What Colleges Want in an Applicant (The Glass is Half-Full Perspective)

In November, The New York Times published an article titled What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything). Understandably, the topic of college admissions is often fraught with anxiety and frustration, and the details within this article may have heightened people’s concerns about the process.

The author’s main argument is that the college admissions process isn’t fair, and we agree. While colleges struggle to find ways to measure 21st century skills, students continue to be judged largely based on GPA and standardized test scores – metrics that we know are often biased and flawed. The message is profoundly disempowering for students, teachers, and families.

Equally troubling, this skewed admissions process contributes to an epidemic of student disengagement. Students who are bogged down in honors classes, competitive extracurriculars, and test-prep courses have little bandwidth left for actual learning – thinking critically, exploring creative ideas, and engaging deeply with subjects that matter to them. By working hard to work the system, students miss out on a real education.

As the article notes, most colleges and universities accept a majority of their applicant pool. By continuing to focus on a narrow field of extremely selective colleges, we all lose sight of some greater truths: that where someone attends college does not dictate future success. As Frank Bruni says, “Where you go is not who you’ll be.”

We propose a more empowering view. Since the admissions process has become lottery-like in its outcomes, we hope people will use this knowledge and embrace a new mindset: Students should feel free to pursue authentic learning experiences in high school. Parents and teachers should urge teens to take the classes that engage and interest them, not the ones that generate the highest GPA or greatest number of AP credits. Students should be encouraged to explore new topics and challenge themselves while maintaining a healthy balance of activities in and out of school.

There is, in fact, a right-fit college for every applicant, and the best preparation will be an engaged, authentic, and healthy education in the K-12 years.  

Stay tuned for a future white paper, authored by Challenge Success, which will summarize current research about the college admissions process.

Denise Pope, PhD

Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning.  She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. She is a 3-time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award and was honored with the 2012 Education Professor of the Year “Educators’ Voice Award” from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.