This week our blog is guest authored by Janessa Dunn who serves as Assistant Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt University. Janessa shares valuable tips on how to be a competitive applicant for college admission beyond just your GPA and test score.
As you progress through your college search and begin solidifying the schools that are the best fit for you, you may be wondering:
“What do I need to do go get into my top choice school?”
“Should I focus on highlighting my academic achievements or extracurricular activities that are of most interest to me on my application?”
“What are colleges looking for?”
“What if I don’t sound as interesting as other applicants who applying to the same school?”
Well, I have some good news for you. As admissions counselors, we care about all of these questions!
Having lived in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, I discovered that the college application process is less overwhelming and more intuitive when summarized into a metaphor of one of my favorite foods—pie. Yes—the pie that seems to find its way to every dinner table during family gatherings, or even on March 14, for those of you who love math just as much as I do. My recipe for the best pie to be the most competitive applicant is broadly defined below:
Pie Crust: Academic Achievement & Standardized Test Scores.
Pie Filling: Extracurricular Engagement, Letters of Recommendation, and Personal Essay.
The pie crust is a foundation for every applicant. Academic achievement and standardized test scores are not evaluated in isolation, just as flour and shortening are not isolated when making a pie crust. Along with a few other “pie crust” ingredients—rigor of curriculum and grade trend, for example—your academic achievement and standardized test scores must be “kneaded” together to make a supportive foundation for your pie. The pie crust supports your overall application in a competitive applicant pool.
It is also important to know that your “pie filling” allows colleges to know who you are, in the same way that apple pie is defined by apples, chicken pot pie is defined by chicken and vegetables, and so on. The “filling” of your pie completes your application by giving it an identity, depth, and personality.
The “filling” of your application also gives permission for colleges to review your application holistically. Holistic admissions simply means multiple variables, such as standardized test scores, GPA, extracurricular engagement, family background, personal essay, among other attributes, may be considered to evaluate your academic and community fit for an institution. Every student will develop their own “pie filling” recipe. It is up to you as the student to ensure that your “filling” represents you wholly and authentically.
Here are 5 tips for developing a strong “pie filling” recipe:
- Do not hesitate to brag on yourself in your application. I know--the term “brag” seems a bit brash. But, it is important to know that colleges that practice a holistic admissions process care how you spend your time inside AND outside of the classroom. The “extracurricular activities” section of your application is not limited to in-school activities; it can also include part-time work, community service, significant home responsibilities as a care-giver, among other levels of engagement.
- Choose teachers to write your letters of recommendation who know you well and can speak to your academic strengths beyond grades. As admissions counselors, we are able to evaluate your teacher letters of recommendation along with your high school transcript. Your teachers provide depth beyond quantitative measures, such as grades, to help us identify your fit for an academic program or department.
- Always stay true to yourself when writing your essay. This is the part of your application that best articulates your particular written voice—let your personality come through.
- View your admissions counselor(s) as your advocate(s). If you are unsure about how a piece of information will be conveyed to the institution to which you are applying, whether positive or negative, feel free to contact your counselor. We are happy to provide insight. Your college counselors are excellent resources, too. This also leads to Tip #5.
- If there is information that you feel admissions counselors should know about you and you feel comfortable sharing this information, feel free to use the “additional information” section of your application for this purpose. For some students, circumstances outside of school may hinder their performance inside of school. Although this information does not “make or break” a student’s application, sharing this information allows admissions counselors to better advocate for students with this additional context in mind.
So, how can you be the most competitive applicant?
Every institution employs different methods of evaluating students based on the institutional needs of the institution. A student may present the best “apple pie” recipe, but it’s possible that the college may be looking to enroll more “peach pies” for this year’s enrolling class. In this case, the “apple pie” may be a violin player applying to the school’s music program, but the program is strongly looking for a bassoonist to fill a void in the orchestra. The same analogy can be applied to academic programs, geographic context, among other attributes. Institutional needs are out of your control as a student, but you ARE in control of your pie recipe. The pie crust and the pie filling are BOTH important components to making a whole pie.
I truly hope this information is helpful to you as you progress through your college search process and begin applying to colleges!