I spent almost two decades in college admissions, a career field that I loved. I worked at several different institutions, serving as everything from a “roadrunner” to a Vice President of Enrollment Management. During my time in admissions, I interviewed and spoke with thousands of students and parents, and read many thousands of application files. As admissions officers enter the thick of application review season, I’m reminded of a line from a well-known insurance company commercial: “I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.”

During campus Open Houses over the years, when I needed to explain the admissions process at my institution, I told parents and students that working in admissions is a little like building a city every year. You want that city to have great thinkers and leaders, people who are interested in the arts and in helping others, and citizens who can contribute to interesting class and cafeteria discussions. But that doesn’t mean that every student must be a high-achieving, driven student who plays first chair oboe, runs 100 yards in 3.8 seconds, has raised thousands of dollars to help with AIDS research, was elected class president every year from kindergarten to high school graduation, and won first place in art shows for every painting ever completed.

Now, I’m sure many people could tell you what they “know” admissions offices find most important when considering a student for admission: Grades. Test scores. Recommendations. A killer essay. An activity list or resume jammed with extracurricular activities, evidence of leadership and community service. Strong alumni connections or athletic ability.

The truth? It depends.

There are more than 3,000 institutions of higher education in the United States alone, and understanding what really matters in the admissions process can be overwhelming for students and families. The answers depend greatly on where the student is applying and how they view a student’s potential for success at their institution, but here’s how to make sense of it all:

Grades: Do good grades factor into a decision to admit? Yes, grades are important, especially at more competitive schools like Harvard or Berkeley. However, you don’t need to be a straight A student to attend college. If you are worried about your grades, your local community college, an open-access college or university, or a higher education institution committed to a more holistic admissions process may be a better fit. At these institutions, your high school transcript may not matter nearly as much.

Letters of Recommendation: Do recommendation letters help? Yes – up to a point. For institutions that want to receive recommendations (and not all institutions do), one or two recommendations from teachers or counselors who really know you can be very helpful in moving your application from “maybe” to “admit.” But too many recommendations and you have a “fat file,” which in admissions-land starts raising the question, “Why does this student think he needs 10 recommendations to be admitted?” And recommendations from a teacher who clearly can’t think of anything specific about the student in question – the ubiquitous “Johnny always has a smile on his face” letter – don’t help at all.

Extracurriculars: Do you need to list 15 activities – and risk being seen as a “joiner” who only wants to appear well-rounded – or is it better to have two or three activities about which you’re passionate and where you can show deep involvement and leadership? I think you can guess the answer just by the way I asked the question. More is not always better. And if you can’t take advantage of school activities because you need to work after school to help support your family, or you need to care for younger siblings for a large portion of time – never fear. Just remember to emphasize your job and/or family responsibilities on the application if you can, or include this information in an activity sheet or as part of your essay. Remember, leadership isn’t just something you develop in clubs and sports teams – you can develop and show your leadership skills at work or at home, as well.

Test Scores: With so many colleges now going test-optional, how important is that ACT or SAT score? Again, it depends. Does the transcript support the test score? Or do the test scores and the transcript look like they came from completely different students? For colleges that are test-optional, the weight will definitely go to the transcript. But for institutions that still consider standardized test scores, there is usually more concern about the student with high scores but a mediocre transcript (“Is she a slacker?”) than there is about the student with high and consistent grades in good courses but with a below-average SAT (“Maybe he ‘just doesn’t test well’”).

Admissions Essay: And then there’s everyone’s favorite – the dreaded admissions essay. If it merely restates everything that is already evident on your transcript (“I’m a high-achieving student who has made Honor Roll six times”), it’s going to be a slog to write and an even bigger slog to read. Thinking of taking an expensive trip just to do community service in a third world country for three days so you can write about it for your admissions essay? Save your money. You can gain significant experience right in your hometown that will provide plenty of fodder for a great essay. For institutions that require an essay, two things matter: Did you have something interesting and personally relevant to say? And, did you say it well? Particularly if you won’t have a chance to visit and interview prior to submitting the application, the admissions essay is the one vehicle for letting that institution know who you are and what matters to you.

Above all, remember that college admission isn’t something that ‘just happens to you.’ You play an important role – in fact, the most important role – in the entire admissions process. So take the time to get to know yourself and identify what is important to you. Where will you find the best fit? That ‘fit’ will include factors such as how near or far from home you want to be, whether you would thrive in a larger environment or a smaller one, how much financial assistance is available, and whether the style of teaching and learning at an institution is one that meets your needs and expectations. Is the reputation of the college really important to you? Or could you be just as happy at an institution that doesn’t have high name recognition but nevertheless offers the types of programs and campus environment where you can be successful? The more you know about yourself and the characteristics of the colleges you’re considering, the easier the application and admissions process will be.

Make no mistake: the college admissions process is not easy. Making a decision as momentous as where to apply and attend takes time and some careful thought. But, on the bright side, once you know what’s most important to you in a college experience, and you have found colleges that offer the overall environment that will fit your needs, the answer to “What do I need to show the admissions office to be admitted?” will become a lot clearer than “It depends.”

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on December 7, 2016.


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