member of the Western Association of College Admission Counselors (WACA).



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